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Posted: 7:05 p.m. Saturday, April 26, 2014

Digging deeper into new school grades reveals some surprises and some inspiration 

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By Maureen Downey

In my interviews with the candidates for DeKalb school board, I asked why Gwinnett outpaces DeKalb in academic performance and what DeKalb might learn from its neighbor. 

As I noted in an earlier blog, some DeKalb candidates did not think there was much to learn. I think that’s wrong, and here is more evidence from Jarod Apperson on why other counties should pay attention to what Gwinnett is doing. Apperson is a 2006 New York University finance and accounting graduate who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in economics from Georgia State University.  In his Grading Atlanta blog, he applies forensic accounting to school data. I have shared his analyses in the past.

This week he went beyond APS and delved into the College and Career Readiness Performance Index released Monday by the state Department of Education.

Go to his Grading Atlanta blog to check out his interactive charts that relate the school index scores to the free and reduced lunch populations. What he concludes is not surprising: The schools with top grades are also largely those with the fewest low-income kids.

He notes:

While the measure is certainly an improvement on the rudimentary Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark developed under No Child Left Behind, it can hardly be called a success.  It continues to miss the most important element of effective evaluations: expected performance.

Few would be shocked to learn that students who live in wealthy neighborhoods and have educated parents on average score higher on the CRCT than students who live in poor neighborhoods and have uneducated parents.  Yet, the majority of CCRPI points are awarded with no consideration of expected achievement.  Therefore, the measure is intrinsically biased.

This is problematic on both ends of the spectrum.  Schools with low-poverty populations are uniformly receiving high scores while schools with high-poverty populations are consistently receiving low scores.  Both are missing out on useful feedback.  If the intention of the measure is to let school and district leaders know where they stand, achievement should be measured relative to peer schools. 

After looking at the data, Apperson makes a statement about DeKalb that will not surprise metro school observers But they might be surprised about what he notes about Cherokee's performance:

Two districts in the metro are solidly underachievers.  Both DeKalb County and Cherokee county see most of their schools fall below the line.  Again, this message is muddled in the CCRPI releases. DeKalb is recognized as a low achiever because it has high poverty, but Cherokee is thought to do fine.  It’s only when one benchmarks the county’s schools to others with similar FRL rates that the message becomes clear: Cherokee has some serious work to do.

Apperson finds the alignment between wealth and performance predictable except for one district. Here is what he says about Gwinnett County Schools:

One district in the metro stands heads and tails above the rest, and that district is Gwinnett County.  As shown in the graph below, virtually all schools in the county outperform what would be expected based on their Free and Reduced Lunch rates.  Even at Corley Elementary School where 95% of students are low-income and almost all are Hispanic/Black, achievement is stellar.  Gwinnett County is “bending the curve,” a strong signal that something operationally is working right.  We should be learning from the district and highlighting their success, but because the data distributed by the state fails to adequately account for expected performance, that message is lost in the headlines.

The interviews I did with the candidates for the DeKalb school board are now online. You can check them out here.

This was not an AJC effort, but a project of civic organizations that created the voter education campaign, "It's For Them, DeKalb." 

These are lengthy interviews of 19 candidates of the 22 school board candidates. (Two candidates did not participate, and the uncontested District 1 race was not included.)

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

Connect with Maureen Downey on:FacebookTwitter

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