Look past the spin and rhetoric for a true CCSD assessment

Updated: Dec 1, 2019


By Karen Sweeney Gerow

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TLDR: In 2017, the superintendent brought to light a crisis related to the proficiency of Black students in CCSD. Two years later, the data hasn’t changed, but the way it’s presented has.

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It’s hard to write about CCSD at a time like this. It feels like anything will fan the flames of discord, and I don’t want that. At the same time, there are a lot of misconceptions about school performance right now. Since that is at the heart of a superintendent’s job, it seems important to take an honest look at it.

One misconception seems to be that Dr. Means’ initiatives were blocked at every turn; the implication being that he should not be accountable for any lack of improvement because he didn’t have the tools to do it. Dr. Means got every single thing related to curriculum that he asked for: AVID instruction, new ELA materials and approach, new math curriculum, MAP testing, UVA involvement, and co-plan to co-serve. He also got every central office position you could imagine plus a dozen more on top of that.

Did some board members question some of those things? Yes. Is that blocking the superintendent from doing his job? No, that’s accountability; that’s what is supposed to happen. The places he started to lose ground with the BOE were mostly real estate related, not academics related— West Broad, Gaines School, and Clarke Middle. The only non-real estate related challenge he didn't win was regarding the staffing allocated in the most recent budget -- that was more of a tie than a loss.

In 2018, soon after the dramatic data release of the fall, then board member Bybee said that he was overlooking the lack of research to support AVID because the BOE has to give the superintendent the tools he says he needs. Bybee wrote, “The Board’s job is oversight and ensuring accountability. If AVID and the other educational systems and practices that Dr. Means institutes for CCSD do not deliver the student achievement that we need, it is incumbent on the Board to hold him accountable.” This is the opposite of blocking initiatives — Means received total support with the caveat that the changes need to produce results.

While I disagreed with that approach at the time, it certainly is beneficial to have that in mind when looking at current performance. Every curricular decision he made received support from the majority of the board, and that support was given in anticipation of an increase in performance.

The other argument I hear is that the schools are improving and people who are opposed to Means just need to get out of the way and let him do his job. The problem is, if you compare the data of 2017 to now, the schools are not improving. Worse, the percentages of African American students proficient in elementary language actually went down; so did middle school math. That hasn’t made it’s way into a press release yet.

Let’s look at improvement.

How do you know something is improving? You have to measure it against its previous state right? You compare like to like, assess growth, and draw a conclusion. The problem is that the recent data release did not compare like to like.

In order to understand that, you have to understand the difference between CCRPI's Content Mastery scores and Milestones proficiency scores, and you have to look objectively at how the data has been presented.

It's a long explanation. Might want to grab a cup of coffee.

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“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” ― Mark Twain

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The way CCSD released data* in November, 2019 could not have been more different than the way it was released in October, 2017. This is interesting because the data itself has remained largely the same.

You might recall some of the language used when the 2017 data was released:

“When I saw the data,” Means said, and paused, collecting himself, “the data forces you to cry. It’s that bad.” [ABH]

In a Flagpole article, Blake Aued referred to the numbers as nausea inducing.

In a private communication, Means said, “It is my intent to share with the community the poor state of the instructional, curricular, and assessment infrastructure in the Clarke County School District.” [emphasis mine]

The ABH reported that “Just 17 percent of African American third- and fifth-graders scored proficient in English language arts in last spring’s testing, and just 17.7 percent in math.”

And now?

16.5% of African American students are proficient in elementary ELA, down 1/2 a percentage point from 2017.

In 3-5 math, 18.6% of African American students are proficient, up almost one percentage point from 2017.

In middle school, the percentage of African American students proficient in ELA is up 2.3 percentage points to 16.9%. That is the largest gain - two percentage points. The strategic plan calls for 12 percentage points over two years.

The percentage of African American 6-8th graders scoring proficient in math is down 2.3 percentage points.

In that same time, the percent of white students scoring proficient or better in ELA increased — 2.5 percentage points in elementary school and a 5.5 percentage points in middle school. Elementary math increased 4 percentage points, and middle school math dropped 0.7%.

For all the turmoil, for all the leeway granted regarding hiring and purchasing and programming — African American students’ scores have a net change of less than 1 percent.

How was that presented to the public?

