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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 10, 2013 at 6:00 AM

New school data show surprising stars

Question: If your school ranks at the top in student performance, is there any scenario in which it might not look quite so shiny?

Answer: Yes, in a measurement of student growth.

For years, teachers have debated the accuracy of using fill-in-the-bubble achievement tests to evaluate the nuances of what goes on inside a classroom. State exams merely present a snapshot of performance on a single day, they say, failing to illuminate anything about student progress from one year to the next.

Yesterday, Washington countered this by releasing a new wave of data, the Student Growth Measure. It compares kids to their academic peers statewide, then calculates how much they improved relative to that cohort and tallies a growth rating for their school.

By this measure, a school could boast stellar reading or math scores, but allow students to coast and come away with a lousy growth rating. That was the case for Vashon High, which ranked first for 10th-grade reading last year, but tumbled to 31st when student progress was compared against that of others who’d also scored well.

On the other hand, Helen B. Stafford Elementary in Tacoma ranked a middling 69th for fourth graders meeting math standards last year, but first for growth when those kids were compared against the progress of students with similar scores.

The new metric was patterned on the Colorado Growth Model, used by 18 other states and widely embraced as a more telling measure of school improvement. But questions remain about exactly how the information will be used here.

“We would have extreme concerns about it being used for anything approaching teacher evaluation,” said Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle teachers union. “The basic premise has some logic, but it’s still a very blunt instrument and most useful for looking at very large groups of students. But the more you attach it to individual teachers, the less useful it is.”

In current form, the data are difficult to understand for all but the most practiced number-crunchers. Reporters at the Times will be analyzing the Student Growth Measure in the coming weeks, so stay turned. In the meantime, click here for some basics about the new metric.

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