disappearing act

Data privacy worries shield thousands of Colorado test scores from public scrutiny

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The public will never know how Smoky Hill High School ninth-graders scored last spring on English tests that challenged them to do things like interpret ancient Greek poetry.

Nor will it know how many fifth-graders at Monterey Community School in Commerce City grasp concepts like identifying a story’s main idea. Or whether sixth-graders at Ortega Middle School in Alamosa can puzzle out the complexities of algebraic equations.

Those results from last spring’s PARCC tests were among roughly 4,000 data points shielded from public view — the result of a new, more restrictive state policy designed to protect individual students from being identified. More than 1 in 4 data points from the math and English tests are not available for public inspection because of the year-old policy.

The move to redact more data from the state’s publicly available standardized test results is a dramatic shift for a state known for rich and easily accessible educational statistics. Inspired in part by the State Board of Education’s zeal for student privacy, the change has sparked a new debate pitting data transparency advocates against student privacy supporters.

“It’s really problematic that we don’t know how thousands of kids at large high schools are doing,” said Lisa Berdie, policy director for A Plus Colorado, a school reform advocacy group. “(These results aren’t) just for punitive accountability decisions. It’s so communities and students and families have a sense of how their schools are serving them and whether they meet grade-level requirements.”

Officials at the Colorado Department of Education stress that districts and schools are receiving complete data sets, and that parents will be provided with comprehensive reports explaining how their students and schools are performing.

The new rules, state officials acknowledge, are among the most stringent in the nation.

Department of Education officials and State Board of Education members say that the state remains committed to using data for accountability, and that the rules are designed to make it impossible for a member of the public to pinpoint how a particular student performed on state tests.

“The intent and the purpose of the rules are important to protect individual privacy and prevent the identification of individual students through the manipulation of the data,” said Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, the state board’s chairman. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s more important to protect those individual students than give the press something to write about.”

What do the new rules do?

Before 2015, when the new rules took effect, Colorado’s data rules were pretty simple. If fewer than 16 students at a school took any test — say, fourth-grade English — the state would not release the results.

The new rules say that if fewer than four students score at any one of the exam’s five proficiency levels, the state must redact results from that level and results from at least one other level. (If just the one were blacked out, doing simple math would allow someone to easily fill in the blanks).

Consider this example: Twenty fourth-graders at a school take a test and four place at Level 1, two place at Level 2, five place at Level 3, four place at Level 4 and five place at Level 5. The state would redact the results for Level 2 and one other level and report the rest.

In the last round of achievement results this month, the state didn’t release school-level results by individual proficiency level at all. Instead, it placed students in two broader categories — those who scored in levels 1, 2 and 3, and those who scored in 4 or 5, meaning they met or exceeded expectations.

Students at levels 4/5 were reported. If fewer than four students fell into that category, the scores were suppressed.

The state took an additional step that rubbed some schools the wrong way.

If a school’s results were withheld on any one test — and it is the only school in the district with redacted results on that test — the state took the additional step of also redacting the results on the same test from another school (the one with the fewest number of scores in the district).

The state believes this step is critical because it would be possible for someone to subtract the school’s student population from the district’s overall results to learn the school’s results.

That’s why Smoky Hill High School’s ninth-grade English scores were withheld this year. Because the results from the Cherry Creek School District’s alternative high school, Endeavor, were redacted, the state withheld the Smoky Hill scores because Smoky Hill had the fewest valid scores on the ninth-grade test.

Cherry Creek school officials are not happy about the new rules.

“A school that had more than 300 kids testing isn’t a school that should have any stars,” said Judy Skupa, the district’s assistant superintendent, referring to the typographical symbol the state uses when scores are redacted.

What’s the actual privacy threat?

According to federal law, the state must redact data that could allow any person using reasonable measures, such as basic subtraction, to figure out how a particular student performed on a test.

Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s chief assessment officer, explains it like this:

Imagine a neighborhood middle school had 100 sixth-graders take the state’s math test, and not a single one met the state’s expectations. Under the old rules, it would be very easy for folks on the block to know, at the least, the student next door did not pass the test.

That, Zurkowski said, would violate student privacy.

Here’s a slightly more complex example: Say a school had 17 boys and 10 girls take the third-grade math test. While the girls’ scores would be redacted under the old rules, their results could be determined through simple subtraction.

“You don’t get to know how your neighbor’s child performed,” she said. “We needed to do a better job of protecting that individual student’s data, that we hadn’t been doing historically.”

The Colorado Department of Education says it never received a complaint about privacy violations under the old, less restrictive system.

What’s the concern about transparency?

Advocates for more data are worried that the new rules will prohibit the public from knowing two things: which schools are doing poorly and which schools are doing exceptionally well, especially with traditionally underserved populations.

“That’s information we need to know,” said Luke Ragland, vice president of policy for Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit group that advocates for school reform on behalf of the business community.

Advocates lay out another scenario: you could have a school where most students aced the exam, but that data could be withheld if too few students placed in the lower categories.

That’s what happened at West Ridge Academy in Greeley, as the Greeley Tribune reported.

