Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Since when does 90% equal flunking?

If you read any of the recent Courier Times articles about PSSA scores, you’re probably confused. First was last Friday’s article with the screaming headline “Neshaminy flunks scholastic goals” and an explanation that “The Neshaminy School District is the lone public school system in the area that did not achieve AYP …” which gave people the impression that Neshaminy’s overall scores were the lowest in the land. Then there was a follow up article on Sunday which posted the scores of Bucks County school districts and it was apparent that Neshaminy’s overall scores were not the worst – not by far. And for those of you who track the yearly progress of PSSA’s, you noticed a substantial improvement in several key categories.

In a memo to the school board, Superintendent Kadri clarified that “In Neshaminy, we had 92 performance targets measured by NCLB. We missed only 9 of them. That is a very strong showing. Of the 9, all 9 of them involved small sub-groups of students. Seven of the nine were related to reading. Unfortunately, because there was at least one of the seven in each of the three grade level categories, (high school, middle school, elementary), the entire district was determined to be failing. This could happen even if all of our scores went up and even if we did better than other school districts that were not identified as failing.“

Mr. Kadri also highlighted some very impressive achievements not addressed by the Courier article including:
· At the high school we increased in reading by 13% in math by 12%. In addition to having substantial growth our overall levels are very strong especially when compared to our peers.
· At the middle school level, our scores are either leading or competitive with the majority of districts in Bucks County. In some places we have advanced proficiency levels near or over 70%. In other words, students are not just passing the exams; they are registering at the highest levels of proficiency.
· The elementary schools continue to be strong and competitive and easily met overall indicators for AYP.

Kadri’s words are powerful proof of what was accomplished this past year in Neshaminy. Having said that, we must continue addressing the special ed subgroup situation. Whether or not we believe proficiency is even achievable for these students, the fact is NCLB is the law of the land and we are obligated to comply. Love it or hate it, AYP is part of our lives.

My problem with all this is the manner in which the Courier Times reported the scores. AYP is a very challenging concept, and the Courier reporter and editor should have considered the confusion such an article would cause without the supporting data. The headline “Neshaminy flunks scholastic goals” was misleading and sensationalistic. Yes it’s true we didn’t achieve AYP, but achieving 90% success in the 92 performance targets is far from flunking. It’s something to be proud of. But after reading last Friday’s article and the subsequent editorials, nobody in Neshaminy is cheering.

In Sunday’s editorial, the Courier embarrassed our superintendent by printing a quote without any clear context of the dialogue. They even admit they didn’t understand Kadri’s statement – so why would they even print it if they didn’t comprehend his point? Obviously they couldn’t fairly represent his perspective, but that didn’t prevent them from using it against him. That was a cheap shot not worthy of the Fourth Estate.

Then in today’s editorial the Courier continued its assault on Neshaminy by criticizing us for not tracking PSSA proficiency of graduates, and accuses us of having a “head-in-the-sand strategy.” I admit to finding the Courier’s stand almost humorous because PSSA proficiency of graduates is a completely useless statistic. While it may be true that good PSSA scores are a reflection of a successful school district, there is no correlation between PSSA scores and academic success. If you believe otherwise then ask yourself this question – if PSSA’s went away, would that result in less students graduating?

Through all these articles and editorials, the Courier does raise some good points about test scores, teacher accountability and empty diplomas – these are all worthy topics. But the Courier went overboard trying to link them into their cause du jour – teacher contracts. As a result of that, lost in all the words was the fact that Neshaminy’s overall scores improved and are worthy of praise.

I consider myself of fan of the Courier Times and read it daily. Unfortunately when articles lack proper balance and editorials do more to insult than inspire, they serve very little purpose. In my mind, the only one who flunked last week was the Courier Times.

What do you think? Feel free to add comments to this post, or you can send your comments directly to the Courier Times, or do both.


I must be living in Jersey said...

Thank you for setting the record straight Mr. O'Connor. I was furious at Friday's Courier headline, then confused by the data in Sunday's paper. We "flunked" one day, then didn't look so bad two days later. For some reason it seems like the Courier has it out for several districts including Neshaminy. No matter what happens here, they criticize it yet other districts have things happen that you don't even read about in the paper.

TFR1984 said...

NCLB is such a joke. How can anyone expect students with learning disabilities to achieve the same level of proficiency as students without disabilities? Hopefully our new president will change or eliminate NCLB.

lhbegley said...

Thank You William! I too was very concerned then confused by the recent reporting in the Courier Times. I was happy to contact Courier reporter, Joan Hellyer, and provide her with a link to this Blog.
I can not help but to wonder if the Courier is trying to create drama in anticipation over the teacher's union contract.

finance-101 said...

