Monday, August 04, 2008

LEAP Scores Tell Us Nothing

On Saturday, the Times-Picayune published this year's set of LEAP scores for all the public school kids in Orleans Parish.

Our kids didn't do so well.

Not one school cracks above 21% "advanced" at any grade level for either math or English. The majority of elementary schools have 50% of their students or more scoring "below basic." In over half of Orleans Parish public high schools a majority of students are scoring at the lowest "unsatisfactory" level.

Over half!

But, as Darran Simon and Sarah Carr point out, some RSD officials see this year's test results as a major improvement.

...a handful of traditional schools operated by the state-run Recovery School District posted gains that catapulted them from the bottom of the heap last year to above average this year.

Particularly in the younger grades, many of the RSD elementary schools saw dramatic increases in the percentages of students passing Louisiana's standardized test. At Murray Henderson Elementary School, for instance, two-thirds of students scored at least at the "basic" level on the English test this year, compared with only one-fifth of students last year.

"We spent the entire year focused on the prize, and the prize was to do better on testing, " said Beverly Johnson-Jelks, Henderson's principal.


That's unfortunate because one thing people always complain about is this idea that over-reliance on standardized test scores as measures of academic improvement causes teachers to teach to the tests. A well-balanced education is sacrificed as critical thinking skills, the arts, civics, personal finance, etc. lose their spot as part of "the prize."

Here we have an RSD principal telling us that they did just that in order to inflate their test scores.

Another interesting thing to note, and I'm glad Mr. Simon and Ms. Carr did this in several places within the article, is that this year's test scores may not reflect any actual classroom improvements. Instead, the improved basic residential stability of Orleans Parish students and teachers may have as much to do with improved test scores than any of the "reforms" instituted by Paul Vallas.

Given the instability New Orleans children faced in the two years after the storm, and the turmoil as the Recovery District opened in the fall of 2006, some test score gains were to be expected. And despite the growth, some of the district's schools still posted abysmal scores, particularly at the high school level.

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District officials attributed the sharp increases in lower grades to greater stability among the staff and students, as well as ramped-up test preparation districtwide.

"In the first year (2006-'07), we had so many kids coming back in October, November and December, " said Gary Robichaux, director of elementary schools for the district. "Some of the students had been in schools in different states, and some were not in school at all."

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But individual comparisons between schools' test scores can be misleading. Some of the city's schools reopened within a year of Hurricane Katrina, while others just opened last year.



Beyond that, while one would think a comparison between this year's LEAP numbers and a school's pre-storm numbers might be more apt, staff and student upheaval renders that measure equally invalid.

And because scores were supposed to rise as a result of the return of the most basic functions (hot meals), couldn't the modest gains at only a handful of schools be characterized as a massive defeat for the RSD?

With all that hedging on the basic validity of LEAP scores as a measure of academic progress, can we say we've learned anything from this year's tests?

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