School Grades and Context

With the fresh start of each new school year, students, families, and teachers are welcomed back by the Public Education Department with a front-page story about the awful job they are doing, because apparently there isn’t enough animosity targeting schools.  The person substituting for the previous secretary of education has picked up where she left off, guns a’ blazing.  Important to school grades, and our community at large for passers-by and residents alike, is context.  Informing the community about that context would be encouragement, because, despite what is being touted at New Mexico’s Public Education Department, there is terrific work being done.  How’s the public flogging, testing, and underfunding of education helping that work?

The fact that scientists and mathematicians, locally and nationally, have disavowed, multiple times, the methods that the Public Education Department in New Mexico uses to grade students, teachers, and schools, should be noted with each article that is published, like the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes. (See references 1, 2, 3)  The public should know that there is little validity in the grades schools receive.  Media should juxtapose the “crime map” of the state with the “grade map“, and ask deeper questions, like “should we hold teachers accountable for the socioeconomic status of a child?“ which is still, after all is said and done, the closest correlation to test scores that we have.

Communities, with that information, can then begin to address trauma and poverty, which affect our families and cause the difficulties our state witnesses.  Diminishing schools, publicly humiliating the people who are hard at work in the fight to change these cycles, is harmful to the actual goal of helping those families. We have driven teachers out. (See reference 4)  There are hundreds of teaching vacancies.  Teachers continue to leave the state in droves, which is a bellwether for the state.  We should be looking for ways to bring them back and cheer for the ones who are still here, rather than denigrate the dedicated people who remain.

The hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on assessment each year would be better spent on food, clothing, shelter, therapy, and tutoring.  Acknowledging trauma and poverty as key issues is not “soft bigotry”, it is fact, which is lately out of fashion, but remains nonetheless.    To quote our school’s principal, “Nourishment, rather than measurement, is how a child grows.”  The people who would sell you the assessments and grades, and micromanagement down to a breath, couldn’t hold a candle to the principal at our school, or the many public servants that are my colleagues out there, who are doing the actual work.  But politicians should be trying to light candles, anyway, instead of constantly cursing this darkness. Their current course of action continues to add to the darkness.

Jeff Tuttle
Monte Vista Elementary School
Golden Apple Fellow


Linked References:

  1. A group of scientists and mathematicians from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, who had reviewed the school grading system, and said the math used to come with those grades was “something like adding oranges and cows to derive pickup trucks. The result is not obviously meaningful.”
  1. The trend nationally of this kind of misuse of math in data interpretation, in this example for “Value Added Models” of teacher evaluation, caused the entire American Statistical Association to publish a position paper in April of 2014 which warned “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions.”  By this finding, 1% would be the most that test scores could be included in the evaluation of teachers, since there is not reliability in a number any higher.
  1. The author of NM’s teacher evaluation rubric, Charlotte Danielson, expresses her concern for the misuse of her work:


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4 responses to “School Grades and Context

  1. Jeff

    Thanks, Ken! I would be glad to join!

  2. Jeff

    Also, I did submit this to the Journal, we shall see what happens!

    • Ken Whiton

      Jeff, I would like to send you some information about submitting things to the. Journal, but I would prefer my comments be private and not on your blog. If you don’t have my email address let me know and I will post it here.

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