Sunday, July 13, 2008

School Test Scores Story Misleads

Friday’s headline on an op-ed piece: "DeSoto Should Be Proud of its Schools." It’s one man’s praise for the local district’s standardized test scores, which did improve in some areas. Unfortunately, neither headline nor story gives readers the whole picture. The praise serves to hide the disappointing achievements in DeSoto's public schools.

Here are facts that not one of the three articles by three reporters over the last month covering FCAT scores has acknowledged: Among 17 categories, the gap between the local passing rate and statewide passing rate was eliminated in just one class for one test (fourth grade math). In eight categories, the local lag behind the state average was reduced to some degree, but in eight remaining categories, the local lag behind state averages increased. Here’s a blow-by-blow summary starting at the top and working down through science, math and reading.

First, DeSoto High’s 11th grade science scores went down while statewide numbers went up: In 2007, 24 percent of local 11th graders passed FCAT’s science section. In 2008, only 21 percent passed. That’s a 3 percentage-point drop. Statewide, 11th graders made a modest gain: 37 percent passed the science section in 2007 and 38 percent passed in 2008. The numbers tell the story: In 2007, DeSoto High’s pass rate lagged 13 points behind the statewide average; this year the gap widened to 17 points.

Among local eighth graders, 25 percent passed FCAT’s science section in both 2007 and 2008. In the same period, the statewide average rose from 38 percent to 40 percent. Again, the numbers tell the story: in 2007, DeSoto eighth graders lagged behind the state-wide average pass rate by 13 points; this year the gap widened to 15 points.

For fifth graders, the youngest group tested in science, the data shows a slightly better story: In 2007, only 23 percent passed, but by 2008 the pass-rate jumped 11 points to 34 percent. That means DeSoto’s 2007 pass rate lagged behind the state’s by 29 points; in 2008 the district reduced the gap to 9 points below the statewide pass rate.

Turning to math scores, in 2007, 53 percent of DeSoto High’s 10th graders passed FCAT math, 12 percentage points behind the statewide pass rate for the same group. Locally, in 2008, 56 percent passed, but because of statewide gains, the local pass rate gap increased to 13 points behind the state numbers.

Among local ninth graders, 46 percent passed math in 2007 and 56 percent passed in 2008. That commendable improvement lessened the local lag behind the state pass rate from 14 points in 2007 to 9 points behind the state in 2008.

Among eighth graders, 53 percent passed math in 2007, but only 51 percent passed in 2008. That decline increased the local lag behind the state from 10 percentage points in 2007 to 16 points in 2008.

Among local seventh graders, 53 percent passed math in 2007, making the local lag 6 percentage points below statewide achievement. In 2008, 59 percent of DeSoto seventh graders passed math, narrowing to gap to 2 points below the statewide rate.

Among local sixth graders, 51 percent passed math in 2007, putting them one point ahead of the statewide pass rate. However, in 2008, only 41 percent of local sixth graders passed the math test, creating a 12-point lag behind the statewide pass rate.

Among local fifth graders, 42 percent passed math in 2007, leaving them 17 points behind the statewide pass rate. In 2008, 58 percent passed, reducing the fifth-grade math gap to 3 points.

The best story comes from local fourth grade classes, where the math pass rate jumped from 61 percent in 2007 to 73 percent in 2008. That improvement erased an 8-point lag in 2007, turning it into a 2-point exceed in 2008.

Turning to reading scores, just 19 percent of DeSoto 10th graders passed in 2007 and 24 percent passed in 2008. Statewide in the same period, the average number of students passing 10th grade reading increased from 34 percent to 38 percent. The numbers tell the story: DeSoto’s pass rate lagged 15 points in 2007; in 2008 it lagged a litte less -- by 10 points.

Among local ninth graders, 27 percent passed reading in 2007 and 31 percent passed in 2008. Statewide, the percentage of students passing increased from 41 percent in 2007 to 46 percent in 2007. DeSoto’s 2007 pass rate lagged 14 points behind the state; in 2008, the local lag increased to 15 points behind the state.

For local eighth graders, 39 percent passed reading in 2007 and 40 percent passed in 2008. Statewide, the pass percentage increased from 49 percent in 2007 to 53 percent in 2008. That means in 2007, DeSoto’s eighth grade reading pass rate lagged 10 points behind the state; in 2008, the gap increased to 13 points.

Among local seventh graders, 50 percent passed reading in 2007 and 57 percent passed in 2008. Statewide, 63 percent of their peers passed in 2007 and 65 percent passed in 2008. The local achievement gap narrowed from 13 points in 2007 to 8 points in 2008.

For local sixth graders, 55 percent passed reading in both 2007 and 2008, compared to 62 percent statewide in 2007 and 63 percent in 2008. The local gap increased from 7 points to 8 points in the period.

Among local fifth graders, 61 percent passed reading in 2007; that declined to 60 percent in 2008. Statewide, 72 percent passed in 2007, declining to 67 percent in 2008. The DeSoto gap was 11 points in 2007 and narrowed to 7 points in 2008.

Among the youngest FCAT reading students, fourth graders, 60 percent of local youngsters passed in 2007; in 2008, that rose to 68 percent, significantly narrowing the district’s lag behind the state achievement levels. In 2007, 68 percent of students statewide passed fourth-grade reading; in 2008, 70 percent passed. The local gap was reduced from 8 points to 2 points behind the statewide average.

In Conclusion
Reporters have an obligation not to sugarcoat news. When local officials tell reporters, readers, taxpayers and voters all's well, genuine journalists will dig behind the self-serving spin. Not one single paid staffer at the DeSoto Sun bothered to do that. Maybe they don't know how.

It took Old Word Wolf about a two hours to sift through Florida Department of Education Excel worksheets to compile the info and another hour to write it up. Shame on Sun “reporters” who would rather make nicey nice with Powers That Be than inform readers how their schools are actually performing -- which is significantly below statewide averages.

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