Columns » Max Brantley

Education by the numbers

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette opened the new year with three Sunday newspaper pages devoted to a ranking of every school in Arkansas, more than 1,000, by a two-digit number based on the Iowa Test taken by more than 350,000 Arkansas students.

This ranking was close to valueless. What's far more interesting is a fuller accounting of the ranking, also devised by the University of Arkansas's Office of Education Policy. That office, please note, generally tends to support the "reform" agenda of the Waltons, UA financial patrons — pro-charter; anti-union.

Gary Ritter, who holds a Walton-endowed chair at UA, told the Democrat-Gazette that the simplified ranking is "darn close" to a ranking of Arkansas schools by the family income. Notable exception: A kindergarten in impoverished Helena-West Helena, now closed, finished No. 1 in the ranking. Go figure.

Ritter thus acknowledged, in an underplayed D-G sidebar, the core of our education dilemma. The best predictor of school failure is poverty. Race, because it's so often intertwined, is another good predictor. So when a charter school with a majority of middle income kids and a black minority touts its scores against a majority poor, majority black school district, it's a dishonest comparison.

Take Little Rock, where the eStem charter school — richly supported by the wealthiest businessmen in Arkansas — advertises its test scores against those of the Little Rock School District, which is much poorer.

If test scores have meaning, they must measure similarly situated students. The UA has made a stab at doing that, by computing a poverty index for each and then grouping the schools within three categories of family income. It then computes how each school's Iowa test average deviated from the average in its income group.

Take eStem, a downtown Little Rock showcase for the Billionaire Boys Club's charter movement. The school's Board chair and lawyer, Jess Askew, has led the legal fight to oppose the Little Rock School District's federal court argument that magnet and interdistrict programs have been damaged by the state's encouragement of open enrollment charter schools, which have taken better students. Askew pontificated after a recent ruling, "The charter schools seek to drive fundamental change that will enhance public education options and outcomes for children and to break away from failed and outmoded thinking."

Really? The eStem elementary school scored at 63 on the Iowa Test, against a 69 average by similarly low poverty elementary schools. Its middle school, at a 55 score, fell five points behind the state average in its group. Its high school, at 52, fell 8 points behind average.

The "failed and outmoded" Little Rock School District? eStem didn't look so hot by a number of comparisons. Among elementary schools with similar economic makeup, Williams, Gibbs, Jefferson, Fulbright, Forest Park and Don Roberts scored from 5 to 19 points higher on average than eStem.

The only Little Rock middle school in the low poverty category, Pulaski Heights, scored six points higher than eStem. Central High School, the only Little Rock high school in the low poverty category by the UA computation, scored one point higher than eStem. Parkview, in a poorer economic category, still matched eStem's 9th-grade scores.

If I had space, I'd detail the relatively minor differences between scores by the vaunted KIPP Academy in Helena-West Helena and those of several nearby public schools, even with KIPP's advantage of a self-selected (read motivated) student body that must meet rigorous standards or be booted.

Oh, and I meant to mention: In some cases, the Little Rock schools that outscored eStem had a smaller percentage of black students and higher family incomes. But I know that eStem's Jess Askew would never argue that test score differences could be explained by anything other than superior instruction and "fundamental change" to "outmoded" methods.

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