Stupid, Stubborn Facts
Of late, for whatever reason, several political pundits have focused on Ronald Reagan’s famous gaffe at the 1988 convention in New Orleans. While attempting to offer the John Adams aphorism “Facts are stubborn things,” Reagan twisted the quote a bit and turned it into “Facts are stupid things.” If you are old enough to remember the incident, you will recall that Reagan was widely ridiculed for the goof-up. I’ve been giving both of these quotes a good deal of thought lately. I think, actually, that Reagan may have been on to something.
Facts can indeed be very stupid things. Facts, in and of themselves, are just pieces of data. Without perspective and analysis, facts can be manipulated this way and that to tell whatever story the storyteller wishes to tell. Unfortunately, once the story is told, it is almost impossible to provide a different, more correct interpretation of the facts embedded within that narrative.
This is the case, I believe, in a recent report sponsored by the Ohio Business Roundtable, the Ohio Department of Education, and the Ohio State University. The report is titled Failure Is Not an Option: How Principals, Teachers, Parents, and Students in High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools Explain Their Success, and it highlights nine schools for their achievements. The three elementary, two middle, and four high schools were selected as Ohio Schools of Promise for 2010 and 2011 or were close to the selection cutoff. The criteria for selection as an Ohio School of Promise criteria are performance on the measures of AYP and the Ohio Achievement Assessments or the Ohio Graduation Test. High school graduation rates are also considered for high schools, as is value-added growth for elementary and middle schools.
So far, the facts are clear-cut: each school met or almost met the Ohio Schools of Promise criteria for one or more years. With the exception of graduation rates, however, almost all of the criteria relate back to Ohio’s state assessments—and this is where the facts are both clear and blurred at the same time. By the ODE’s own admission, Ohio’s state assessments are not high quality. Moreover, cut scores to make the grade are abysmally low. While it still may be remarkable that these schools perform as well as they do, it is not at all clear that the students are performing as well as the report’s authors would have us believe. To demonstrate, let’s focus on the facts shared about one of the four high schools. No value-added data are reported for the high schools, so it is almost impossible to determine what kind of achievement growth is taking place in each school.
In the 2009–2010 school year, School A met 12 out of 12 standards on the Ohio report card and received an excellent rating. More than 98% of their 11th-graders were proficient or above in reading, math, and social studies. Approximately 94% were proficient or above in science, and more than 87% of 11th-graders were proficient or above in writing. Those are the facts, and most parents would be happy to send their children to this school on the basis of those facts. But without proper context, these facts are stupid things. Here are some other facts, which provide a more complete story. While most of these students, many of whom live in poverty, are passing the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) and graduating, it is highly unlikely that they are college or career ready.
To understand why this is so, one must dig into the data. First, let’s go to the cut scores on the current OGT. The proficiency cut score is extremely low—43% for both reading and math. We already know that the new assessments coming out for the 2014–2015 school year to support the Common Core Curriculum will be much more difficult. ODE staff members have indicated that unless students are passing at accelerated or advanced rates on the current OGT, they will be unlikely to score at the proficient level on the new assessments. In the 2009–2010 school year, no students in the 10th or 11th grade in School A scored at the advanced level. In the 12th grade, 10% scored at the advanced level, but no students in 12th grade scored at the accelerated level. Twelve percent of School A’s 10th-graders scored at the accelerated level, and 5% of the 11th-graders scored at the proficient level. This means that the vast majority of students will not meet levels of proficiency by 2014–2015. (Note: While it would have been interesting to see how gifted students performed on the OGT, School A does not report any students as identified as gifted.) Other facts also call into question just how promising the future is for School A’s graduates. No student at School A received an honors diploma. No student passed an AP test with a score of 3 or above. The average ACT score was 14 (the state average is 22). And the facts on how graduates fared in college are very telling. First, only 11% of School A’s graduates went on to a public college in Ohio. Of those who attended postsecondary institutions, 44% went to a community college. Sadly, 94% of School A’s graduates who did attend a public university or community college required remediation in English or math.
While the faculty of School A are presumably doing exactly what has been asked of them by the state of Ohio, it is apparent that their students are graduating with much less promise than advertised. Failure may not be an option, but the low bar for success is doing a disservice to students, parents, and policy makers. Unless all of the data are revealed, the public gets only a version of the truth. A story built on partial facts can lead us to think and do stupid things. That is the danger of stupid, stubborn facts.