Greater Greater Education

With more data, parents can make better decisions about changes in education policy

Most government decisions are imposed from above, with ordinary citizens having only limited knowledge of the data that went into them. The current reassessment of DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns is different. But how can we ensure that all families are engaged in the process?

Center City boundary review working group on April 5. Photo by the author.

Government efforts to involve citizens in major changes seem to follow a predictable formula: big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and more big announcements at the end, with the media reporting here and there on bits of information that are leaked or made public.

As a parent of children in the DC public schools, I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I'm always happy to share my opinions and experiences, but are they helpful if I don't know the whole context? Doesn't it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out before asking what they think?

It's exciting to see various DC education agencies beginning to release more information that helps to do just that. We've gotten data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), glimpses of data from DC Public Schools (DCPS), and most recently, the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME). These agencies are making data public not just for the sake of transparency, but to enlist the public's help in getting work done.

The most visible recent example is the boundary review process headed by the DME. It started with the usual formulaic elements: an advisory committee, surveys, working groups, and promises of engagement.

But now the DME has begun to infuse its conversation with the broader education community with more information and data.

A more meaningful discussion

That's important because the data enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to the process in a more meaningful way. We can now react to policy questions based not just on our own or our neighbors' experiences, but also on how they play out at the ward and District-wide level. We can begin to understand the impact of proposed changes on all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.

The information packets that the DME distributed at working group meetings earlier this month contain a ton of rich data, including demographic projections and scenarios at the school, school cluster, and ward levels. It's clear that the DME's team and the advisory committee are carefully weighing not just today's situations, but also what our city will look like in 2017, based on projected numbers of children in different age groups.

Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic Excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic Greater Greater Education reader recently weighed in on the DME's policy examples by citing this data.

Of course, access to data does not mean much for folks who are not equipped to work with it. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. After the committee released proposed changes in elementary school attendance zones, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps using the proposed new boundaries.

The DME has also released an analysis of the actual flow of students in and out of various DC schools, at the elementary, middle and high school levels.


And because OSSE released the same data in February, Code for DC civic hacker Chris Given was able to create a dynamic view of actual feeder and destination patterns for each DCPS and DC charter school.


Given has also created an app called Our DC Schools that allows you to enter your address, see how the proposed boundary changes could affect you, and give feedback.

New Problems

But exciting as these data-related developments are, they also come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants in the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn't help but notice that the crowd was full of the usual suspects. I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and data-savvy, or at least connected with data-savvy networks.

More working group meetings will take place this evening and Saturday. The DME has also set up a website where parents and other community members can participate in the conversation online.

But what about families who are not able to attend the discussions and working groups, or who may not even be aware of this effort? Will access to additional data help them? Not if they cannot reach the data or access support networks to help make sense of the data.

I don't have any ready-made solutions to this problem. But I imagine that we could reach many, if not all, of these families if DC's various education agencies worked together. Parent-driven community networks and perhaps the public library system and the Department of Parks and Recreation could also get involved.

The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us. How will you help?

A version of this post appeared on the author's blog, Middle Child in DC.

Morning bell: An Arabic immersion charter school in Ward 3 and other possibilities

Student in Arabic calligraphy contest from dboystudio/Shutterstoc
New charter schools?: The DC Public Charter School Board heard proposals for 8 new schools, including an Arabic immersion school for Ward 3 and two boarding high schools. Some proposals fared better than others. (Post, Examiner)

Career academies: High-school-based career-training programs are increasing in Maryland and Virginia schools, thanks to federal funding. (Post)

Higher enrollment in Prince George's: Reversing a trend, the county's schools had more students this year. But in keeping with another trend, they're largely low-income. (Post)

Montgomery elementary students may get longer day: A report expected in June will discuss what schools could do with 30 extra minutes. (Post)

Fairfax teens may get more sleep: The County school board put forward 4 proposals that would start high school classes as late as 9:15 am, almost two hours later than the current start time. (Post)

High-quality preschool: A study of the public preschool system in Tulsa identified four elements of a successful program, including highly qualified teachers, and found positive effects that last at least through 3rd grade. (NPR)

What's different about Common Core math?: The new approach may seem confusing, but the idea is to equip kids to apply math to real life. (Vox)

Upcoming events:

Community meetings on student assignment proposals: A second round of meetings on the proposed changes in boundaries and feeder patterns will kick off tonight with the Upper NW & NE meeting at Coolidge HS Armory, 5:30-8:30, 6315 5th St. NW. The Center City meeting will be Saturday, April 26, from 9 am to 12 pm at the Dunbar HS cafeteria, 101 N St. NW. And the East End meeting will be on Saturday, 3 to 6 pm, at the Anacostia HS cafeteria, 1601 16th St. SE. Advance registration is encouraged but not required.

