A Guest column response, by Herb Bassett, to Superintendent John White’s reply to Deborah Tonguis’s question about the inflated 2012 Louisiana High School Performance Scores.(with notes from yours truly)

Posted on January 11, 2013

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An open response by Herb Bassett (one of the researchers who has recently produced a paper the inflation of Louisiana’s SPS scores as well as LDOE’s published intent to radically inflate next year’s scores) to Superintendent John White’s reply to Deborah Tonguis’s question about the inflated 2012 Louisiana High School Performance Scores. On November 29, 2012, Deborah Tonguis sent an e-mail to Superintendent John White asking for explanation of the unusually high 2012 Louisiana High School SPSs.  In his reply, John White explained that there were three factors that led to the high scores, and that all three were determined in advance of his arrival. The original post that generated this response can be found here: http://crazycrawfish.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/john-white-just-a-leaf-in-the-win/

I was astonished! (well, actually not really surprised,) I mean astonished to see John White’s assertion that he had no control over the High School SPS inflation in your recent article, John White “I’m just a leaf in the wind.”

Quite the opposite, of course,  is true.  In June 2012, the Louisiana Register, the official publication of BESE rules, records that — while John White was Superintendent — a key formula for computing the 2012 High School SPSs was changed, adding an average of 4.0 points to the scores.  Who should we assume changed that formula?  Did John White sleep through the BESE meeting where it was passed?

Surely he knew about the change because at the same time he was busy writing (with help from STAND for Children) totally new rules for the 2013 School Assessment System.  Oddly, the very formula he changed in June goes away in his radical new rules for computing the SPSs for 2013.  Why did he even bother to change it?

When I started researching the scores, I thought my math chops (I have 30 college credits of math) would be the most important tool in my kit. But when I discovered BESE Bulletin 111, the official guide to the School Performance Scores, I quickly realized that I had to become a historian.  To understand the SPSs you have to understand the changes, year after year, to Bulletin 111 and how to find them.

Now, back to John White’s assertion that he had no control over the High School SPS inflation.

John White’s words:

The story is, as is said there, that three factors, each determined years in advance of my arrival in this role, let to a significant increase in scores. You can argue whether they are inflated per se or not, of course. But the intent of each factor was a good one at least. The factors are:

  1. The decision to count graduation rate in the high school SPS (the grad rate grew in response by more than four percentage points, increasing schools’ numbers dramatically)
  2. The inclusion of a bonus for all schools with rates over 65 percent (the increase in the rate above was compounded in its impact through this bonus)
  3. The onset of the EOC tests, and schools becoming accustomed to these tests, perhaps faster than anticipated

In each case, the Department made a decision years ago to give points in specific ways….

Having extensively studied the history of BESE Bulletin 111 through the Louisiana Register, I  will grant him points #1 and #3. I have issues with certain characterizations he slips through, but in the end, those things were in place before he arrived.

I do wonder if the order in which he listed the factors was a Freudian slip.  Considering the  assertion that he had no control over the scores, factor #2 is quite aptly numbered.  His word choice of “bonus” also shows that he understands how inflationary it is.

Now for the details and history lesson.

Point # 2 refers to the “cohort graduation rate adjustment factor” (CGRAF) described in Bulletin 111 section 613.  Section 613 has been changed over and over.  This is the history of section 613.

In mid-2010, BESE mapped out the changeover from basing the High School SPSs on the GEE to the EOC in 2012. At that same time they decided to introduce the CGRAF in the 2011 SPSs.  The purpose of the CGRAF was to spread the scores so that the schools with high graduation rates would be scored even  higher and those with low graduation rates would be made even lower.

In September 2010 the CGRAF was set so that in 2011, when it would be first implemented, schools with graduation rates above a 65% threshold would get extra points.  Below 65%, points were taken away.  In 2012 the threshold would be raised to 70%.  (Notice that the CGRAF both giveth and taketh away, it is not really a “bonus” as John White called it.)

Enter the push for privatization and “sweeping reforms”.  Now, just before the introduction of Letter Grades for the schools, it was decided that the CGRAF would benefit too many schools.  The schools needed to fail so that more kids would be eligible for vouchers.

So in August 2011, just before it was implemented for the first time, the CGRAF was changed so that the schools below 65% graduation rate would still be penalized the same, but schools would get a boost – and far less of it – only if their graduation rate was above 80%.

Due to a clerical error, this last-minute rule change did not get published until November 2011, after the 2011 SPSs were released.

In early 2012, when John White became Superintendent, the CGRAF was set so that schools would get the “bonus” only if the graduation rate was over 80%.

Then, inexplicably, in June 2012, the CGRAF was changed back to the original formula with one modification.  Remember how in Sept. 2010 the threshold was set to be 70% in 2012?  That was lowered to 65% by the John White administration.  Now schools got a “bonus” for a graduation rate over 65% instead of having to be over 80% (like the year before) or 70% (as originally intended).

Let’s be clear: That gave an average of 4.0 points and up to 6.75 extra points to the SPSs.   Apparently he had declared victory for getting the sweeping reforms though the legislature and wanted to celebrate.

