Accountability Opinion

Cool People You Should Know: Doug Downey

By Eduwonkette — September 12, 2008 2 min read

To many observers of public education, there is no doubt about which schools are failing - it’s the schools with low rates of students passing state tests, stupid!

Of course, this assumes that students’ achievement is a direct measure of school quality. “Yet we know that this assumption is wrong....It follows that a valid system of school evaluation must separate school effects from nonschool effects on children’s achievement and learning” writes Doug Downey, a cool Ohio State sociologist of education you should know, in his recent paper (in collaboration with Paul von Hippel and Melanie Hughes), “Are ‘Failing’ Schools Really Failing?

Analyzing data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten Cohort, a national sample of 21,000 kindergarteners that were then followed through 5th grade, Downey and colleagues thus set out to isolate the effects of schools on student learning. The ECLS data are uniquely suited for this task because the study evaluated students in the fall and spring of kindergarten, and again in the fall and spring of first grade. It turns out that summers - a time when students are only affected by non-school influences - are the key to teasing apart school and nonschool factors.

Downey and colleagues look at schools’ effectiveness in four different ways. First, they examine NCLB’s method - overall test score levels. They then turn to 12-month learning rates; think growth models, which measure test score growth, for example, between a test given in April 2007 and a test given in April 2008. They contrast those rates with 9-month learning rates; imagine a test given in September, and then again in May. Finally, they introduce a measure called impact, which is the difference between the school year and summer learning rate.

“Impact” is attractive because it doesn’t require us to measure and statistically control for all of the different aspects of children’s nonschool environments that may affect school success, as do cardiac surgery report cards. It captures what we need to know about students’ out-of-school environments without bogging us down in the methodological and political problems associated with introducing these controls. And it helps us adjust for “soft” factors like innate student motivation, for which it is difficult to measure and control. Moreover, it holds schools harmless for what happens to their students over the summer, which currently serves as a confounding factor in growth models.

What percent performing in the bottom 20% of overall achievement are actually in the bottom 20% for measures of impact and learning? Less than half! High-achieving schools are concentrated in more affluent communities, but “high impact” schools exist across the socioeconomic spectrum. And the opposite is true. There are plenty of school with good test scores that are skating by because simply because they had advantaged kids to begin with.

What does this all mean for NCLB? Downey and colleagues put it like this:

Our results raise serious concerns about the current methods that are used to hold schools accountable for their students' achievement levels. Because achievement-based evaluation is biased against schools that serve the disadvantaged, evaluating schools on the basis of achievement may actually undermine the NCLB goal of reducing racial/ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in performance. If schools that serve the disadvantaged are evaluated on a biased scale, their teachers and administrators may respond like workers in other industries when they are evaluated unfairly - with frustration, reduced, effort, and attrition. Under a fair system, a school's chances of receiving a high mark should not depend on the kinds of students the school happens to serve.

Crystal clear, creative thinking is the distinguishing feature of Downey’s work - see, for example, his paper on school effects on child obesity, or his paper asking if schools are “the great equalizer.”

Wonks can rest a little easier tonight with the knowledge that Downey’s now turned his attention to NCLB.

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