Youth Budget Town Hall: At an event targeted to young people, Mayor Vincent Gray and others from his administration will explain what is in his budget for children and youth from birth to age 24. Saturday, April 26, from 1 to 3 pm at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, 1201 17th St. NW.

DC's planned Common Core tests aren't yet ready for prime time

Next year DC will begin giving tests based on the new Common Core state standards. Judging from a practice test available online, these assessments will need major revisions before they'll come close to being able to measure students' actual capabilities.

Standardized test image from Shutterstock.

This spring, the two consortia that are developing assessments based on the Common Core have been conducting field tests in the District and elsewhere. DC has chosen to use tests produced by the consortium called PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

PARCC has made practice tests in math and English at various grade levels available on its website. I took the 10th-grade English Language Arts/Literacy assessment to see what it was like. And I found some serious problems.

The Common Core standards, adopted by 44 states and DC, have ignited debate among legislators, educators, and parents. Some love the idea of holding children across the country accountable on the basis of a common "master ruler" by which all students can be measured.

But some opponents fear the Common Core will place too many education decisions in the hands of the federal government. Others say the common standards are either too demanding or not demanding enough, or warn that teachers will still have to "teach to the test."

Even some who embrace the concept of the Common Core have raised concerns about how it's being implemented. And some states have provoked an outcry by giving their own versions of Common Core-aligned tests that parents and teachers have said contain unclear or confusing questions.

Some states that had signed on to the PARCC consortium have been having second thoughts. Kentucky pulled out in January, although it said PARCC would be welcome to bid when it issues a request for proposals for new tests. And this month Tennessee's legislature passed a bill that would have the same effect.

Problems with the PARCC practice test

Some procedural aspects of the PARCC practice test I took were unclear. There is no indication of the length of time students would be given to complete the test if it were real, for example.

Also, the introductory screen says that there are 23 questions on the test, when in fact there are 42 multiple-choice questions. Most screens contain two questions about the same text. It is not clear if these questions are scored as one item, or if partial credit is awarded if a student answers one question right but not the other.

The major issue I have with the test is this pairing of questions. A student first has to select the correct answer to a question about a passage. Then, in the next question, the student chooses which line from the passage best supports her first answer.

On the first screen, for example, question A asks the meaning of the word "resonant" as used in a passage. Question B then asks which of a number of quotations from the passage "helps clarify the meaning of resonant."

If you choose the wrong answer in the first question, you've gotten both questions wrong. That's true even if the passage you choose for the second question correctly supports your incorrect answer to the first question.

A testing no-no

In a story for NPR, reporter Cory Turner applauded the fact that the PARCC tests "ask kids to read a text closely and to write about it using evidence from the text."

His point is that this is an advance over previous tests that asked students to write responses to questions that had no right or wrong answers, like "What would you do if you were principal for the day?"

But having a second answer depend on whether you've gotten a previous answer correct is a big no-no in test-writing theory.

I spent 4 years editing curriculum at K12, an online educational publisher. Toward the end of my tenure, I worked extensively on editing standardized test questions, along with some leaders in the field.

From that experience, I learned that making the answer to one test question dependent on another is unfair. A standard text on writing multiple choice questions explains the problem: "If [students] get the first question wrong, they will automatically get the other question wrong as well, even if they understand the concept tested in the second question." And almost the entire practice test is in the form of interlocking questions.

Some of the other questions on the test are just poorly written. For one question that asks students to identify a literary theme, none of the possible answers is in the form of a complete sentence. I challenge you to find a teacher who would accept "the difference between illusion and reality" or "the contrast between reason and emotion" as a valid answer to an open-ended question.

The test also includes 3 essay questions. Even though we don't know how much time students will be given for the test, I'm not sure it's possible to allow enough time to craft an acceptable response to even one of them.

