Tuesday, September 26, 2017

MDE Proficiency Data Promotes False school district comparisons

Jvonkorff on education is taking a break from writing about the education clause to discuss a practice maintained by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for many years that is designed to destroy the reputation of public schools that educate economically disadvantaged students.

The Department annually publishes comparative statistics showing the proficiency performance of schools and districts across the state.  The data is released with a tremendous amount of hoopla, or hand wringing, depending on the year.  Data in the hands of school districts is "embargoed" from publication, for months, so that the MDE can release it all at once, and so that only the Department's description of the data will be heard on the day of release.  The Department facilitates electronic release to the media, encouraging them to publish side by side data comparing schools so that the public can supposedly see which districts are doing well and which districts are doing poorly.  

But the fact is that the comparisons suggested by MDE are in many cases, just plain bunk.   Today's post provides an example of how this practice of side by side comparison can be deeply misleading, and contribute to the increasing racial and economic racial and economic isolation of our schools.  Let's take a look at two neighboring school districts where I live in Central Minnesota, St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids.

  • Sauk Rapids is 87  percent white, 3.4 percent black,  32 percent free and reduced lunch eligible, with 1.1 perecent English Language Learners.  
  • St. Cloud is 50 percent white, 33 percent black ( large proportion of which are English Language Learners), 60 percent free and reduced lunch eligible, with 23 percent English Language Learners.  

Both school districts have comparable special education populations.

Now in today's America, there are going to be a lot of parents who believe that they can be sure that Sauk Rapids is a "better" school system, because of course, everybody knows that demographics is destiny.   Many white parents, and many black parents, looking at the above demographic numbers, will right away jump to the conclusion that a district with St. Cloud's demographics must be inferior, well, just because........ An exodus from urban schools is under way.   Surely the Minnesota Department of Education doesn't want to accelerate that, do they?   They wouldn't report statistics that intentionally reinforced parents concerns about urbanizing school districts, would they?  Or, would they?  Suppose you are a parent wondering where you should live:  where your children should go to school.  

MDE reports that Sauk Rapids reading proficiency rates for all students is 56% and for St. Cloud 48 percent, thus reinforcing the predisposition (or prejudice) if you will, that some people have.  (Now keep in mind, that Sauk Rapids proficiency report includes a quite different mix of students). But the message that MDE is conveying--and its a completely false message--is that Sauk Rapids is eight percentage points superior to St. Cloud.  It's not an apples to apples comparison, but its almost impossible for the average parent to discover a valid comparison.  MDE reports data in a way that harms the public image of school districts educating disadvantage students.

Suppose you are a parent of a white student, or a free and reduced lunch eligible student, or suppose that you are the parent of a non Free and Reduced Lunch eligible student.  Here are the actual facts:

  • In Sauk Rapids, reading proficiency percentage rates for white students (all) have fallen 8 points since 2014, and they now stand at 56%
  • In St. Cloud, reading proficiency scores for white students (all)  have increased 7 points since 2014, and they now stand at 68%, 12 points higher than Sauk Rapids. 
  • In Sauk Rapids the proficiency rates for White Free and Reduced Lunch students,  have fallen 9 points since 2014 and they stand at 48 percent.  
  • In St.Cloud the proficiency rates for White Free and Reduced Lunch students have increased by seven points and they now stand at 52%, four points higher than Sauk Rapids. 
  • In Sauk Rapids the proficiency rates for White Non Free and Reduced Lunch students have fallen 7 points since 2014, and they now stand at 64%.
    In St. Cloud, the proficiency rates for White non Free and Reduced Lunch students have increased seven points, and they now stand at 75%. 
Both of these school districts are fine school districts.  But if a parent merely looked at the all district proficiency data they would mistakenly assume that the district with more challenging demographics must be doing worse in reading, but in fact, for each demographic group, the district with the more challenging demographics is doing significantly better.  MDE's reporting is actually encouraging students to make school choices on misleading data. 

Ok.  So now you complain, I'm only talking about white students, but I can't compare demographics apples to apples with a school district that hardly has any minority students.  But here is what I can tell you about St. Cloud.  We have a long way to go, but here are some encouraging statistics, I think:




Non FRL Students
·        73 percent of our non FRL students meet or exceed the state proficiency cutoff, compared to 71 percent statewide.
FRL-Non ELL Students
·        43 percent of our FRL-non ELL students meet or exceed the state proficiency cutoff, compared to 42% of FRL-non ELL students statewide.  Here too, our performance scores are slightly superior to the state’s for the same demographic group. 

Hispanic Students
·        Non ELL Hispanic students reading proficiency rate rose 12 percentage points in three years (to 47.7%).   In 2014 the rate was 15 points behind the state proficiency rate.  It is now only 4 percentage points behind. 
Black Students
·        Non ELL Black reading proficiency rates have risen by 7 points in four years, more than double the rate of increase statewide for demographic peers.  


We have a school choice system in Minnesota, one of the first in the country to encourage school choice.  The theory behind school choice is that parents should have the information that they need ot make sound choices.  Unfortunately, MDE doesn't take its responsibility to provide that data in a statistically sound way, and as a consequence it is inadvertently encouraging racial and economic segregation.