Ohio Researcher Proves–Yet Again–That Test Scores Measure Primarily Family Income

Like the rest the country, Ohio is trapped in a test-and-punish education accountability system that castigates public schools when students’ test scores are persistently low. It is a system that punishes already vulnerable institutions—closing and charterizing schools in the places where scores are low, giving vouchers to help children “escape” so-called “failing” schools, and rating teachers by students’ scores. Ohio practices all of these policies.  The flaw inherent in such a system is that standardized test scores continue to correlate with the aggregate income of the families whose children are enrolled in schools and school districts.  Researchers have demonstrated again and again that, despite that poor children surely can learn and many do thrive academically, aggregate test scores are pretty much an economic indicator, not a measure of the academic quality of the school.  Test score gaps are in place before children enter Kindergarten, and they rarely close as children move through the grades.

Now, once again, Howard Fleeter of Ohio’s Education Tax Policy Institute, has documented that in Ohio, the schools that can brag of the highest test scores are located in the wealthy suburban school districts and the so-called “failing” schools are those that serve children living in poverty.  The ratings attached to school districts by the state based on test scores thus create further incentives for more families to abandon poorer and mixed income communities and move to expensive outer ring suburbs. This blog recently covered how school ratings by Zillow, the online real estate guide, contribute to segregation in the same way.

Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes Fleeter’s findings: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”  And just as he has found previously, aggregate test scores correlate with the income level of the families who reside in the school district.

Fleeter’s analysis, according to O’Donnell, demonstrates that last spring when Ohio administered PARCC tests of language arts and math and tests designed by the American Institutes for Research to measure science and social studies, the highest-scoring 20 percent of districts (serving only 17.4 percent of students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch) had 86.2 percent of students scoring proficient in math.  The bottom-scoring 20 percent of school districts (serving 77 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch) had only 44.3 percent of students scoring proficient in math.

The press release from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials (who sponsored the new study) quotes Fleeter: “This means that those districts performing the best on the tests have the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, while districts with the lowest performance have the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students.”  Posted with the press release are the tables that represent Fleeter’s analysis.

While Fleeter’s conclusions should sound an alarm in a state that uses test scores as the primary factor to determine “A” through “F” grades in a punitive accountability system for schools and school districts, Fleeter merely proves once again what researchers have been demonstrating for half a century.  Last year, for example, in Our Kids, after exhaustively examining the experiences of children in schools through the lens of wealth vs. poverty, Harvard’s Robert Putnam concludes: “(T)he gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.” (p. 182)

Here are the words of the respected researcher David Berliner, in a 2014 article published by the Teachers College Record: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… (S)tories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives about our land and people, celebrated in the press, on television, and in the movies. But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American.  These stories of success reflect real events, and thus they are certainly worth studying and celebrating so we might learn more about how they occur.  But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students… (O)ut-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement.  In aggregate, such factors as family income; the neighborhood’s sense of collective efficacy, violence rate, and average income; medical and dental care available and used; level of food insecurity; number of moves a family makes over the course of a child’s school years; whether one parent or two parents are raising the child; provision of high-quality early education in the neighborhood; language spoken at home; and so forth, all substantially affect school achievement.”

In the 2013, Closing the Opportunity Gap, two researchers—Christopher H. Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)

When are we going to pay attention to what has been conclusively documented?  Instead in Ohio, public school districts serving poor children are punished in several ways by state policy.  Children in so-called “failing” schools qualify for EdChoice vouchers that extract money from a school district’s budget for every child who takes a voucher to a private or parochial school.  The new Youngstown Plan, quietly fast-tracked through the legislature in June, permits the takeover and charterization of so-called “failing” school districts. It is aimed at Youngstown schools this year, but any district with three years’ of “F” ratings will be targeted in the future.  And Ohio, like all the other states that applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, had to incorporate students’ test scores as a significant part of state teacher evaluations. We don’t merely blame the teachers; these days we formalize our blame right into each teacher’s personnel file.

Describing Fleeter’s new data connecting Ohio students’ test scores to their families’ economic circumstances, O’Donnell quotes the press release from the study’s sponsoring organizations, who say they will use Fleeter’s new data as a way, “to push for more focus on the educational needs of these students by urging lawmakers to look for additional ways to address these significant disparities.”  O’Donnell notes that in the past these organizations have used Fleeter’s research to advocate (unsuccessfully) for changes in the state funding formula to help poorer school districts.