I posted something a long time ago about how the rankings of the PSSA scores are the same rankings as the price of homes. This is because the scores are related to social economic factors. In other words, those in low income areas (Bristol and Morrisville) score lower than those in higher income areas (New-Hope Solebury and Doylestown). Neshaminy usually scores somewhere in the middle.
I hope the Courier is reading this because Neshaminy outperformed it's competition. Last year in 2007 at the high school, Neshaminy scored 62% proficient in reading and 54% in Math. Pennsbury was 67%and 58%. That's about where it should be in relation to home prices.
This year we crushed Pennsbury. Neshamainy improved to 75% in reading and 66% proficient in Math. Pennsbury as did most schools, stayed the same at 68.5% and 59%. Our high school, middle schools and ES schools finished way ahead of Pennsbury.
But it looks like our small segment of special ed. did not do well so the Courier reports that as Neshaminy finishing last. I also believed that to be true until I saw the detailed scores in the 8/17 paper.
Very bad reporting !
They attacked our real estate prices, so today I decided to cancel my subscription to the Courier.
Mr. O'Connor, I usually don't attend the away football games so can you post the Neshaminy football scores on your blog Saturday morning. Since I assume others will be cancelling the Courier also, we need to know the score of the game.

Pianomom said...

To lhbegley, that's great you sent this link to the Courier Times reporter. I hope many people comment here and to the Courier Times so she knows just how confused and angry her reporting made our community.

Neshaminy rocks!

Erik said...

What happened to the reporter who usually writes about neshaminy? Why did we get the second team reporting on this story? This is the first time I can recall significant jumps in our high school scores and it's a great thing. Thank you to our superintendent and high school staff for making improvements, and congratulations to the students.

Erik said...

I also want to compliment you William on this web site. I came across it while searching the web last week and found lots of interesting posts and reader comments, and now I have added it to my favorites. Someone told me you were a school board member. Is that true? Which area do you represent? Thank you. Erik

William O'Connor said...

Thank you, Erik. Yes I am a school board member in Langhorne (Middletown), but I represent all those in the district. I'm glad you're going to be a regular visitor to the blog and look forward to your comments. Thanks for stopping by.

neshaminy101 said...

Much of the credit should go to the superintendent. The same staff and administration has been around the high school for years and scores were declining. It was a horrible atmosphere up there. Changes were needed but nothing was done by our previous superintendent. Now with Kadri, our high school scores have jumped by double digits while other districts high school scores are the same or are dropping. I know he isn't doing this by himself and there are others who deserve credit but leadership starts at the top. We've lacked strong leadership since Dr. Bowman left, but now we have it back in Paul Kadri. I haven't read anything lately about him trying to find a job in another district. I hope that means all the board members have decided to get behind the man instead of putting a knife in his back.

neshaminy101 said...

I should also thank you William since you are a board member who supports Kadri and our education programs. I know you were on an education committee last school year and I bet that group had something to do with the high school pssa scores. Please tell everyone on that committee they did a good job. Thank you.

sk.langhorne said...

I do agree with the Courier Times that student achievement should be a factor in contract negotiations. Can you give us an update on the negotiations?

William O'Connor said...

Dear 101: Yes much credit does go to Paul Kadri, but there are others who made significant contributions to this effort. The Education Committee spent most of its time focused on improving the test atmosphere up at the high school. I'm sure I speak for the entire committee when I say how pleased we are at the fast, positive results.

Dear SK: Since I cannot participate in the negotiations, I don't receive updates beyond what is made available to the public. So unfortunately there isn't much I can tell you. I suggest you come to board meetings and ask for updates during public comment if you have any specific questions or concerns.

neshaminy4ever said...

Kadri better stay. I haven't seen this much energy and good feelings in neshaminy for a long time. The only people who should go are a few board members (not you).

finance-101 said...

To: SK

I do not want the scores to be tied to the contract negotiations because if they are, the teacher salaries will go through the roof.
The Courier reported the story wrong. They said we flunked then 2 days later they print data which shows Neshaminy ranked 2nd out of 8 area schools. Mr. O'Connor are these score numbers correct ? Somewhere the Courier made a mistake. How can you fail when you finish 2nd ? Also, the % increase in test scores at the high school is unbelievable. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the highest % increase of any school in the state.
Who deserves the credit ?

Gabriel said...

Not only did the Courier get the story wrong but so did many of the readers who wrote comments on their post-article blog. Unfortunately people love to gossip about bad news, so word of Neshaminy's "failure" had spread before the data was printed. I am quite surprised the paper wasn't aware of how much damage they could do without giving some perspective to what AYP meant (other than the standard, useless definition they printed). I hope this does not discourage district administration and staff from continuing to improve PSSA scores.

The improvements in high school scores is worthy of front page news. Will the Courier Times make special note of this accomplishment, or will they glance over it? It may not be the kind of news that sells newspapers, but it's the truth and deserves to be told.

William O'Connor said...

Dear Finance: Yes, the phenomenal high school scores are legit. Mr. Kadri alerted the board a few weeks ago during preliminary review of the data that he anticipated double digit improvement.