Two of the questions, which focus on characterization, are relatively easy, if time-consuming. But one asks students to write an essay "analyzing the arguments of those who believe certain kinds of free speech should be prohibited within an educational setting and those who believe the opposite."

Students must base their answers on passages from a Supreme Court majority opinion and dissent, along with a 4-minute audio passage on the historical significance of the case.

It's the kind of question that might appear on an AP US history test. But that test is typically given to 11th-grade students who have just finished studying the subject. The PARCC test will be given to 10th graders who will probably have no background knowledge on the issue they're being asked about.

So, as teachers are fond of saying, what have we learned? For one thing, asking students to identify textual evidence on a standardized test may be a good idea, but it's no substitute for giving them the opportunity to make a well-crafted argument.

It's possible that Common Core-based assessments will be an improvement over past state-mandated tests. But if the PARCC practice assessment I took is any indication, we still have a long, long way to go.

Curious about how the proposed boundary changes will affect you? Check out this new app.

Do you know how the proposed changes in school boundaries and feeder patterns will affect your family? Thanks to Code for DC and DC agencies' willingness to provide data, there's now an app for that.

Image from Our DC Schools app by Chris Given.

After 6 months of analysis, discussion, and concern about proposed changes in the way students are assigned to DC schools, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) has released 3 possible scenarios. The DME's team has also released a lot of background data, creating the opportunity for an informed conversation between the government and the public.

But it can be hard for ordinary citizens to wade through all the data and make sense of it. To make that easier, one tech-savvy DC resident has come up with an app that shows how each individual proposal would play out for every DC family.

The app, called Our DC Schools, allows you to enter your address and see how the proposals would affect your education options. Chris Given, a member of the volunteer civic hacking group called Code for DC, created the app, which is being released today.

"I attended a public working group meeting at Dunbar High School," said Given, "And while I was impressed by the dedication of DME and DCPS staff, I was just bowled over by the scale of the challenge of getting meaningful feedback from everyone these policies affect. I wanted to create an on-ramp to engaging with a really complex issue."

The app also enables you to rate and comment on each proposal and provides links to relevant background information, resources, and additional data-driven tools created by Code for DC and others. Given was able to create the app because the DME's office has embraced the open data movement, publishing on its website the information it used to create the proposals.

"It feels like we're at a real tipping point for open education data here in DC." Given said. "This app might have been impossible to create just 12 months ago."

In addition to data provided by the DME, the app incorporates contributions from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, DCPS, the Washington Post, and the 21st Century School Fund. You can access most of the data itself through the Open Data DC website, a project of Code for DC.

Code for DC hopes to use the app to solicit feedback not only from parents and teachers but also from DC residents in general, since all citizens have a stake in improving the District's schools. They're urging those who use the app to share it with others in their networks.

The organization will funnel all feedback collected through the app to the Student Assignment Advisory Committee and also make it public, with safeguards in place to protect privacy.

DC may have universal access to preschool, but low-income kids need more than access

DC has led the country in giving its residents universal access to preschool, and and New York and other cities are now following suit. But if preschool is going to close the achievement gap for low-income kids, it has to be high-quality. And even that may not be enough to do the trick.

A good preschool program teaches all children the social and emotional skills that will help ensure their future success in school: things like how to cooperate with their classmates and how to listen when the teacher is talking.

But research has shown that in the first 4 years of life, high-income children hear about 30 million more words than their low-income peers. So if kids at all income levels are going to start kindergarten on an equal footing, preschools serving poor children need to also provide the vocabulary and background knowledge that wealthier ones get at home.

That's especially important here in DC, where 3 out of 4 entering 4th-graders read below grade level. Should we now follow the lead of other cities and start even earlier than preschool?

In the District, both DCPS and charter schools offer public preschool. There are about 60 charter schools that offer early childhood education, starting at age 3 or 4, according to the Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

All DCPS elementary schools and K-8 education campuses offer pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and most elementary schools also offer preschool for 3-year-olds. DCPS doesn't guarantee pre-K or preschool slots at neighborhood schools. Residents have to enter a lottery to secure one.

Which programs work?

Early childhood programs in DC haven't been evaluated the way K-12 schools have, although the PCSB is working on a system that would do just that for charter schools. DCPS gives preschool children assessments to see how their academic and social skills are developing, but it doesn't use those results to evaluate the programs.