What, to my knowledge, has never been seriously contemplated by Ohio’s legislature or state department of education is changing the state policy that, based on students’ aggregate test scores, punishes poorer school districts (with low state ratings and rankings, vouchers, and threatened state takeover) and punishes their teachers for choosing to teach in low-wealth school districts.  In an ironic twist in Ohio, this month the charter schools Ohio dubs “dropout recovery schools” are campaigning to do just that.  Ohio judges charter schools by aggregate test scores as well, and these schools allege Ohio should change the system that punishes them for serving students who come from so-called “failing” schools in the poorest urban school districts.

I would certainly be satisfied if Ohio found a way to design a new evaluation system that accurately examined schools themselves apart from the income-correlated test scores of the students.  But any new system must decouple state evaluations of schools from standardized test scores in both traditional public schools and charter schools. Any new system also needs to put the spotlight on disparities in inputs, not just on test score outcomes.  How much revenue is each school district capable of raising from its tax base?  How well is the state compensating for inequity?  What about small classes, access to advanced curricula, guidance counselors, art and music?

Privatizer, Corporate Matchmaker: Jeb Bush’s Impact on Public Schooling

On Monday, Jeb Bush declared himself a candidate for President. It’s a good time to review Jeb’s record on public education, and there is a significant record, as Bush made public school reform a centerpiece of his two terms as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007.  His work on education continued after he completed his second term. In 2008,  he founded and chaired the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has engaged actively to promote particular education policies across the states.

In a column on Monday, the day that Jeb Bush declared himself a candidate for President, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized Jeb’s record: “Words matter, so it’s important to know that Bush doesn’t call public school districts public school districts.  Instead, he says the United States has ‘over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.’  He doesn’t mention that some districts don’t have any unions, that unions can’t win a contract agreement by politicians, that a number of governors have sharply curtailed the power of unions.”  “Bush advocates using public money for students to use to pay for private school tuition.  The focus of his 1998 campaign for Florida governor was the ‘Opportunity Scholarship Program,’ a voucher program that allowed state funds to be used to pay tuition at church-run schools.  It was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006… Bush did successfully push through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows students to attend private school with the help of publicly funded tax credits.” “Meanwhile, the ‘About Us’ page of his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which he founded after leaving the Florida governorship to take his school reform agenda national, uses the word ‘public’ twice—but never with the word ‘school’ or ‘education’ after it (but rather ‘public awareness’ and ‘public outreach’).”  “Bush has said that ‘we can’t just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best,’ but he likes outsourcing public education to for-profit education companies who open public charter schools but run them like a business.  (Is it a coincidence that Florida has the second-highest number of for-profit charter schools?)”

Late in January, this blog summarized Alec MacGillis’s in-depth profile in the New Yorker magazine of Jeb Bush’s education interests, promoted when he was governor of Florida and later through the Foundation for Excellence in Education. MacGillis is particularly critical of the lack of regulation that accompanied the explosive growth of charter schools in Florida during Bush’s tenure as governor: “(I)n 2002, Bush signed a law allowing charter operators who were denied approval by local school boards to appeal to the state.  In 2003, he signed a law to eliminate the state’s cap on the number of charters, which had been set at twenty-eight in the largest counties.” “By 2006, Jeb’s last year in office, there were more than three hundred charter schools (for-profit and nonprofit) in Florida, with more than a hundred thousand students, most of them in big metropolitan areas such as Miami and Tampa. But the state made only sporadic efforts to track their performance.  The 1996 law called for annual statewide reports on the schools, but none were produced until November of 2006.  Test scores in lower grades were found to be slightly higher than at traditional public schools, and slightly lower in the higher grades. The reading test-score gap between black students and white students in elementary grades decreased at about the same rate as in traditional schools, but in the charter high schools the gap widened.”

At the end of 2014, in preparation to run for President, Jeb Bush resigned from the Foundation for Excellence in Education that he founded and chaired. Long-time staff member Patricia Levesque now leads the foundation.  Bush led the Foundation for years, however, and MacGillis explores its impact as what ed tech companies like Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s Amplify and Pearson, the testing and publishing giant, have come to count on as “an ideal platform to promote a range of ideas and products to state officials.”  Patricia Levesque, the Foundation’s director, has used her influence to connect state commissioners of education who are part of the Foundation’s Chiefs for Change with leaders of corporations promoting on-line education, curricula and software and to make the Chiefs for Change into sales people for these products in other states.