There is much credit to be passed around - Kadri for his vision and passion; the Education Committee which vetted and implemented a support program to encourage better test scores at the high school; the teachers,administrators and support staff who made the test environment pleasant and productive; and last but not least - the students who understood the importance of PSSA's to the district, and their willingness to take the tests seriously.

The district focused on a few other key areas and we've seen some impressive results there, too. This is proof that if you ask the right questions, focus resources on real solutions, and commit to excellence, our levels of student achievement will improve significantly.

It appears our next target area is elementary school reading. The challenge will be great but very achievable if our district and school board remain focused on success.

IrishFarm said...

I Love this website! Very useful info. Interesting comments from readers. The newspaper articles were very confusing to me too and I was going to write an angry letter to our school board after thinking our scores were bad. I feel better now that you explained what happened.

KClarinet said...

Unfortunately, the Courier has for many years shown a continuing anti-labor bias. The way the scores were characterized last Thursday screams of incompetent school personnel – read teachers and administrators. Whether or not the reporters are in on the agenda, the editor who wrote Thursday’s headline and edited the article under it certainly is party to it, as are the editorial writers who were responsible for Sunday’s blast, which makes the agenda clearer still.

The Courier’s coverage doesn’t even begin to look at how flawed NCLB is, how potentially dangerous and destructive it is to public education in the U.S. and how ultimately futile is the pursuit of NCLB’s “goals.” Far from helping students reach their full potential, NCLB mandates that the school is more or less solely responsible for each student’s reaching a state-set achievement level criterion (measured by PSSA scores in Pennsylvania) regardless of his or her potential, the influence of circumstances outside of school, or the student’s own effort level. It seems to me that, no matter what any school district manages to achieve, the issue of real student potential is going to loom more and more important as each district solves those problems that can be successfully addressed and remedied within the school setting, so that eventually every child may be reaching his or her potential but some are still not scoring Proficient on the PSSA battery or some of its parts. But the law says that every child must be proficient (not just at potential) by the year 2014. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is a series of increasing benchmarks toward that 100% level. It’s hard to see how any school system that can’t select out students who are unable to reach PSSA proficiency will escape eventually “failing” under NCLB standards (except for the schools of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average).

Quite apart from any legitimate meaning that can be taken from the PSSA scores and AYP results (there are constructive ways to use the PSSA results other than the way NCLB mandates), the Courier, especially in view of Sunday’s editorial, is clearly trying to inflame the community against the teachers in contract negotiations. Whatever the merits of the respective positions of the board and the NFT at the bargaining table, neither should need to deal with the hysterical public reactions this kind of incendiary misinformation is likely to arouse if the bias goes unchallenged.

I must be living in Jersey said...

Much of what you say is true kclarinet, but I do think you have overlooked an important point to NCLB. For many years, school districts/teachers/parents got complacent over the achievements of their students. There was no formal measurement, no accountability. NCLB has raised awareness to student achievement. That's why I hope that whoever our new president is, they won't simply discard NCLB. Instead they should amend it to be demanding but realistic (you're right, 100% of students cannot possibly achive proficiency).

Pianomom said...

Jersey makes a good point. My child is an IEP (special ed) student. In previous years, many of her special classes didn't do much to improve anything. They gave her some extra reading but then she could do whatever she wanted including just sitting and doing nothing. After not achieving AYP because of special education, I'm sure the district will put much more effort towards the IEP students. This would not have happened if it were not for NCLB.

LivininLevittown said...

So the teachers shouldn't be judged by the pssa scores at all? Let me ask you this. If all the scores jumped up and the newspaper praised the district, don't you think the teachers union would be cheering and demanding more money because of the success? Of course they would. So should pssa be a negotiating factor? Of course it is. Neshaminy didn't make the ayp and the teachers are at least partially responsible for that and it should reflect in their next contract.

KClarinet said...

But, Livininlevittown, the whole point of this discussion thread is that Neshaminy's "failure" to "make AYP" doesn't mean anything close to what the Courier made it sound like it means. Of course teachers are in part responsible for student learning. So are administrators, so is the school board who provides (or limits) the available resources, so are parents and other adults in students' lives. But the point isn't that everyone failed in their responsibilities. The point is that in almost every area in which statistics are extracted from PSSA scores, Neshaminy did well, in some areas leading other area districts. A degree of weakness was indicated in three specific areas. Since one of these areas turned out to be in each of the three grade level divisions, the overall effect of those three specific weaknesses was, by NCLB procedures, to declare the entire district to have "failed." Based on that characterization (and not the full range of scores)the Courier editors went on to imply incompetence district-wide. Those three areas will, I'm certain, be addressed, and both teachers and administrators will be involved in the remedies.

Meanwhile, the larger issue of the need for changes in NCLB itself mostly gets shoved aside as the districts try to jump through higher and higher hoops toward NCLB's stated, but impossible goal, that every child in Pennsylvania's public schools will be Proficient in every area of the PSSA by 2014.