So it can be hard to know which programs are really helping to level the playing field for poor kids and which aren't. It would help if DC had a kindergarten readiness assessment in place, which would inventory the skills all students are coming in with. More and more states are adopting such tests, but DC is part of a consortium that is still working on one, according to a spokesperson for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

DCPS has pinned its hopes on a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which is currently used in 70% of its high-poverty preschool classrooms. KIPP DC, a charter school that serves mostly low-income kids, has also begun using the curriculum this year at one of its 4 early childhood campuses.

Both DCPS and KIPP DC are pleased with the program. Melissa Salmanowitz, a DCPS spokesperson, says that DCPS's assessments show that children who have gone through the Tools curriculum score "significantly higher" on both social-emotional and cognitive assessments.

KIPP DC's chief academic officer for early childhood education, Laura Bowen, said that she's been particularly impressed with the teacher training provided by the Tools of the Mind organization. But she also said that the school has supplemented the curriculum with additional elements, as it does with other early childhood curricula it uses.

Studies have concluded that Tools has positive effects on children's behavior and social skills, but it's less clear that it's giving poor kids the leg up they need in other areas. One study found the curriculum had "no discernible effects" on literacy and math skills for low-income preschool children.

Another study, also focusing on low-income children, found that it improved language development, but that the effects were too small to be statistically significant.

Although a small study of Tools recently found some tweaks that appear to help children learning English as a second language, most other research has found no evidence that the curriculum works better than more traditional approaches.

AppleTree's curriculum

AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, which conducts research and runs a network of early childhood charter schools in DC, has developed its own curriculum. AppleTree's CEO, Jack McCarthy, says the curriculum, called Every Child Ready, does a better job than Tools in providing the skills and knowledge that will help narrow the achievement gap.

He cites data showing that 95% of AppleTree students score at or above the normal range on measures of vocabulary and other literacy skills. That reduces the likelihood that they'll need special education services, as 18% of DCPS students currently do.

Several other charter schools are also using the Every Child Ready curriculum, in a total of 40 classrooms. AppleTree provides them with training and support, just as the Tools of the Mind organization does for schools that use its curriculum.

There are promising signs that Every Child Ready helps boost young children's literacy skills, but McCarthy concedes that right now there's no conclusive evidence that Every Child Ready can close the achievement gap between high- and low-income children.

Still, it's almost certainly true that either early childhood curriculum, when implemented well, will prepare low-income kids for school better than no preschool at all, and also better than a low-quality preschool program would. But is even a high-quality preschool enough to close the achievement gap? Or is it necessary, but not sufficient, to do the job?

One problem is that a child can graduate from a terrific early childhood program and go on to a dysfunctional school. If that happens, the benefits of preschool may be lost. That's one reason AppleTree has decided to partner with two high-performing charter organizations, Democracy Prep and Rocketship, that will soon be coming to DC. AppleTree will provide the early childhood instruction within the larger schools.

Is preschool too late?

But some cities aren't waiting until kids are old enough for preschool to begin working on the achievement gap. In Chicago and Providence, programs are underway to visit low-income parents and encourage them to speak more to their infants and toddlers. They also guide parents to interact with their kids differently, giving them more encouragement and asking open-ended questions.

The children are fitted with small electronic devices that record the number of words heard and spoken, as well as the amount of back-and-forth between parents and children.

A program like this obviously costs money, and it won't necessarily work with all parents. But it's likely that many low-income parents simply don't realize the importance of verbal interaction with their children. Getting them to understand that could have effects that last far beyond early childhood.

DC has been out in front in providing universal access to public preschool, and it should be commended for that. But given the size and intractability of our achievement gap, maybe we should now follow the lead of these other cities and try starting even earlier.

Morning bell: Anxiety continues over boundary change proposals

The end of neighborhood schools?: Proposals from the DC committee on student assignments have led some to wonder if school lotteries are the wave of the future. (Post)

Changes could hurt schools that are working: Councilmember Mary Cheh says the student assignment proposals could "wind up ruining" Ward 3 schools, and some parents whose current assigned schools could be changed are frustrated. (Current)

Another call for caution: The editors of the Current weigh in on the boundary change proposals, warning against "inserting more uncertainty into a school system that's already so often tumultuous."

