About those Reward Schools
On Monday, April 9, 2012, Oklahoma State Department of Education recognized more than 100 Reward Schools from throughout the state at a special Board meeting. Representatives from schools all over the state who received these awards – as well as those who did not receive them – found the criteria for them to be quite vague. The first group, with 96 recipients, included schools that were “in the top 10 percent of performance in all assessments from three years worth of data ending in 2010-11.” These are the High-Performing Reward Schools. The second group, with 33 recipients, included schools that were “in the top 10 percent of schools that have made high progress in reading and math.” These are the High Progress Reward Schools.
What these criteria do not explain is how different performance levels were weighted in determining the rank order lists. Were proficient student scores weighted the same as advanced scores, as they were during the Academic Performance Index (API) era of accountability? Or were advanced scores given a greater weight, as they will be during the new A-F Report Card era? And just how is “high progress” different from “improvement,” which will be a criterion for calculating A-F Report Cards for schools?
In any case, awards were given, and people showed up to receive them. Some districts brought individuals. Some brought hoards to pose with the certificates and dignitaries. Still others requested to have the awards sent to them. When somebody bestows an honor on the organization you represent, you say thank you. But if your curiosity gets the better of you, you also start researching.
Looking at the SDE’s website, something clicked in me. Each of the two lists were too homogeneous. So I pulled data from the Office of Accountability to explore this perception and found that I was right. Looking at the free and reduced lunch rates from the three years of test data that were included in the calculations, I found that most of the schools on the High-Performing list had low levels of lot of poverty. The average for the state during these years is 58.6 percent of students participating in the free and reduced lunch program. Of the High-Performing schools, 91 were below this average.
Not only were most of the schools scoring in the top ten percent below the state average in the best proxy measure of school-age poverty, it wasn’t even close. The median of these schools had a 28 percent free and reduced lunch rate. Think about that disparity. In a state where nearly three in five students come from poverty most of the schools receiving these awards have fewer than three in ten students in poverty.
Before looking at the High Progress schools, I want to provide just a little more context to the above list. I have also included a list of the ten schools with the lowest free and reduced lunch rates, based on the 2010-11 school year. Eight of them were also on the first list (one serves only untested grades).
All of this is important because of the culture at the SDE. Time after time, we hear the mantra that “poverty doesn’t matter.” These figures suggest otherwise. As the five schools with free and reduced lunch rates above the state average show, high achievement with high poverty is possible. As the rest of the list shows, it is unlikely.
As I said earlier, the schools on the list worked hard to be there. But it’s likely that the schools towards the bottom of the list worked harder to have high achievement than the schools at the top. Students from homes with greater means have a built-in advantage over students coming from poverty. This is a widely-accepted truth – by most people not working at the SDE.
As further evidence, I present the list of High Progress schools. The lowest three year free and reduced lunch rate of these schools is 25.6 percent. Unlike the earlier list, only eight of these 33 schools are below the state average. Since most of these schools serve high-poverty populations, some conclusions are fairly obvious. One observation is that schools have to be performing low enough that they can make gains in the first place. Another is that if these schools are representative of the other schools serving similar student populations, there is a strong correlation between poverty and room for growth.
This is not a criticism of the criteria by which these Rewards Schools were chosen. Nor is it a call for us to return to the day of the Academic Achievement Awards (AAA) under the API system. Those awards – which awarded schools with perfect API scores and schools showing the greatest degree of improvement – were no greater indicators of success in unlikely places.
In 2009, I looked at schools receiving AAA Awards for a separate study. Similarly, the schools honored for having perfect API scores largely worked with low-poverty populations. The schools showing the greatest gains served high-poverty populations.
Neither system is great. Both show the fallacy of simplistically looking at test scores as a means of evaluating the success of a school. In some places, students succeed because of inherent advantages. This isn’t to say the educators there aren’t working hard, but no accountability system can adequately capture their time and effort. Similarly, none of this should tell us that students in poverty should be held to lower standards. The opposite is true.
Students in poverty can learn everything their advantaged counterparts are capable of learning. But the obstacles they face on the journey require tremendous intervention. Poverty still matters. And helping students in poverty requires first that we acknowledge this to be true.
Receiving recognition from the state department is truly an honor, and the schools receiving awards should take pride in their efforts. Unfortunately, we know that many other teachers and administrators worked just has hard (if not harder) as those who were there to shake the state superintendent’s hand. We have two kinds of schools that can receive awards – those that serve very affluent populations, and those that serve very poor populations. And with few exceptions, they remain segregated.