-- Opinion --
In case you missed it...you really didn’t miss much
Mercedes K. Schneider, Ph.D. / Contributing opinion writer
In her commentary for WWLTV.com, Leslie Jacobs informs the public, “in case they missed it,” that “we have closed the performance gap” in New Orleans’ schools. Not only is this “gap” closed; it happened two years ago, in 2010-11. Somehow we missed it for two years.
Someone should send then-Recovery School District—New Orleans (RSD-NO) Superintendent Paul Vallas a congratulatory note. After all, the “gap closure” occurred on his watch. Furthermore, with the “gap” closed then, we really didn’t need to bother Vallas successor John White. Perhaps this might have freed Mr. White to spend the last couple of years in the classroom and thus potentially double his classroom teaching experience. Well, it is what it is. Time to move forward.
I must say, I missed this “gap closure.” I have been occupied reading the 2012 school performance scores and letter grades; according to this information, publicized in October 2012 by the Louisiana Department of Education on its website, RSD-NO continues to fare poorly, having received a district grade of D, and this despite John White and BESE’s lowering the graduation rate necessary for high schools to earn so-called “bonus” points.
How then is the performance gap closed, yet RSD-NO remains a “failing” school district? How, indeed.
In her article, Jacobs refers to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) high school completion rates. She notes that the state percentage of students graduating in four years (2007-08 school year to 2010-11 school year) is 70.9%. She does not clearly explain that this group of students was not a finalized group in 2007-08 but was in constant flux as students transferred in and out of the cohort. Indeed, a student from another state and who was a senior in 2010-11 could have transferred into this group “in the 11th hour,” so to speak, and his/her graduating would have been credited to the cohort. (See this article and its related links).
Let it suffice that I was able to verify the state figure of 70.9% as the 2010-11 four-year graduation rate for Louisiana on the USDOE site.
Jacobs also alludes to “Jefferson Parish (67%), Baton Rouge (62.3%) and Shreveport (61.5%).” According to 2010-11 data on the LDOE website, I verified that Jefferson Parish did have a 2010-11 graduation rate of 67.0%.
Her next two references, to “Baton Rouge” and “Shreveport,” are not to specific districts. Shreveport is part of Caddo Parish Schools; Caddo did have a 2010-11 graduation rate of 61.5%.
“Baton Rouge” is a poorly chosen, arguably misleading term. Jacobs actually cites the graduation rate for only East Baton Rouge Parish Schools (62.3%); however, there is also West Baton Rouge Parish Schools (70.0%). Moreover, some Baton Rouge schools are part of the RSD-LA, and have no 2010-11 graduation rate data available.
As to Jacobs’ shining moment, her ultimate point of the article, that “in New Orleans, 76.5% of our students graduated on time”:
First, one must consider the unclear term, “New Orleans.” This is the name of a city, not a school district. There is Orleans Parish Schools, and its 2010-11 graduation rate was 93.5%. This begs the question: Why focus on 76.5% as the evidence of “New Orleans success” instead of Orleans Parish Schools’ 93.5%? Furthermore, Orleans Parish received an "A" on its 2012 district report card. Why not highlight the achievements of Orleans Parish Schools? Jacobs cites “the failure of New Orleans Public Schools” later in her writing. Why not note a beautiful recovery (pun intended)?
The answer: The success of Orleans Parish Schools only serves to underscore the failure of the state-run counterpart, RSD-NO.
Back to that 76.5% of “our students graduating on time”:
LDOE does not report a district percentage for RSD-NO 2010-11 graduation rate. How Jacobs arrived at 76.5% is a mystery to me. Perhaps she took the overall 2,051 graduates “in New Orleans” and divided by the number of 2010-11 students classified as seniors “in New Orleans.” Doing so would certainly paint a fairer picture than does the detailed account posted on the LDOE website for RSD-NO (I also included 2012 school letter grades and scores where available):
RSD-NO 2010-11 Graduation Rates (percentage) and 2011-12 School Letter Grades/Scores
- Thurgood Marshall Early College High School - 87.8% - C - 97.9
- Abramson Science and Technology Charter School - 82.1%*
- O. P. Walker Senior High School - 74.6% - B - 108.9
- Algiers Technology Academy - 67.9% - D - 85.5
- Joseph S. Clark Senior High School - no score - T** - 55.8
- Walter L. Cohen High School - 53.6% - F - 45.5
- John McDonough Senior High School - 45.6%
- Rabouin Career Magnet High School - no score
- Sarah Towles Reed Senior High School - 49.6% - F - 47.6
- Schwarz Alternative School - no score
- G. W. Carver High School - 55.7% - F - 46.4
- Excel Academy - no score
- Hope Academy - no score
- New Orleans Career Academy - no score
- Sophie B. Wright Institute of Academic Excellence - no score - D - 78.9
*Abramson’s school code (300003) is currently assigned to a school named Lake Area New Tech. The 2012 school grade and score for Lake Area New Tech is F 59.4.
**Exempt from a letter grade this year.
I think it is fair to say that Ms. Jacobs’ enthusiasm at the “closing of the achievement gap” is undeniably premature. When one observes that actual graduation rates for the RSD-NO schools that have been assigned such a number, there is quite a gap. Three of the eight schools with scores are above the state 2010-11 graduation rate average of 70.9%; however, the remaining five are below the state average, with half, four of the eight, woefully below average.
What these results do show is the effective academic segregation of a school district.
This evidence does not support Jacobs’ assertion of a “game changer for the city.”
One should be cautious when reading other points in Jacobs’ article as well:
Jacobs attempts to compare the USDOE rates with 2005 rates. However, the USDOE cautions against this since the USDOE is using a new metric: “The new, uniform rate calculation is not comparable in absolute terms to previously reported rates. Therefore, while 26 states reported lower graduation rates and 24 states reported unchanged or increased rates under the new metric, these changes should not be viewed as measures of progress but rather as a more accurate snapshot” (Emphasis added).
Jacobs also sensationalizes the “rise” in ACT score average from 17 in 2005 to 18.2 in 2012. However, at this rate of improvement, .17 points per year, it would take 23 years for the ACT average to reach 22, the current score necessary for acceptance into LSU.
Finally, Jacobs cites the improved rates of “New Orleans public school graduates” (there’s that nebulous term again) qualifying for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarships. She cites the statistic that 39% qualified. This statistic comes from page 31 of the Cowen Institute 2012 analysis of New Orleans schools; Ms. Jacobs fails to mention that this 39% is for the subgroup of Orleans Parish Public School charter schools and that the rate for New Orleans schools overall is 24%, a 1 % decrease from the Orleans Parish Public Schools statistic she cites from 2005. In addition, in their report, the Cowen Institute cautions readers that “[TOPS] eligibility rates varied by school and school type” (pg. 31). What will further complicate the increase in TOPS graduation rates is that the 2013 Louisiana school performance score calculation will place diminished importance on TOPS completion rates and increased emphasis on advanced placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. By 2014, points awarded to school for TOPS completers will be no more.
According to Jacobs, “the bottom line” is to “not just graduate students, but to give them the educational foundation they need to succeed after high school—to be college or career ready.”
From the evidence (clearly and correctly) cited in this paper, RSD-NO is below this “bottom line.” Want to really “close the gap”?Turning over RSD-NO to Orleans Parish Public Schools might prove a good start.
Dr. Mercedes Schneider is a teacher in St. Tammany Parish. She holds a Ph.D. in statistics and research methods and has taught from seventh grade through graduate school.