DOE Calculates Performance Standards...Incorrectly!
by Paul Phillips

[Editor's note: DOE is the Massachusetts Department of Education]

All right math fans! Year one: 6 kids take a test and 2 get Aís. Year 2: 100 kids take the test and 50 get Aís. What is your % of Aís over two years? Lessee...add the 33% of year one, the 50% of year two (83) and divide by two? And the answer is 41.5%...right? Well, thatís how the DOE has done the school performance ratings, according to Dr. Bill Kendall, chair of the Math department for Braintree Public Schools.

Actually we have a total of 106 test takers and 52 Aís, for a percentage of just over 49%.

The DOE got huffy immediately and claimed the sample sizes didnít vary that much, so the difference was negligible. Nonetheless, they did it wrong, and it engenders such confidence in them! Now, if a kid made this same error it could keep him or her from graduating from high school, or it could get a fourth grader labeled "failing" before his or her tenth birthday.

"Close enough" is good enough in horseshoes, hand grenades, and the DOE.

Performance Ratings Raise Havoc

1998 MCAS scores were a baseline. DOE averaged scores for 1999 and 2000 (incorrectly) and compared them to the baseline, based on their own "Expectations for improvement". The worse you had done initially, the higher the expectations were. And everyone was expected to improve some. If you didnít improve enough, your school was labeled "Failed to meet expectations".

The upshot? Schools, many in the poorest urban areas, worked like dogs to get their scores up, but didnít beat their 6 points (or more!) expectation. They are labeled "failures." But, the highest scoring schools in the state, which had more modest improvement expectations...couldnít meet them either! This has resulted in some ludicrous results. Brookline High School is a failure. They have 19 National Merit finalists this year. Their MCAS scores are among the highest in the state. But they didnít improve enough...A middle school in Fall River whose scores rose three points after grueling effort will also be labeled "failure." Schools everywhere will be labeled failure...and the label will not mean that the school is a failure. What will that label mean? Well, according to many of the affected Principals, Superintendents, and teachers, it means nothing. The "expectations" were based on numbers, not reality. Meeting them is impossible in many cases, making the label meaningless. Theoretically, if a school makes its "expectations" every time, it will eventually have to score above perfect, in order to meet expectations. Thus, every school, no matter which one, no matter how hard they work, is eventually doomed to "failure" status.

Why would the DOE want a system in which all schools eventually fail? Some right away, some later, but everyone fails. Well, after the reports about this came out (did you see them: "56% of Massachusettsí schools labeled failing"), confidence in public schools eroded. Itís much easier to argue for private schools, for charter schools, for profit-making schools, when you can say "56% of the stateís schools are failing." Theyíre saying, "Sheesh, even Brookline High School is failing!"

If you set standards high enough, you can say, with statistical backing, that the schools are failing. And we are left trying to explain what happenedÖ

Fortunately, Superintendents in the wealthy, high-performing districts are squealingÖloudly...about how ridiculous this is. And people listen to them, because they arenít the usual ones squealing. Thatís usually us in the urban districts. Of course, they havenít been really good about defending us when we were attacked as failures all along. But we must help them lead this charge, because itís all becoming clear to me now whatís really going on.

Whatís Really Going OnÖ

When the Accountability Plan for schools and districts was being "discussed," it was pointed out that eventually all schools would be doomed to failure, unless at some point they exceeded perfection. This was pooh-poohed, and the "rankings" were explained as being "in-house" only. This means they were for our own diagnostic benefit. We set goals and see if we can meet them. We were assured it would not be used by DOE to compare schools and districts.

Educators pointed out that the rankings would be public, that everyone else would be comparing, and that "in-house" is inapplicable to public schools. And so it has come to pass that we are proved correct. Boston Magazine and the Globe instantly ranked schools and systems; and now we see these "in-house" designations becoming crucial factors in unrelated things like real estate decisions and property tax valuations. Statistics such as "56% of Massachusetts schools get ranked as failures" are bandied about by "knowledgeable" commentators like Howie Carr, John Keller, and Don Feder. This was not done unknowingly. The DOE is participating in a plan to make public schools seem to be generally failing. We have already had the inane charade of the "Teacher Test" results, making it seem (and nationally reported) that entering teachers are "illiterate" in the state. We can point out the foolishness of the test all we want. It sounds as if we are whining when we do so, which they knew in advance.

And we have the MCAS itself, with its statistics ("0% advanced readers in 4th grade! They canít even teach our best students!"), its failure rates, its consistent mis-labeling as a "basic skills" test ("these kids canít even read their own diplomas!") and its requirement that we teach a curriculum that constantly changes. Of course, if we point this out, weíre whining again. And our students, and our own children, are being hurt by this.

Add to this the overt preference for charter schools over public schools among the BOE members, their affiliations with organizations whose goal is the adoption of voucher plans, for-profit education, and in certain cases the end of publicly funded schooling. Put it all together and you canít help thinking there is an organized move afoot to de-stabilize public schools, to make them look weak, ineffective, failing. You and I can understand the idiocy of that position. We can argue all we want, though they make it sound like whining. They have rigged the deck so that the statistics show their way.

They have a test that makes kids seem stupid, though they arenít. They have a test that makes teachers seem stupid, though they arenít. And they continue to say, with legislators nodding, that they "gave" us billions, and "want results," instead of admitting that they lost a court case which forced them to add money...and it still hasnít been enough to make quality education available to every kid in the Commonwealth.

Iíve never been a real believer in conspiracy theories; and Iím still willing to believe that these people honestly believe they will make education "better," even if they are abandoning our poorest and most vulnerable kids. They are what we used to call "Social Darwinists." And those poor and vulnerable kids are doomed to second-tier society. As the "haves" get further and further apart from the "have-nots," these people are happier and happier.

Someone once said that "the answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy." This, of course, requires an educated populace, the goal of the forefathers and mothers. The whole purpose of education, public education, has traditionally been to produce an educated citizenry, not workers for corporations. Education is the force of democracy. A two-tiered schooling system, for haves and have-nots, is anti-democratic at its core. The tools of democracy must be employed to work against this anti-democratic, anti-public school movement. All of the tools: arguing, voting, demonstrating, even Civil Disobedience if needed.

Thus endeth this sermonÖ.for now.


Paul Phillips is the President of the Quincy Education Association.