MacGillis reminds us about Bush’s business connections to Voyager, a company involved in the ill-fated Reading First—the phonics-based reading curriculum adopted by the U.S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Reading First was one of the earliest mandates of NCLB that was eliminated because Reading First did not seem to be teaching children across the country to read.  In 2011, Bush got financially involved—reaping an annual salary of $60,000—with another for-profit educational venture, Academic Partnerships, a company whose aim was to “persuade public colleges to attract more students by outsourcing to the firm their master’s-degree programs in fields such as  business and education.”  MacGillis writes extensively about Bush’s interest in making money and promoting business partners—the story of an aggressive business tycoon—but nothing about teachers or children or what education ought to be about or what needed to happen to improve the public schools of Florida.

In a second excellent profile published early in January in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton reported on a number of Bush’s endeavors to promote privatization of public education through the Foundation for Excellence in Education: “The foundation has forged an unusual role of mixing politics and policy—drafting legislation and paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts…. But the foundation, from which Bush resigned as chairman last week as part of his preparations for a possible White House bid, has been criticized as a backdoor vehicle for major corporations to urge state officials to adopt policies that would enrich the companies.  The foundation has, for instance, pushed states to embrace digital learning in public schools, a costly transition that often requires new software and hardware.  Many of those digital products are made by donors to Bush’s foundation, including Microsoft, Intel, News Corp, Pearson PLC, and K12 Inc..  The foundation has helped its corporate donors gain access to state education officials through a committee called Chiefs for Change, composed of as many as 10 officials from mostly Republican-led states who convene at the foundation’s annual meeting.  The meetings include private two-hour gatherings with the officials and company executives.  Patricia Levesque, the Bush foundation’s chief executive, said the group does not endorse donors’ products or get involved in sales, saying that ‘we promote policies’ but are ‘neutral on the providers.'”

Layton adds that while the Foundation for Excellence in Education engages in advocacy, it is a dark-money, supposedly “educational” not-for-profit that, under current election laws, is not required to name its donors: “As a nonprofit, Bush’s foundation is not required to disclose its donors.  It reported $10 million in income in 2012, according to tax documents.  The group’s Web site lists most donors, with their contributions included in ranges.  The site was updated Friday to list every donor that contributed last year.  Among the top donors in 2014, giving $500,000 to $1 million, was News Corp., which owns a company called Amplify that markets tablets, software and data analysis to school districts.  NewsCorp chief executive Rupert Murdoch delivered a keynote speech at the Bush foundation’s annual meeting in 2011, when Amplify rolled out its tablet, saying it was time to ‘tear down an education system designed for the 19th century and replace it with one suited for the 21st.'”  Other 2014 donors listed by Layton include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Educational Testing Service, and  McGraw-Hill Education. (In April, Bloomberg reported major problems at Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, despite the investment of $1 billion in its tablet division.)

To summarize, here are the components of Jeb Bush’s record in education (according to MacGillis and Layton):

  • Introduced Opportunity Scholarship Program vouchers as centerpiece of campaign for Florida governor in 1998. Program later found unconstitutional under the Florida constitution.
  • Passed Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, as a way to introduce vouchers legally under Florida’s constitution.
  • Actively promoted expansion of charter schools while he was governor and encouraged non-profits that ran charter schools to hire for-profit management companies.
  • In Florida, introduced A-F letter grade ratings for schools and school districts.  Chiefs for Change promoted the adoption of A-F letter grade-rating systems in other states.
  • Launched Third-Grade Reading Guarantee in Florida and, through the Foundation for Excellence in Education, promoted this program nationally.  It denies grade promotion to fourth grade for any third-grader who cannot pass the state’s reading test. The program is controversial because research demonstrates that retention-in-grade at any time in a student’s academic life increases the risk of dropping out when the student becomes an adolescent.
  • In 2008 formed the Foundation for Excellence in Education that established Chiefs for Change, a coalition of far-right state superintendents of education.
  • Foundation for Excellence in Education served as matchmaking service to pair corporations with state officials likely to purchase their service as well as their products, and used members of Chiefs for Change to promote the interests of corporations.
  • With the Foundation for Excellence in Education, actively promoted digital learning and virtual schools.
  • Launched a for-profit chain of after school tutoring programs—Voyager Expanded Learning—which was involved with a phonics-based reading program later adapted and folded into the No Child Left Behind Act as Reading First—the reading curriculum later dropped from the federal law when it was found not to help children read.
  • Actively promoted the development of the Common Core Standards.

I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s column earlier this week along with MacGillis’s profile of Jeb Bush, and Lindsey Layton’s report on the Foundation for Excellence in Education.  If you have already read these articles, I urge you to re-read them now that Jeb has declared his candidacy for President.