The Dark Days of Educational Measurement in the Sunshine State Ended in 1999

February 8, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over on the Shanker Blog of the American Federation for Teachers, Matthew DiCarlo writes a thoughtful but ultimately misguided post A Dark Day for Education Measurement in the Sunshine State.

DiCarlo is obviously very bright, but a few critical misinterpretations have led him astray. DiCarlo demonstrates that family income is highly correlated with student test scores in Florida. No surprise- the same is true everywhere.

Having demonstrated this, DiCarlo develops a critique of Florida’s school grading system. The Florida school grading system carefully balances overall performance on state exams with academic growth over time. Specifically, the formula weights student proficiency on state exams as 50% of a schools grade, 25% on the growth of all students, and the final 25% on the growth of students who scored in the bottom quartile on last year’s exam.

The last bit is the clever part of the formula. By double weighting the gains of students who are behind, they become the most important children in the building. Only the bottom quartile from last year’s test count in all three categories.

DiCarlo goes into the devilish details about how the state determines these gains, and concludes that some of the gains measures don’t actually measure academic growth but actually effectively measure academic proficiency. The use of proficiency levels in determining gains is critical because students are taking a higher grade level assessment with more rigorous content.  If a student achieves a proficient score on the eighth grade FCAT and then again on the ninth grade FCAT, the student is performing at a higher level because the content is more difficult.  Florida’s system does not provide credit for a learning gain for students performing Advanced in one year but Proficient the next year.

DiCarlo has failed to appreciate that the mastery of more challenging academic material from one grade to the next itself constitutes a form of academic growth.

The 9th grade student has now studied the mathematics curriculum of both 8th and 9th grade and has demonstrated  proficiency of the 8th grade material and  proficiency of the 9th grade material. Given the valid system of testing, we can feel assured that the 9th grader knows more about math than he or she knew as an 8th grader. The growth in this case is staying on track in a progressively more challenging sequential curriculum.

The Florida system, in essence, makes use of proficiency levels in order to give definition to gains and drops as meaningful. There of course is no “correct” way to structure such a system, and if 100 different people examined any given system they would likely have 500 different suggestions for improvement to match their preferences.

DiCarlo’s notion of “fairness” seems to have distracted him from a far larger and more important issue: the utility of the Florida grading system, seen best at the school grading level, has improved student achievement for all students.

If you go back as far as the FCAT data system will take you for results by Free and Reduced lunch eligibility for 3rd grade reading, you’ll find that in 2002 48% of Florida’s free and reduced lunch students scored FCAT 3 or better. In the most recent data available from 2010, 64% scored FCAT 3 or better. That is an enormous improvement in the percentage of students scoring at grade level or better.

In 2002, 60% of all Florida students scored Level 3 or above, and in 2010, 72% scored Level 3 or above. Free and reduced lunch eligible kids in 2010 outperformed ALL kids in 2002 by 4 percentage points. That’s real progress.  And the free and reduced lunch eligible children overtake the 2002 general population averages in a large majority of grades tested.

The same pattern can be found in Florida’s NAEP data. For instance, in 1998, 48% of Florida’s free and reduced lunch eligible students scored “Below Basic” on the NAEP 8th grade reading test. In 2011, that number had fallen to 35%. If an “unfair” system helps to produce a 27% decline in the illiteracy rate among low-income students, I’d like to order up a grave injustice.

The “Dark Days of Education Measurement in Florida” in my view were before school grades. Academic failure lied concealed behind a fog of fuzzy labels, and Florida wallowed near the bottom of the NAEP exams. Back when there was little transparency and even less accountability, far more students failed to acquire the basic academic skills needed to succeed in life. While perhaps a lost golden age for educators and administrators wishing to avoid any responsibility for academic outcomes, it was a Dark Age for students, parents and taxpayers.

Ironically, DiCarlo has decried a system which has weakened the link between family income and academic outcomes demonstrated in his post. Yes it is still strong in Florida, but it used to be much, much stronger.

Finally, can one truly complain about the “fairness” of a system providing more than ten times as many A/B grades as D/F grades? If anything, the Florida school grading system has grown too soft in my view (see chart above).

I’ve read enough of DiCarlo’s work to know that he is a thoughtful person, so I hope he will examine the evidence for himself and reconsider his stance. I don’t have any reason to think that the Florida system is perfect. I don’t think a perfect system exists, and I suspect that there are some changes to the Florida system that DiCarlo and I might actually agree on.

It seems however difficult to argue that the Florida system hasn’t been useful if one gives appropriate weight to the interests of students, parents and taxpayers to balance those of school staff.