Troubled charter to stay open: It looks as though Options Public Charter School, where administrators allegedly diverted millions of dollars meant for students, will stay open at least for another year, although DCPS won't take over its management. (Post)

More funds for special ed students: Next year's school budget will increase available funds in amounts ranging from $80 to $550 per student, depending on individual needs. (WAMU)

But what about "at-risk" students?: The budget also includes additional funding for students who are on welfare or have other indications of disadvantage, but some education activists say it's not clear the funds are going where they're most needed. (Post)

Common Core and reading: DCPS teachers and administrators say that new techniques are boosting reading comprehension. (WAMU)

High school parents protest merger: Parents at the application-only School Without Walls say DCPS's decision to merge the school with a neighborhood K-8 campus isn't working and can only hurt the high school. (WAMU, Current)

Montgomery schools need real progress: Shuffling high schools into "consortia" only masks inequities between different parts of the county. (Post)

Getting low-income students to become high-achievers: A Fairfax County program aims to identify and support promising students in an effort to diversify the school system's gifted and talented programs. (Post)

Pipeline from two-year to four-year colleges: A Northern Virginia program provides counseling and support for at risk-high school students, leading them through community college to George Mason and other universities. (Post)

Do involved parents help kids do well in school? Most people assume it does, but two sociologists say that's not always true. (NY Times)

Greater Greater Education is on hiatus this week

We're away for spring break.

Greater Greater Education will return on April 21. Please come back then and rejoin the conversation about public education in the DC area.

Segregation is causing Montgomery County schools' achievement gap, but Josh Starr won't admit it

A new report says Montgomery County schools are becoming segregated by income, race, and ethnicity and that "white flight" is occurring in the lowest-performing schools. But officials deny that it's even happening.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

This week, the county's Office of Legislative Oversight released its findings on the achievement gap in Montgomery County Pubic Schools. Researchers note that low-income, black, and Latino students are still lagging their more affluent, white, and Asian peers, especially as both groups grow increasingly concentrated in different parts of the school system.

While MCPS as a whole is a majority-minority school system and has been for over a decade, most low-income, black, and Latino students attend one of 11 high schools, mostly in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Gaithersburg. Meanwhile, higher-income students, as well as 80% of the school system's white students and 67% of its Asian students, now cluster at schools on the western side of the county, including the vaunted "W schools" in or near Bethesda.

An achievement gap between schools

The result is an "achievement gap ... between [high-poverty] high schools and [low-poverty] high schools" in which all students perform worse, notes Dr. Elaine Bonner-Tompkins, who produced the report. Those 11 "high-poverty" schools include the Northeast Consortium, with Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook; the Downcounty Consortium, with Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood, and Wheaton; and three schools in the upcounty, Gaithersburg, Seneca Valley and Watkins Mill.

Students at these schools are less likely to graduate on time, to maintain grades high enough to participate in extracurricular activities, and to earn high scores on AP exams or the SAT. Meanwhile, they're nearly twice as likely to drop out of high school or get suspended.

Whether real or perceived, the performance of high-poverty schools in East County may be leading to white flight. Dr. Bonner-Tompkins notes that the share of white and Asian families at high-poverty schools is falling faster than the rest of the school system, suggesting that they're fleeing for low-poverty schools with better reputations.

The study, which then-Councilmember Valerie Ervin commissioned, is a follow-up to a 2009 report about the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. The consortia gave students a choice of several different high schools as a way to promote racial and economic integration, which studies show can improve academic performance. Both reports conclude that MCPS policies designed to reduce segregation "have not worked as intended."

Starr denies that "white flight" is even happening

School officials were quick to dismiss many of the report's findings. In a four-page response, superintendent Joshua Starr called suggestions of white flight in MCPS "unsupported" and said that the school system wasn't to blame for larger demographic changes in the larger community.

"The [Downcounty and Northeast consortia] communities have become important locations for families with limited means to reside and raise their children," wrote Starr, linking the growing concentration of low-income and minority students in East County schools to "disparities in the spread of wealth and race/ethnicity across the county."

Starr also dismisses the notion that minorities or low-income students are isolated in certain schools. He says the report's own demographic findings, which come from MCPS data, "clearly demonstrates very diverse student populations at the consortia high schools." Does Starr really think a school like Wheaton, where there are few white students and almost 4 out of 5 students receive reduced lunch, is a more diverse school than Whitman in Bethesda, where there are virtually no black or poor students?

