Opinion
Accountability Opinion

Let the Spin Begin

By skoolboy — September 14, 2008 3 min read

Suppose that your fourth-grader takes a state test that shows that she understands the associative property of multiplication, can multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers, and can find the perimeter of a polygon by adding up the length of the sides. A year later, as a fifth-grader, she takes a test that shows that she can compare fractions and decimals using <, > or =; identify the factors of a given number; simplify fractions to their lowest terms; and knows that the sum of the interior angles of a quadrilateral is 360 degrees—but she cannot yet create algebraic or geometric patterns using concrete objects or visual drawings (e.g., rotate and shade geometric shapes). Would you say that your child had lost ground in proficiency, or actually gone backward?

Jim Liebman would. Liebman, the Columbia University law professor on leave as Chief Accountability Officer at the New York City Department of Education, is quoted and paraphrased in an article by Jim Dwyer in Saturday’s New York Times on the F grade that P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights will receive in this year’s School Progress Reports—a grade that many are finding hard to believe, given that 80% of the students tested in the school are judged proficient in math, and two-thirds are judged proficient in English Language Arts. Doubly embarrassing, in that Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Mike Bloomberg have publicly declared the school to be successful and worthy of emulation.

So the spinmeisters are out, and the spin here is justifying the grade of F by arguing that the children in P.S. 8 are going backward. “You drop them off at the beginning of the year, and on average, by the end of the year, your child lost ground in proficiency,” Dwyer quotes Liebman as saying. “Where was the child last year, and where is the child this year?” Liebman asked. “You’re comparing them to themselves.”

A gentle reminder to Mr. Liebman, who was hired in January, 2006: the state math and ELA tests which children take, and are the primary basis for assigning these lovely letter grades, are not vertically equated. (See skoolboy’s testing primer here.) This means that there is no basis for comparing performance on the fourth-grade test with performance on the fifth-grade test. For each test, there is a subjective judgment about what level of performance constitutes proficiency, but the tests are independent. There is no basis for claiming that children are going backward; there’s no justification for claiming that a child “lost ground in proficiency,” since proficiency doesn’t exist in the abstract, but rather in grade-specific skills; and the children are not being compared to themselves, but rather their location in the distribution of children’s performance in one year is being compared to their location in the distribution of children’s performance the following year.

Perhaps Jim Liebman simply misspoke, as perhaps did Chancellor Joel Klein when he referred to statistical significance as “playing something of a game.” Such missteps might arise from the tremendous pressure to justify a particular high-stakes evaluation of a school when there are multiple sources of information about school performance that point in different directions—NCLB status, achievement levels, gains, school quality reviews, not to mention the public pronouncements of Liebman’s boss, and his boss’s boss.

There’s nothing wrong, in skoolboy’s view, in looking at students’ achievement growth as one of several criteria for judging how well a school is doing in relation to other schools. But I would never think of using year-to-year changes in proficiency levels on just two tests as the primary basis for evaluating a school’s performance. And neither would most people who study testing and assessment for a living.

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