The 2019 press release read, "We are very proud of the tremendous growth those schools have made thus far," states Dr. Demond Means, CCSD Superintendent. "Although we are not satisfied with our performance as compared to the state average and neighboring districts, we have a clear plan for school improvement."

At the November board meeting he stated, "We are pleased that some of our schools have made gains. There are some schools that have not made gains. Overall, our school district is not performing at the level we would like.”

The press release was so innocuous, no one wrote about it. Classic City News posted the press release — and that’s all we knew about this year’s data. It was an odd release, given that a number of the schools lauded for “tremendous growth” didn’t show even the minimal growth required by the district’s own strategic plan. They certainly didn’t exceed the state average as required by the state charter.

In two years, we have gone from crying over the data to sounding mildly disappointed by it, despite there being little change. We’ve gone from sounding alarms to writing such vanilla press releases that one has to wonder if they were written with the goal of not getting picked up.

"But wait," you might say. "What about all those twitter posts celebrating achievement and all the cheers at the pep rally?"

Yes, the district did share some of the gains made in content mastery scores. The 2017 data ignored content mastery to focus on proficient vs not proficient in Milestones. This is an important distinction.

The recent data release did not compare like to like. Milestones proficiency is not the same as content mastery.

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CCRPI vs PROFICIENCY DATA

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Content Mastery scores apply weights to the each category of Milestones scores. Beginning Learners earn 0 points, Developing Learners earn 0.5 points, Proficient Learners earn 1.0 point, and Distinguished Learners earn 1.5 points.

Let me say for the record, I think this more accurately reflects what’s happening in schools. I think that the partial proficiency the state assigns to developing learners is important, and that we lose important information by lumping it together with beginning learners.

I shared that with Dr. Means in October 2017, and we began a series of (cordial!) emails and an in person meeting between October and December 2017. He adamantly disagreed, as is his right as the chief educator. I was just an LSGT member, a role I took seriously, hence the conversations. One of my points then: “If you look at the weighted percentages, double the number of [African American] students were proficient in ELA (34.86%) and in Math (38.5%)."

Dr. Means made it clear that he was not going to use weighted percentages: “When it comes to the need for a singular target, under my leadership, the district will use the target of the percentage of students in the proficient or distinguished categories (or as you referred to, Level 3 and Level 4). In recent past, the district has hedged in its reporting of Georgia Milestones data to our stakeholders.”

In our communications, Dr. Means also said, “I would respectfully submit that the weighted percentage model is not as transparent to the community related to the true performance of the students in CCSD.”

“Any expectation less than proficiency is lowering the academic bar for our students,” he said.

>>>>>>>>>>>If using weighted percentages was not transparent to the community in 2017, if it indicated lowering the standard, why is it appropriate now?<<<<<<<<<<<<<

All of the data that was cheered at the pep rally and the few data points mentioned in the press release were related to content mastery (the weighted percentages) or overall CCRPI scores (one single score that combines scores in content mastery, progress, closing the gap, readiness, and graduation rate).

In a personal communication, Means wrote, “As I established in my previous letter, I respectfully disagree with your definition of a ‘proficient’ student.” (Technically it was the state’s definition of proficient, not mine.)

Means continued, “Please know that we will construct a curricular, instructional, and assessment infrastructure that will not only measure proficiency based on level 3 and 4 achievements, but also recognize and celebrate the academic growth of all students.”

The proficiency data has been available since early summer. It’s almost December and I have not read anywhere that the percentage of Black students scoring proficient in 6-8 math and 3-5 language has declined, while the percentage of white students scoring proficient has increased in language and elementary math. The scores of Hispanic students changed a bit, between -1.3% and 3.5%. I have not seen anyone mention the shocking drop in scores of Asian students, down almost 20 percentage points in elementary language and more than 5 in math.

If we are really going to celebrate ALL students, why hasn’t anyone mentioned that the subgroup with the greatest increase in K-8 was English Learners? The percentage of English Learners proficient in middle school math jumped more than 21 percentage points and elementary ELA more than 11 percentage points. When do they get recognition? Is the banner celebrating EL teachers on back order?

By downplaying the bad, we also miss the good. Sure there were celebrations at the pep rally, but they seem to have missed the story.

For example, the youtube post celebrating JJ Harris read, “In 2017, JJ Harris received a CCRPI score of 59.2. In the two years since, the school raised its CCRPI score by over 18 points, with growth of 16 points from 2018 to 2019.”

