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September 27th, 1999

The Editorial Page Editor
"Letters to the Editor"
Times Picayune
New Orleans, Louisiana


Following your publication of the article on school performance, I spent some time reviewing the numbers provided the State Board of Education, particularly, their "School Score" and their "Poverty" percentages.

I have appended to this cover letter: my "Letter to the Editor", and; some graphs. The graphs were produced using a spreadsheet program (QuattroPro) using the data you provided in the newspaper of the approximately 260 schools. To the best of my knowledge, the graphs accurately represent the data you published.

The graphs are relevant because they highlight the extraordinary relationship between "poverty"(1) and the "scores", and raise further questions, not answered by the State Board.

The graphs I am giving you are titled:
1. Rank vs Poverty-Score: All Area Schools
2. Poverty vs Score: All Area Schools
3. Poverty vs Score: [Schools] With Elem[entary school] Students [- All Schools]
4. Poverty vs Score: Orleans Elem[entary School] Students
5. Poverty vs Score: [All] Orleans Students
6. Poverty vs Score: Non-Orleans students

I am also providing you with a printout of the background data which produced these graphs.

Some Notes:

a. Graph 1 states the obvious: that as rank goes down, scores drop. It also demonstrates that rank and score are related to poverty
b. Graphs 2-6 relate "Poverty" and "Score"
c. Graphs 2-6 have a linear fit produced by the QuattroPro. Produced by a least squares calculation, it visualizes a trend. Variations of actual data away from this line show only that the linear model is not accurate [that is, that there is not an exact linear relationship between "poverty" and "score"]
d. Graphs 2-6 are scaled alike; you can hold them up to a light for comparison. Variations in the scaling would minimize or maximize visual impact of the trend

There are questions that I address in my "Letter to the Editor", which follows, questions which I think you should follow up on. These include:

1. Why hasn't anyone compared these factors [poverty and score] on a student by student basis? For a better definition of "poverty", a replacement for that, in fact. For each student, a ranking could be obtained by grading such factors as family income; a stable family address; a stable household with 1 or more parents; that student's parent's involvement in school, PTA and/or homework; an evaluation of parental literacy. Add a few more factors suspected to degrade or improve student performance: class size, number of disruptive students in that student's class, and you end up a pretty broad picture of what actually affects a student's grade. If, with other factors being equal, a student's school site tends to degrade that student's "score", then, and only then can you safely say that a particular school [with its specific collection of local management and staff] is bad.

2. With the data presented by the State Board, why hasn't anyone even asked: "since poverty is so clearly related to school scores, what is it that causes subtle variations in scores for schools with similar "poverty" levels? Consider these:

a. Some schools have a disproportionate number of students who are either disruptive or special education students

b. Some schools have special admission policies.

c. Some schools, and its principal and teachers, over or under emphasize "teaching the test", rather than teaching the student, and rather than providing each student the maximum opportunity to learn.

3. Many schools in the ranking, outside of New Orleans, have multiple grade levels. There is no focus on the fact that the LEAP and IOWA tests, like many standardized tests given by the school system over the years, are given in specific grade levels. Each of these tests have different reliability and scope -- some tests evaluate rote learning susceptible to bias by teaching the test. From school to school, there aren't the same tests because the school grades don't match from school to school. Despite this, extraordinarily, the school scoring system compares K-6 schools with schools with lower elementary only with schools with grades K-12. Teaching failures of some schools in some grades would be masked by the performance in other grades.

These questions, and many more like them, are unanswered, and render the evaluation system chosen by the State Board to be biased and unfair, and, most importantly, useless. They are asking the wrong questions.

Personally, I think the T-P, and other papers, should more closely evaluate these factors. Besides me, there are a slew of professionals [teachers, university faculty, experts in statistics everywhere] that could point out the failures of this ranking.

I think you need to raise these issues, and speak out editorially against the means by which the state board is grading schools.


s/ John Ruskin
B.S. / M.S., engineering, J.D.

Footnote 1. How the State Board of Education comes up with this figure is not addressed.

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