The discrepancy between the GEE and EOC-based scores was evident before he took office.  The 2011 Scores were in and a comparison should have been available.  Did he not see the inflation coming? Why not?  If he saw it coming, why did he choose to inflate the scores even more?

He states that there were three factors put in place before he became Superintendent that he could not change.  Still, he changed #2, the easiest one to manipulate.  The record clearly shows that.  Why didn’t he try to fix the others?

In the end, it appears that the inflated scores are an embarrassment and he is trying to distance himself from them.  Data highlighting the inflation was mislabeled in the public release of scores.  And now John White says he had no control over the inflation, but the official record says he did. He not only took control, but made it worse.

Which will Louisiana Believe?

Herb Bassett

hbassett71435@gmail.com

The Full exchange between Deborah Tonguis and Superintendent John White:

Dear Superintendent White,

I had hoped to see some sort of public response from the LDOE by now about the flaws in the statistical analysis of the Louisiana high school SPS scores.

Here is the link to the information I am referring to:

http://www.louisianaeducator.blogspot.com/

Dr. Mercedes Schneider and I could tell with the naked eye that something was very wrong with the high school scores the day they came out. Attached to this e-mail is a comparison of select Louisiana high school SPS scores from 2001 to the present. It doesn’t take someone with a Ph.D in Statistics (which she does have) to see the statistical impossibility of the huge gains in the last year.

That’s when we went to the math. I told her to send her analysis to you and the BESE board. She did, but to no avail.

How long will you make parents wait before you tell them that their child might be attending a “failing” high school due to an incorrect mathematical formula that inflated all Louisiana high school SPS scores? I, for one, am holding out hope that this was human error and not an attempt to inflate certain charter high school scores. People make mistakes, but then they admit them, correct them and make every attempt to heal the harm. I haven’t seen anyone from the LDOE even acknowledge that the scores are wrong, much less correct them.

Since my attendance at the BESE board meeting in October, I had hoped that you meant what you said about getting teacher leaders like me “on board” with the reforms we are implementing in our state. But I don’t feel like the LDOE is building trust with teachers when we ask for pertinent information about our own campuses and don’t get it. The public taxpayers, whose money you spend every day, deserve transparency from their government. I am disappointed that we are holding teachers to a higher standard than the elected and appointed officials entrusted to govern our educational system.

I tried in good faith to understand how the new legislative policies would drive real reform in our schools. I know, as someone who has spent 30 years of my life as a classroom teacher, that we can do better. I know that you have a heart for service. Let the public know that they can hand over their children to you, and that you will make wise, compassionate decisions on their behalf. The biggest steps in the right direction might be to take a cautious approach, and consider the feedback that employees like me are giving you.

Respectfully,

Deborah Hohn Tonguis

John White’s reply:

Deborah,

Thanks as always. I’m sorry we have not been back sooner to Dr. Schneider. We receive hundreds of letters each week, and we try to get responses back as quickly as we can. In this case, I believe we have a response coming today.

To your point, and to her analysis, I think I’ve been as up front about the situation as possible. See this article: http://theadvocate.com/home/4474689-125/high-schools-raise-scores.

The story is, as is said there, that three factors, each determined years in advance of my arrival in this role, let to a significant increase in scores. You can argue whether they are inflated per se or not, of course. But the intent of each factor was a good one at least. The factors are:

1. The decision to count graduation rate in the high school SPS (the grad rate grew in response by more than four percentage points, increasing schools’ numbers dramatically)

2. The inclusion of a bonus for all schools with rates over 65 percent (the increase in the rate above was compounded in its impact through this bonus)

3. The onset of the EOC tests, and schools becoming accustomed to these tests, perhaps faster than anticipated

In each case, the Department made a decision years ago to give points in specific ways. We now see the results of those decisions. In one sense, the decisions achieved exactly what they were supposed to achieve: schools focused on graduation and on EOC tests. On the other hand, according to some, they skewed the results. One way or the other, they were decisions made for valid reasons with the best information the Department had at the time.

My role in specific has been to raise standards away from the system described above. Under my management, the Department brought the ACT and AP into the system, reducing the focus on EOCs alone. I did so precisely out of a desire to raise standards, in anticipation of the Common Core standards taking effect. If anything, I have been criticized for raising the bar too high and for the potential that schools’ scores will be dropped under the new system.

These are all difficult policy determinations. After all, this is just about people saying that something is important and making decisions about what they think the impact of their decision will be. But I think the story of this situation will be as it should: the schools met one challenge resoundingly and we raised the bar such that the next challenge is laid out accordingly.

Thank you again for writing.

John White

Louisiana Department of Education

Twitter @LouisianaSupe

CCF remarks – John White sounds too knowledgable about the specifics for this oversight (lie) to have been accidental, but I’m sure my audience can make up their own mind about that.  While I would prefer to think he’s an unqualified, intellectually challenged, ignorant tyrant, his own words seem to paint him as a willfully deceitful and paint him as someone just pretending to be ignorant of the implications of his own actions.  It makes  a certain amount of sense. If you had control of the grading scale that would be used to evaluate your performance, and could give yourself a couple of letter grade bumps that would impact whether you stayed or received a raise, and no one would be the wiser, it would be tempting to go that route, no?

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