One problem -- you can't compare 2017 CCRPI to 2019 CCRPI. From the state site:

"Note: The 2018 CCRPI uses an updated calculation approved as part of Georgia's state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 2018 scores are NOT comparable to any prior year. Any comparison, or statement that a school or district's scores have "risen" or "dropped," is incorrect."

There was plenty to celebrate in JJ Harris's scores beyond content mastery, which for me falls in the “pliable” category.

The percentage of Hispanic students scoring proficient or better skyrocketed: 15.8 percentage point increase in language and 13.4% in math.

Hispanic students make up 2/3 of the population at JJ Harris, so to have moved about 15% of the majority of students to proficient is an enormous accomplishment.

Unfortunately, whatever changes they made did not have the same impact on African American students, who make up the other third of the population. There, language increased by 1% and math decreased by 5.8%.

Isn’t this exactly what everyone was saying the problem was in 2017? Celebrating increases while obscuring the lack of progress for Black students? Perhaps Lanoue is not the only superintendent whose data presentations were not “transparent to the community related to the true performance of the students in CCSD.”

If you watch the video outlining the changes JJ Harris has made, you’ll probably be impressed. I was. I feel certain that they are having this conversation in house and they are devising a plan to see why their changes that were so impactful for Hispanic students were not so for African American students. I also think Dr. Harper is one of the best educators in the county, so I have a lot of faith that her team is going to be on this.

What other stories are we missing by being less than transparent in data releases?

Let’s look at Oglethorpe Ave. who was not mentioned in the press release nor, as far as I know, at the pep rallies.

The percentage of Black students who scored proficient on language increased by 5.2 percentage points and increased by 8.2 in math. Those are some of the bigger increases across the district.

Even better, the percentage of Oglethorpe Ave’s African American students scoring proficient in science is 35%, far outperforming the district average of 14% proficiency and even outperforming the state average (26%).

Same story in social studies: 23% of African American students were proficient in SS, compared to 7% district-wide and 17% in the state.

This is huge news. They must be on to something at OAES and maybe that something could work district wide. It has to be noticed first, though.

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If we were in crisis in 2017, we still are now. Add to that the staggering turn over in the district and the increasing unrest, one might say we are in more of a crisis now. And that could be fine. Learning is uncomfortable and we are talking about institutional learning -- learning how our educational institutions are failing students of color, students with special needs, and impoverished students is bound to be uncomfortable.

But we can't make progress in this if we continue to allow leaders to spin data. We allowed it with Lanoue, and despite the outrage once we realized that's what happened, we are allowing it again.

For all the equity and accountability talk among the adults, the students are no better off.

I know this will be spun as an attack on Means and I have no control over that. I guess if that's the route you're taking, ask yourself why pointing to data that indicates there is still a crisis surrounding how Black students are being educated is an attack on a person, and why defending an adult is more important than being honest about what’s impacting children.

If your stance has been that you are providing a voice for or shining a light on those who don't have the agency to speak, here is your chance. Look past the spin, the drama, the rhetoric and notice that the needle has not moved at all. Disenfranchised students don't benefit from spin and blind support. If this is truly about them (and it should be) then they deserve for the community to ignore the politics and to honestly assess where we are and how we can get better.

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NOTES

* The 2017 data wasn’t all about test scores; it also revealed enormous disparity in discipline data. As of November 2019, I have not seen a discussion with the public about discipline data. Even with limiting this discussion to just test scores, this is already way too long so I’ll have to tackle discipline another time.

My comparison also leaves out high school scores simply because they are much more time consuming to compile, especially for comparison between 2019 and 2017. I’ll leave that to the people paid to do this kind of work.

Sources:

Most can be looked up on the state data sites, Flagpole, and ABH.

All personal communications (Means and Bybee) are here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1udpIm8bxwW0hby07PIzuusQKQi6gfKV3?usp=sharing

You might need to Open Records Request the 2017 data. Those files are titled:

Data Notebook 2017, specifically Section C, 2017 Milestones Subgroup Data

Section Z is interesting, too, showing what the original targets were for proficiency in 2019.

Karen Sweeney Gerow is a former CCSD Teacher and founding director of the private Double Helix STEAM School in Athens

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