MCPS doesn't cause school segregation, but it contributes to it

It's true that the school system isn't directly responsible for socioeconomic and racial segregation in Montgomery County. The western side of the county has historically been more affluent, and over time has drawn most of the county's jobs, shopping, and other amenities. But MCPS does contribute to segregation so long as some of its schools are perceived as better than others, whether those perceptions are real or fake.

MCPS is quick to announce positive statistics about its schools; just this week, it issued a press release that 8 of its high schools led the US in the Washington Post Challenge Index, a nationwide measure of academic rigor. All but one of those schools are on the western side of the county and have a relatively small amount of black, Latino, or low-income students.

Rankings like that send a message to families looking for the best schools, and those who have the means to choose vote with their wallets. It shows in home prices, which are three times higher in the Whitman High catchment in Bethesda than they are at Seneca Valley in Germantown, one of the county's worst-performing schools. It also shows in the attendance at each school.

In their push for school construction funding, county leaders have noted that MCPS is adding 2,000 students each year, and that schools are becoming overcrowded. But for every high-ranked school like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which is nearly 300 students over capacity, there are lower-ranked schools like Springbrook in Silver Spring, which was built for 2,100 but has just 1,700 students, and Watkins Mill, with nearly 500 empty seats.

We can't run away from these issues

MCPS officials say this report isn't news. It's true: there have been warnings about segregation, and the potential consequences for Montgomery County schools, for over 20 years. But the school system has done little about it, and Dr. Starr insists that integration won't close the achievement gap.

As he points out in his letter, Dr. Starr does have some promising initiatives for closing the achievement gap, like smaller class sizes, or extra pay to recruit and retain strong teachers in high-needs schools, though he's not afraid to use them as a bargaining chip for more funding. That's why it's frustrating that he seems so unwilling to talk about or even acknowledge the school system's issues.

The role of Montgomery County Public Schools isn't just to teach, or to prepare students for happy, successful lives. It's also one of the county's major assets, a tool used to attract families of all backgrounds who want to move here for their kids and for businesses who want to come here so they can hire our graduates. If there's an impression that not all Montgomery County schools are up to speed, that's bad for our kids, bad for our neighborhoods, and bad for our economy.

Morning bell: Bowser takes a position on school boundaries but keeps other issues open

Photo from Muriel for Mayor website.
Candidates on school boundary proposals: Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser opposes cutting neighborhoods east of the park out of the Deal-Wilson feeder pattern, and presumptive independent candidate David Catania would "press pause" on the whole thing until schools have been improved. (Post)

Bowser cagey on keeping Henderson: The candidate met with the DCPS Chancellor but has not yet made a decision. In an interview, Bowser also expanded on her "Alice Deal for all" campaign pledge. (WAMU)

And she's not ready to debate education: Bowser declined to participate in an education-oriented candidate forum in June, saying she wants to wait until Catania collects enough signatures to qualify for the general-election ballot. (Post)

More analysis of the boundary proposals: What they do, who's happy, and who freaks out. (City Paper)

And more anxious parents: Parents who like their currently assigned schools vented their dismay about the proposed changes at Coolidge High School Tuesday night. (City Paper)

The details on the school lottery: DCPS has released data that shows how many children applied for slots at each DCPS school, how many got in, and how many of those admitted had a lottery preference. (Post)

Snow day aftermath: DCPS got a pass on two of its 6 snow days, but students will need to have additional school time in June to meet the 180-day requirement. (Post)

Longer school days in school budget: Next year half of DCPS schools could have an additional 4 hours of instruction per week, at a cost of $100,000 per schoolexcept for Dunbar, which would get 6 times that amount. (DC Fiscal Policy Institute)

Achievement gap grows in Montgomery: A new report says the county schools are increasingly divided on ethnic and economic lines, with students at high-poverty schools doing worse than those at more affluent schools on a number of measures. (Post)

Asians predominate at selective Fairfax school: The freshman class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology next year will be 66% Asian and 24% white, with only 10 black and 8 Hispanic students. (Post)

Why are so many DCPS schools listed as 99% low-income? It's not necessarily because they are.

Publicly available education data shows that many DCPS schools have a 99% poverty rate. But that figure is based on an average and doesn't reflect the actual number of poor kids at any particular DCPS school.

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr.

In the past, each DCPS school counted how many of its students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMs). Last year, DCPS began participating in a federal program that allows some schools to provide free lunches to all their students without determining how many are actually eligible.

