Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Spinning the ACT results

The "upbeat" message from our state's education establishment on the Michigan Merit Exam results - the MME - is more disheartening than the results themselves.

This new test measures student learning and was given to ALL Michigan 11th graders for the first time in the Spring of 2007.

The following opinion piece shares my views on the "spin" factor applied to
statewide test results:

Oakland Press: Schools will put spin on ACT results (9/2/07)

Let’s start with the facts. Here are the percentage of students that passed the MME by subject:

English 51.0%
Math 46.5%
Reading 59.7%
Science 55.9%
Writing 40.1%
Social Studies 83.3%

You’d think that parents would be ready to overthrow the state AND local leadership with results like this. But, most parents probably don’t know what these scores really mean. It’s no wonder given the “spin” offered by education officials.

[Note: You can find your schools MME summary results here. An Excel datafile with all results (including your school, whether public or non-public) is also available for MME Results and ACT Results]

Let's be clear: The responsibility for these disappointing scores does not rest entirely with educators. Parents need to step up to their own responsibilities, intervening when necessary to motivate and direct their own children.

But rather than allowing these disappointing scores to serve as a badly needed wake-up call, schools chose to send a unified "All's well" message throughout Michigan.

The responsible thing to do is to admit that we've got a problem, but do so in a way that doesn't undermine the public's confidence in their schools. If anyone reading this comes across an example of such leadership, please send it my way!

I'm not sure which is more disturbing: educators who brag publicly about poor results, or a news media that abandons its role of government watchdog,to become the education establishment's lapdog - dutifully reporting press releases as news, without fact-checking or civic-minded analysis.

Here are a few examples:

From the Tri-County Times

During Linden's Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, Superintendent Elizabeth Leonard said the MME test results for Linden was "wonderful news." She told board members that for the past five years, Linden's totals have always been above the state average and have always been in the top five or six in the county.

"That's a great tribute to the community," she said.

Interim Linden High School Principal Russ Ciesielski said his students did "extremely well compared to the state averages."

The facts: 48 percent of Linden’s students failed English, and 39.8 percent failed math.

This concept of comparing to statewide averages is the common spin tactic, as if being above the Michigan average is some significant accomplishment. Keep in mind that only 40,000 students – out of 114,000 – actually passed all of the MME components. That is roughly 35 percent, or a little over 1 in 3 students.

From the Livonia Eccentric:

LPS director of academic services Sheila Alles said she is pleased that LPS topped state averages.

The facts: 55.3 percent of Livonia students passed math; 653 out of 1460 did not pass.

The Detroit News ran a piece entitled, "Merit test scores fall short" (found here), which is about the only objective and relatively comprehensive coverage I've seen on the subject.

This noteworthy quote appropriately calls for educator and parent involvement: "I am very, very disappointed in the test results," said Michael Horn, principal of Southfield High School, where students struggled in math and writing. "All of us are at fault. We must acknowledge that. We failed our kids."

Yet that article also resorted to statewide comparisons, "In Metro Detroit, Livingston County schools posted the best results on average, leading the four counties and exceeding the state averages in math, reading, science and social studies."

Here are the facts on Math:

- Students Passing Math in Howell: 50.8
- Students Passing Math in Pickney: 60.2%
- Students Passing Math in Brighton: 71.2%
- Students Passing Math in Fowlerville: 42.7%
- Students Passing Math in Heartland: 60.1%

The top district in county had less than 1 out of 4 kids pass math. In total, 897 of the county’s children (out of 2167) failed math, which equals a failure rate of 41.4 percent.

Countless stories like these ran in newspapers throughout Michigan last week, reporting mediocre results as "above average", and reassuring the casual reader that "all is well", when it clearly is not.

The spinning comes from all levels: State Board of Education President Kathleen N. Straus said, "these results were expected because the state's new mandatory curriculum, geared toward boosting standards, hadn't yet been implemented when the test was administered."

"It sounds terrible, but I don't think it's as bad as people think," she said. As the new content is added to classes, results will improve, she said. "This is a transitional period."

Transition from what? Weren't high schools expected to prepare kids for college before last year? I think they were expected to do that 25 years ago when I was in high school!

Relatively speaking, some of the districts should take pride in the fact that they were able to guide their students to superior scores. But these underwhelming scores should not be a cause for celebration, even among the "top districts".

Let's acknowledge that some districts have a good head start (compared to others) in their efforts in preparing their students for college, but let's also recognize that we've got a long journey ahead of us!

1 comment:

Mike Reno said...

A letter in Friday's Oakland Press reinforced my concern over this "spin". I really hope that newspapers begin to realize that they cannot continue to be the publishing arm of education.

Schools need to be honest about test score results

Thank you for printing the guest opinion “Schools Will Put Spin on ACT Results” in your Forum section.

The author was right on target when he described how the talented and powerful public relations machines of our school districts and even our state will spin test results and other school news to make the schools look good.

This spin is misleading to the public, a detriment to our students and a major reason why our schools are in such trouble.

An article in another newspaper about the MME/ACT results was obviously derived from a school press release. It explained how wonderful the district did because students exceeded state averages. Never once did it explain what the numbers really meant.

One figure showed students scored 52.7 in math, which means that 52.7 percent of the students are proficient in math.

This is unacceptable, and we should be worried about the 47 percent that are not profi cient.
Other figures were 64 percent of students are proficient in reading, 51.8 percent in writing, 60 percent in language arts, 61.4 percent in science and 87 percent in social studies.

Again, these numbers may be above the state average, but what about the large percentages of students who are not proficient in these areas?

For the sake of the students and our future, the media needs to explain these numbers to the public.

Reprinting a glowing press release from a district about being “above state average” does not do our students justice.

Districts should certainly not be bragging because they exceeded the state average.

Donna Gundle-Krieg