Monday, March 8, 2010

Achievement gap targets: law or fraud on the public?

I woke up this morning to an account of brave Americans marching forty-five years ago to insist that the right to vote--long enshrined in the Constitution--would become reality rather than fraud. I decided it was time to say that Kentucky, in the past decade, had fallen painfully short of its own commitment to walk steadily toward educational equity.

In 2002, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 168 on achievement gaps.  As originally written, the law specified that:
  • The Department of Education was report to each school on disaggregated results by race, gender, disability, English proficiency, and participation in the federal free and reduced price lunch program.
  • Each school council was to agree with its superintendent and board on two-year targets to eliminate those gaps.
  • Each local board would decide if its schools met those targets two years later.
  • If a school missed a target, the superintendent would have to approve the school's plans for professional development and extended school services.
  • If a school missed the same target twice, the commissioner of education would have to approve the entire school improvement plan.
That process was to repeat in two-year cycles, so that fall 2004 would be the first time superintendents would have approval authority and fall 2006 the first time the commissioner would.   Fall 2008 would be another occasion for commissioner approval of schools that had twice fallen short.

The idea was to be impatient about solving the problem, with just one cycle of councils having independent  responsibility, one cycle of shared council and central office responsibility, and then seriously shared council, district, and KDE responsibility.

2009's Senate Bill 1 appears to ratchet up the level of impatience, calling for one-year targets and one-year cycles of moving power to higher levels.

Only, I don't believe anything in that law is happening consistently across the state.

Why not?

Because I have seen too many school plans with no gap targets and too many with targets defined in a way that would make it impossible for a school board to decide whether the target was met or not.

Realizing I might have missed a meaningful change in the last couple of years, I chose ten districts at random, and checked on-line for their high schools' school improvement plans.

Two high schools had plans available with 2010 numerical targets that allow the law to be implemented:
  • Letcher County Central High School is aiming for “a free/reduced meal student index of 76 in 2010; and a students with disabilities index of 66 in 2010”
  • Washington County High School's commitment is that "60% of the students in the Free & Reduced lunch subgroup will score Proficient or Distinguished in Math on the 2010 KCCT."
I found three more high schools that describe 2010 targets, but in unclear or unspecific ways that will not allow the law to be applied:
  • Bardstown High School's target is  that “By May 2010, 10% of students who did not meet proficiency of Bardstown High School's NCLB subgroups will reach their NCLB math proficiency target of 59.88 as measured on the Kentucky Core Content Test.”
  • Owensboro High School says it will “Reduce racial and SES achievement gaps by 10% annually.”  That could mean too many things: is it about the gap in percent proficient in each subject, by scale scores in each subject, by an index, or by another number? The multiple possible meanings end up  with no clear way to say whether the targets are met or not.
  • Fulton Independent has a district plan because they operate as a single-school district. Their plan says “To eliminate significant achievement gaps for all disaggregated categories at all grade levels as measured by the 2010 KCCT assessment.”  As with the Owensboro goals, that could mean too many different things. 
Two schools had 2010 plans that listed no gap targets at all:
  • Henry County High School
  • Russell High School
Three did not have 2010 plans or have not made them available on their websites
  • Campbellsville High School did not appear to have a plan on line.
  • Dawson Springs had a link for improvement plans, but the school plans listed were for 2004-06.
  • Meade County had a link for school plans, but the link for the high school downloaded the district plan.
What does this mean? The simple thing it means that only one-fifth of the schools I checked had published targets clear enough to allow the law to be implemented.

The larger thing it means that KDE has not taken serious responsiblity for the law getting implemented. In 2006, if the Commissioner had taken his duty to approve plans seriously, he would also have noticed how many targets were too vague, and he could have insisted on improvement. In 2008, he could have done the same thing. The fact that so many targets are too vague to enforce in 2010 is clear proof that the law has not been taken seriously since 2002.

Originally, I had my doubts about SB 168, because No Child Left Behind had already set goals for reducing gaps and Kentucky's SBDM law already required council plans to reduce gaps.  When the time for committee votes came, though, and I had to speak for the Kentucky Association of School Councils, I couldn't bring myself to speak against a sincere effort to tackle the terrible gaps that weaken so many individual students and with them our shared life as a community and our future as a state.

On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, there were three possible roles: you could be a marcher moving forward for freedom, or you could bar the marchers' way, or you could be a by-stander who let justice go on waiting and your neighbors go on getting bloodied.

Kentucky achievement gaps are not the same as the right to vote, but they are not an entirely separate issue in the effort to live out the true meaning of our creed.  In Kentucky, now, I think we should stop being bystanders.  We should either walk forward seriously to implement SB 168 or replace it with a different but equally firm commitment on educating all children and walk forward seriously to implement that.

Side notes on the schools I selected: First, I was quite impressed by other features of the plans I found, especially in their commitment to formative assessment and collaboration around improving student work.  Letcher County Central's plan struck me as especially solid work.  Second, to choose districts,  I rolled three dice, turned up a thirteen, took Campbellsville as the thirteenth district alphabetically, counted off every 17th district after that, and looped back around at the end to select Bardstown. And finally, I'll be happy to update this post if I missed anything I should have included about the improvement plans for the schools I included.

1 comment:

  1. What does this say about the effectiveness of our SBDM councils? If they are the ones responsible for writing fuzzy goals instead of true measures, what real hope is there for closing the gap?


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