by Max Brantley
I wrote yesterday about what I thought was inordinate attention given by both the University of Arkansas school reformers and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to a statewide ranking of every school in Arkansas according to its composite score on the Iowa Test, a national standardized test.
My complaint — as ever — was about the fallacy of comparing disparate school populations by a single number, particularly given the demonstrable impact of poverty on education. I'm happy to report now that the UA has enhanced its reporting with data by which you can analyze which schools departed from expectations based on family income, in both good and bad directions.
UPDATE: OK, I think. At this link, you can find a link to an Excel spreadsheet with all the average Iowa test scores for every school in Arkansas. The data includes the racial enrollment and poverty index of each school. Poverty index is computed by the number of free and reduced price lunch students. A reduced price student counts as 1 and a free lunch student counts as 2. Thus, as I understand it, a school comprised entirely of students qualifying for free lunches — the poorest families — would have a 200 index. Tabs at the bottom of the spread sheet take you to a figuring of average scores within groupings of low, medium and high poverty schools. By this, you can measure whether a specific school, based on poverty, is above or below average in student performance among similar schools.
High stakes test results can cut both ways, as I illustrated yesterday by cherry picking some conventional Little Rock public schools that outscored highly touted charter schools despite poorer students. I readily conceded then, and again, that evidence undoubtedly exists to prove just about anything using a single test score and carefully selected school comparisons.
But I can't suppress a smile at seeing further use of the Walton-financed University of Arkansas research by those still working in behalf of the beleaguered conventional public schools in the Delta. Here, Andrew Bagley, a blogger in Helena-West Helena, notes how Phillips County school districts (including Helena, Marvell and Barton) compared with the heralded KIPP Academies, charter schools supported by significant contributions from the Billionaires Boys Club. With all respect for Andrew, I'd be the first to say that, based on what I've read over the years, I'd still lean toward KIPP as the choice for my kids over the ongoing administrative chaos in the Helena-West Helena schools if I lived there. But if you believe the numbers — and the billionaires love NOTHING so much as numbers — perhaps the situation isn't precisely as the charter school PR machinery has depicted.
PS — In Little Rock, where an eStem charter school leader has been attorney for the effort attempting to tear down the Little School District with unlimited charter development, it's interesting to note that eStem schools at every grade level fell well behind peers in demographic makeup. It's Iowa Test averages of 63, 55 and 52 at the elementary, middle and high school levels fell, respectively, 6, 5 and 8 points behind the average scores statewide of schools with similarly low enrollments of low-income children. KIPP school scores are about average against similar schools.