The new method reduces the administrative burden on schools and allows more poor kids to get free meals. But it's made it harder to figure out how many poor kids there actually are, and it lumps an undetermined number of higher-income kids into the low-income category. That makes it harder to track the academic progress of low-income kids.

The new method, called the Community Eligibility Option (CEO), is a federal program available to any school district that includes at least one school where 40% or more of students can be identified as needy through certain measures. Those measures include whether they're receiving food stamps or other federal welfare benefits, are homeless, or in foster care.

The formula then multiplies that "direct-certified" percentage by a certain factor to get the percentage of kids eligible for FARMs. FARMs includes not only students on welfare, but also students whose family income is equal to up to 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. The FARMs figure is commonly used as a proxy for low-income status.

Charter schools can also participate in the CEO program, but generally they only have one or perhaps a few campuses. DCPS chose a group of 75 of its schools for the CEO program, and the average rate of direct-certified students for the group as a whole is 62%.

Under the CEO formula, that average gets multiplied by 1.6, and the result is 99%. And that explains why DCPS school profiles and school equity reports show the same percentage of FARMs students at many schools: 99.

Wide variation in underlying percentages

But according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers the FARMs program, there's actually a wide variation in the percentage of direct-certified students within the group of 75 schools in the CEO program. The number ranges from about 38% to 85%.

If you multiply 38% by 1.6, the result is much lower than 99%60.8%, to be exact. So almost 40% of the students at that school are being classified as low-income when in fact they may not be.

Officials at DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) have the direct-certified percentages for individual schools but declined to release them. They did not provide a reason.

Dr. Sandra Schlicker, Deputy Superintendent at OSSE, pointed out that the previous method of determining FARMs eligibility often resulted in undercounting poor students. Parents didn't always bother to fill out the FARMs application, even if they were eligible, and school administrators were powerless to provide free meals to students who clearly needed them.

Even the direct-certified percentages may understate the extent of need, especially at schools with a large immigrant population. Undocumented immigrant families aren't eligible for the federal programs that often trigger certification. Grouping those schools with others that have a higher percentage of direct-certified kids enables them to provide free lunch to all students.

Beyond that, the CEO program clearly has other benefits. It relieves schools of the burden of dealing with the paperwork required under the old method. Under the new method, OSSE simply compares lists of children who are receiving federal benefits or are otherwise eligible for direct-certified status against lists of students at the CEO schools. And including all students at a school in the lunch program avoids stigmatizing low-income children.

Measuring the achievement gap

But education policy activists and researchers say the new method has made it hard to determine the size of the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income children.

Local and national standardized test scores compare subgroups using the FARMs percentage to determine the performance of low-income students. School reports also separate out suspension and expulsion rates for FARMs students.

HyeSook Chung, executive director of DC Action for Children, said in an email that "any evidence of low-income student performance in DC now comes with an asterisk, because there are likely more than a few non-low-income students being lumped into that category."

It's also become difficult to compare test scores and other data to information from previous years when FARMs kids were counted differently, she said.

The DC Council passed a bill last year providing additional funds for "at-risk" students. That designation could be used as a proxy for low income in the future, but, like the direct-certified designation, it's limited to a fraction of those counted under FARMs, only about 30% of students. The FARMs category has included more like 70% of them in the past.

Other problems with the method

The CEO program also makes it hard to track demographic changes that may be taking place at some DCPS schools, since there's no way of knowing whether more affluent kids are beginning to attend them.

And some critics of high-achieving charter schools that serve high-poverty populations have suggested that their success is due to lower FARMs rates than comparable DCPS schools, say 80% rather than 99%. But if a DCPS school is in the CEO program, it could actually have a FARMs rate significantly lower than the 99% figure attached to it.

This is a problem that will soon become more widespread. The federal government has been phasing the CEO program in gradually, with only 10 states and DC participating this year. But next year it will be open to all qualified schools and school districts nationwide.

It's great that more kids who need free meals are getting them, and school administrators are undoubtedly relieved that they no longer have to spend time identifying low-income students. But if we're going to understand how poor kids are actually doing in DC, and elsewhere, we're going to need to come up with some more accurate way of determining who they are.

At the very least, DCPS and OSSE could literally add an asterisk when they list a school as having a 99% FARMs rate, and use the footnote to let the public know just how it was calculated.

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