Given how much lip service accountability, performance and outcomes get in American education these days, it’s remarkable how little we actually know about how well a given school is doing. A school can do great things with struggling students and still end up labeled a failure, or post high test results year after year without really challenging kids who started out proficient.
A better measure for evaluating a school’s ability to close the achievement gap is how much learning kids get in a year, most reformers believe. If a student starts an academic year several grades behind and makes two years’ progress, her school has knocked one out of the park, whether she’s deemed proficient or not. Similarly, a school that consistently fails to deliver a year’s learning each year might need shuttering.
A Minneapolis nonprofit that works to increase the quality of local charters, Charter School Partners, has come up with what it believes is a better way to crunch data about student performance, a graphic tool it’s calling the Minnesota Academic Performance for Charter Schools, or MAP.
The MAP is, quite literally, a map. Or two interactive maps, to be precise, one charting charter schools’ performance in math and the other in reading. One axis notes the percentage of students who test proficient, while the other shows the percent of growth.
Diamonds representing schools are scattered across the center, which is divided into four quadrants: higher-proficiency/higher-performance; lower-proficiency/lower-growth; lower proficiency/higher-growth and higher proficiency/lower-growth.
Colors indicate relative wealth, poverty
High-poverty schools are green; wealthier ones blue. Users scroll over the diamonds to see which schools they correspond to and what the data is for each. (Mapping and data freaks can find a YouTube tutorial on the tool here.)
The result is a different portrait of school performance from the one offered by Minnesota’s historically one-dimensional school report cards. At Global Academy in Columbia Heights, for example, 92 percent of students are impoverished and 71 percent are learning English.
Only 66 percent of students are proficient readers below the state average of 72 percent. But 56 percent made exceptional growth last year, versus 35 percent statewide, according to state test data.
As is often the case when students are learning English, math scores are higher: 88 percent are proficient, significantly higher than the state average of 66 percent. Meanwhile, 58 percent made exceptional growth, versus the state rate of 34 percent.
The MAP doesn’t say what, but clearly someone is doing something right at the 2-year-old program. If they keep doing it, the gap will close. And if someone can identify just what’s going right, it might help other schools accelerate learning.
Lower left quadrant houses some abysmal performers
Conversely, the lower left quadrant is home to some abysmal performers. At the 8-year-old BlueSky Charter School just 15 percent of students are poor, 11 percent are proficient at math and 12 percent outpaced average growth rates. Reading proficiency is 47 percent, but growth rates are less than 29 percent.
The Minnesota Department of Education recently told BlueSky it had 30 days to change curriculum and graduation standards or face fines of up to $18,000 per day until fixes are made.
There are some lower-left schools that merit disclaimers: They may be new, or in a couple of cases, work only with special-ed students, according to Charter School Partners’ Brian Sweeny, director of business excellence and advocacy. Similarly, some of the schools in the lower-right quadrant would be hard-pressed to show exceptional growth because they have long served highly proficient student bodies, he noted.
Data drawn from state statistics
The data underlying the MAP are drawn from state statistics and the much-reviled Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. The 2009-2010 school year was the first time the state collected the kind of information that allowed this type of analysis.
Until recently, all the MCAs measured was the percentage of kids in a classroom who were proficient in math or reading. This year, Minnesota began measuring how much individual kids learned from one year to the next, and reporting how many showed low or high growth, regardless of proficiency.
Charter School Partners hopes to use the MAP to identify good practices that can be replicated in other schools, Sweeny said. But more than that, the organization hopes it will be helpful to parents trying to decide whether to enroll their child in a particular program.
If a school is a good fit for reasons that have nothing to do with academics, and is delivering high growth, parents might not need to be scared of low overall proficiency. Similarly, they should probably walk away from an established program with bad numbers.