“We’re not just hiding schools that are underperforming,” said Berdie, of A Plus Colorado. “We’re also hiding success stories.”

An even greater fear is that as the state breaks students into subgroups — students of color, students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, students with special needs — the data will increasingly be redacted because not enough students are scoring in each category.

Starting in 2017, states will be required to break down student performance data into even more subgroups to include students of military families and those who are homeless.

Elena Diaz-Bilello, associate director of the Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation at the University of Colorado Boulder, said it will be increasingly difficult to draw any conclusions from state test score results if so much data is held back from the public.

“I don’t think the state thought through all the implications,” she said.

Where does the state go from here?

Many advocates in the education reform community are hoping the state softens the rules.

“My biggest fear would be that in the privacy environment we’re in right now, we’d swing so far in one direction and no longer have an opportunity to recalibrate,” said Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

For the moment, the new rules only apply to state standardized tests given in grades three through nine, Zurkowski said. Other important measures that go into a school’s quality rating are not affected — including the SAT, graduation rates and growth data that show much students learn year to year.

The rules are not explicitly required by any law — not even Colorado’s landmark student privacy law passed earlier this year. Zurkowski said the policy is influenced by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

That leaves room for the rules to shift, which Zurkowski said is a possibility.

“It’s an ongoing conversation,” Zurkowski said. “I”m not saying we hit this right. I know we haven’t hit this right. And these rules will continue to evolve. In the end, we got to balance transparency and privacy.”

Gradebooks

Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs

If you’re a principal intent on disruption, here’s one place to start: Ban Fs.

“Fs and Ds are worthless,” Principal Juan Carlos Ocon told a group of rapt educators Thursday. The principal of Benito Juarez Community Academy in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen spoke as part of a panel on improving student performance at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The event took place during a daylong look at the consortium’s latest round of pivotal research, which draws a clear line from ninth grade performance to high school graduation.

Conferees discussed the latest data showing freshman GPAs in core classes — such as reading, math, and science — dropping a third of a point from their eighth-grade GPAs. One key finding: Failure in non-core classes, like PE, far exceeds similar eighth- grade numbers. But researchers didn’t uncover why as many Chicago freshmen fail PE as science. (Read more here.)

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Sarah Duncan, left, of the Network for College Success, moderates a panel on grades at a conference Oct. 11, on findings of the To & Through Project. Also appearing on the panel at the University of Chicago are Juan Carlos Ocon, Chad Adams, and Wayne Bevis.

Joined on the panel by fellow principals Chad Adams of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park on the North Side and Wayne Bevis of Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a test-in school in West Englewood, Ocon said he took a hard position to “ban Fs from kids’ lives.”

“It actually increases rigor,” he said, explaining how the mindset of his school has shifted from punitive deadlines to encouraging learning at a student’s pace. Any high schooler who isn’t proficient in a subject by June must keep going to class until the light bulb glows, Ocon said. “Our classes do not end in June when classes end in traditional high schools — our classes extend through second week of August.”

Panelists Adams and Bevis are also “blowing up” the idea of Fs. At Adams’ school, located in an immigrant-rich neighborhood and inside which 40 some languages are spoken, Fs aren’t quite verboten — but, every five weeks, teachers have to come clean with how many Fs they give.

“Teachers didn’t like it as first, but then they started to hold each other accountable,” Adams said. I have the same kids (as you do) in your class, but, look, I gave 4 Fs versus your 54. What are you doing?”

Bevis has done away with As through Fs entirely and moved to a numeric grading system that runs 1 to 4. He’s also implemented a buildingwide revision policy, which can be controversial at some schools. After receiving a grade, students have at least two weeks to resubmit revised work and show they have improved their skills. “Some teachers go longer than two weeks, up to a semester,” he said.

Though located in very different areas of the city, each school has seen significant gains in student performance, with consistent, year-over-year rises in graduation rates and “freshman on track” percentages — that is, the percentage of freshmen who are on track to graduate as measured at the end of ninth grade, a metric developed by the University of Chicago and a key measure of success in Chicago.

The principals used the panel session to share other practices they see improving performance in their schools.

At Lindblom, for example, a revolving weekly “colloquium class” offers students extra help in a particular subject. Students must submit requests by Monday night, and with input from teachers a computer spits out their assigned special class, which can change week-to-week. “There’s a consistent understanding among teachers and students that we need to target which skills they struggle with,” Bevis said.

At Juarez, teachers spent the past year studying and recommending a set of core developmental competencies, a list that includes perseverance and relationship skills. Daily lessons are built in during an advisory period, and the staff is on board since they helped create them, Ocon said.

Adams echoed the idea of building a high-performance culture starting with his teacher corps. He’s likewise building a set of core values to express what a Sullivan High School graduate represents. When it comes to creating a learning culture, staff buy-in is essential, he said. When it comes to change, “if the teachers aren’t ready, the kids won’t be ready.”

 

held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
A student opens his locker between classes at Overland Trail Middle School on August 17, 2017, in Brighton, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.