Grade inflation still rife at ‘turnaround’ high schools

A year ago, hundreds of Chaparral students gathered outside the local Las Vegas high school, chanting “Let’s go, Cowboys!” and “We are Chap!” — expressing support for teachers and staff who’d just been told they faced being replaced this year for their utter academic failure.

Add one more charge to the indictment: Outside of cheerleading, pep rallies, and “Be True to Your school” cliches, they’d apparently managed to keep these kids unaware of just how badly their teachers and administrators had failed them.

Chaparral was one of five “persistently low-performing” schools identified by incoming Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones last March as eligible for federal School Improvement Grants that could bring the district millions of dollars in funds. The others included Mojave and Western high schools.

Under the rules of the grant program, though, the five schools had to be reorganized. Staff members had to reapply to keep their jobs this year; schools were limited to rehiring 50 percent of the original staff. Principals who’d been in place at those schools for three or more years had to be reassigned. Employees who were not hired back were free to apply for other district vacancies.

Chaparral Principal Kevin McPartlin informed school staff he was not coming back. Mojave dumped Principal Charity Varnado. On the other hand, Western Principal Neddy Alvarez, a newcomer, retained his position.

Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards emphasized “No one is losing their job or being laid off” — indicating a big part of the problem: No punishment for failure in the government schools.

I wrote about the problem in a piece called “The Test Scores from Hell,” a year and a half ago. At the end of December, 2009, Chaparral kids taking Algebra I and their families were told 26.8 percent of those kids were passing that course; 73.1 percent were flunking. Bad enough, But when those kids took their district-wide “Common Assessment” test in that subject, only 3.8 percent passed; 96.2 percent failed.

That’s grade inflation verging on fraud.

Things were arguably worse at Mojave, two years back. Families of kids taking Algebra I were informed 50.3 percent of those kids had passing grades; 49.7 percent were flunking.

Since a normal grade distribution should show a pass-fail ratio of at least 80-20 — assuming teachers in the lower grades promoted only kids who were ready for the next year’s course work, the most basic definition of their job — that’s not great.

But then those kids took the Common assessment exam. Only 8.5 percent passed; 91.5 percent failed.

The Mojave teachers who issued most of those “passing grade” report cards should teach Creative Writing, with a speciality in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The situation with Algebra II at Mojave was worse, believe it or not. 60.1 percent of kids were told they were passing. But when they took the standardized, district-wide test, 95.5 percent of those kids flunked.

At Western High School? In the middle of the 2009-2010 school year, students and their families were told 66.2 percent of kids taking Algebra II were passing; 33.8 percent were flunking. Yet when they took the standardized exam, 3 percent passed; 97 percent failed.

But at least no one who was responsible for any of this Duke-and-Dauphin chicanery “lost their job or was laid off.” What a relief to know they’re still out there, continuing their good works!

This school year’s new federal grant money — for tutoring, teacher training, “innovative new academic programs” or “sustaining successful programs” at schools so miserable they had to lie in the bottom 5 percent for scores on state proficiency exams, with graduation rates consistently below 60 percent — required “a complete change in how you do business,” said School Board President Edwards.

(As an “empowerment school,” given more autonomy for innovation, Chaparral had already received an extra $100,000 over the previous two years from the Nevada Women’s Philanthropy.)

MAJORITY STILL FAILING

My bet would be that the money alone will accomplish nothing, as usual. After all, America’s schools are the best funded in the world, yet the quality of their output has been tanking for 50 years — if not 70. Our government-school teachers don’t take advanced degrees in math and history; they get their degrees in a major few other nations in the world recognize as legitimate, called “pedagogy.” High school kids no longer learn even modern languages, let alone Latin or Old English. (Many European high school seniors can discuss AMERICAN history and politics more knowledgeably than ours — in your choice of three languages.) And as for the calculus and other math at a level necessary to produce future engineers: Hire an Asian.

But as for the staff shakeup, the new paint jobs and a reported new emphasis on academic rigor at the district’s three “turnaround” high schools: The jury is still out, with the testing trend at all three showing some measurable improvement … albeit without actually reaching a sustainable 50 percent pass rate, anywhere, to date.

At Chaparral High School, the percentage of young scholars able to pass their first semester common assessment exams in Algebra I improved from 3.8 percent at the end of 2009 to 21.6 percent at the end of 2010 to 28.9 percent at the end of 2011 — still less than one third.

The percentage of Algebra II students at Chaparral passing their Common Assessment exams moved from 5.2 percent at the end of 2009 to 8.9 percent in 2010 to 29.9 percent in 2011. Again, movement in the right direction, but still a 70 percent rate of failure.

Geometry? Here the Chaparral kids are doing better than any other group in the three schools we’re examining — though half are still flunking. Those passing the common assessment climbed from 15 percent in 2009 to 33.1 percent in 2010 to 49.7 percent this winter.

At Mojave High School, The first semester “pass” rate on the Common Assessment in Algebra I dropped from 8.5 percent in 2009 to 7.5 percent in 2010, but then climbed to 15.5 percent in 2011.

Algebra II kids at Mojave are going nowhere. Yes, the number of kids taking this class has climbed from 157 to 202. But the “pass” rate, meantime, has gone from 4.5 percent in 2009 to an astonishingly pathetic 0.7 percent in 2010, right back to 4.5 percent in 2011. This winter, after all the “turnaround” rhetoric, more than 95 percent of 202 students still couldn’t pass the standard Algebra II exam at Hojave High School.

