Sunday, February 7, 2016

Florida - Where Education is "Adjusted"

 I thought I had seen it all. Sleights-of-hand to hide mediocre performance.

But a recent guest commentary in the Naples Daily News broke new ground. The writer conjured up great advances in Florida public education by the simple trick of normalizing test scores.

Here’s how it works.

You take raw scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – an actual measure of what has been learned in math and reading – and you “adjust” the scores for differences in economic background, race and native language skills.

A study by the Urban Institute did just that and found, voila, Florida grade-schoolers aren’t so bad after all. The raw scores of fourth- and eighth-graders, which allow direct comparison to other states, pegged Florida at 30th in the country. When the scores were “adjusted,” Florida jumped to 4th.

The writer’s conclusion: Florida teachers are doing a wonderful job and deserve more money. (Florida ranks 40th in teacher salaries.) Perhaps they do deserve higher pay. But not because of manipulated test scores.

There’s no question our teachers face real challenges. The Hispanic population is large and growing. English is seldom the first language and there are big cultural differences. The barriers to learning, particularly in the lower grades, are considerable.

But at the end of the day, you can’t claim success by jiggering the data. Learning is absolute. Math knowledge, science knowledge, history knowledge cannot be “adjusted.” The raw scores are what matter.

When college admissions officers look at applicants, they’re not interested in “adjusted” scores. And they shouldn’t be. The college dropout rate for poorly prepared high schoolers is notoriously high.

When employers, particularly in competitive businesses, look for new hires, they don’t shrug because someone’s resume has been doctored to account for demographics. Employers want to see evidence of real knowledge, not “adjusted” knowledge.

This seems self-evident, but in these days of social awareness and tolerance for almost everything, you have to hammer home the obvious.

As a retired chemist, I can’t conceive of putting together a team of demographically challenged scientists to compete in the world market. Their knowledge base can’t be “adjusted” upward. It’s there or it isn’t.

Perhaps school ratings are unfair and teacher evaluations need new criteria and minorities should be given extra help. But there’s no way Florida’s mediocre ratings can be winked aside. We are, in fact, 30th in the country in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. No manner of manipulation can change that.   

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