In Geometry, the first semester exam “pass” rate at Mojave has gone from 16 percent to 17 percent to 31.3 percent this year — a nice jump, though still below one-third success.

At Western High School, the first semester Algebra I exam “pass” rate went from 11.6 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2010 to 22.9 percent this winter.

Algebra II students at Western, meantime, can’t break out of single digits. The pass rate on the first semester exams there have gone from 3.1 percent to 8.7 percent to 6.1 percent.

Geometry students at Western do better, presumably (hopefully?) because you can’t get into a geometry class unless you’ve already passed some form of algebra. The “pass” rate there climbed from 13.9 percent in 2009 to an encouraging 51.1 percent in 2010 — but then fell again this year, with only 20.9 percent of the 507 kids taking geometry classes managing to pass the Common Semester exam.

How do these sobering test results relate to the grades parents are seeing on report cards?

At Chaparral, 103 kids out of 314 taking Algebra I this winter took home grades of A through C; 81 were awarded “D”s, while 130 flunked. So parents were told 59 percent of kids were passing (assuming we call a “D” a passing grade), and “only” 41 percent were flunking. But 71 percent actually flunked when it came time to take the Common Assessment.

Those report-card grades still seem to be spiked with helium.

How about Geometry at Chaparral? Out of 846 kids taking the course last fall, 349 took home grades between A and C; 244 got “D”s; 253 were awarded “F”s. Again, assuming a “D” is a passing grade, parents were told 70 percent of kids in this course were passing, 30 percent were failing. In fact, slightly more than 50 percent failed their Common Assessment test, though here at least the “grade inflation” gaps seems to be shrinking.

In Algebra I at Mohave High School, 409 kids finished a semester’s work. 139 drew grades from A to C; 112 got “D”s, while 158 received “F”s. So, parents were told 61 percent of kids were receiving passing grades, while about 39 percent were failing. Yet when it came time to take their standardized exam, fewer than 16 percent of those Mojave kids could score the required 60 percent or higher to achieve a passing grade, this winter.

HOW LONG?

Let’s look at this year’s first semester Geometry grades at Mojave. Out of 383 kids who completed the course, 128 got “A” through “C” grades; 98 got “D”s, and 157 got “F”s. In other words, parents and kids were told 59 percent were passing; 41 percent were failing this course. When it came time to take the standardized exam, though only 31.3 percent made the grade.

Finally, the winter grades at Western High School: 459 kids finished Algebra I, with 24 “blanks,” which we presume to mean “Incompletes.” Out of those 459 kids, 223 got grades from A to C; 133 drew “D”s, and 103 flunked. That’s a pretty good 78 percent “Pass” rate on the report cards, with 22 percent failing. But, as we’ve seen, 77 percent of those kids couldn’t pass the Common Assessment with a score of 60 or higher, neatly reversing the “pass-fail” ratio.

In Geometry at Western High School, 105 kids drew grades of A through C (not quite as cheery as it sounds — there were only six “A”s); 165 earned “D”s, and 193 drew “F”s on their report cards. So, 58 percent of kids were told they were passing the course. Yet, as we’ve seen, only 20.9 percent could pass the common Assessment this winter.

Nevada received about $20 million from the federal School Improvement Grant program, this year. Most of the grant money was funneled into higher salaries and benefits for teachers at these three high schools — supposedly designed to attract “the best.”

Principals were given $5,000 signing bonuses; teachers, $1,750, support staff $500 for the first year of the grant. In the next two years, teachers could be paid more if their students do better on tests.
In return, these schools are expected to show vast improvements in parental involvement, discipline issues, and — yes — test scores.

The numbers have started to move in the right direction. Teachers and administrators will doubtless say it takes time.

But if it takes years, how many more thousands of additional kids will be dumped on the streets, unable to adequately read, write, or do enough math to make their way in an increasingly complex world?

If the mainstreaming of kids with “behavioral problems” and students who don’t speak English has been a failure, administrators should admit that and try something else — like maybe competitive entrance exams for eighth graders who want to get into a serious “college prep” senior high school, attended only by those who really want to be there, while everybody else would get a couple years of vocational apprenticeship. I believe that’s the way much of the rest of the developed world handles this.

The American public schools, as we now know them, have had most of a century. The clock on the public’s patience is ticking down.

One Comment to “Grade inflation still rife at ‘turnaround’ high schools”

  1. Pondoro Says:

    Teachers often bear the brunt of the criticism for the failing performances; and it is true that many teachers are far more political hires than academic ones. But, as is often the case, the farther up the food chain you go, the more blame you have to assess. Principals dictate policies that hobble the good teachers; school boards hobble the good principals; superintendents hobble the boards; the state boards hobble teh superintendents; and the US Department of Education (an oxymoron unrivalled in gov-speak) hobbles them all. Get government out of education, and the problem will resolve itself. And where poor performance persists, there are two viable options. Let private enterprise compete to produce results and/or allow those who do not wish to be educated to go to work and earn a living wage, or realize for themselves the value of a good education. There is much more that can be said about the educational culture in Amerika, but enough for now.

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