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April 24, 2013 at 7:30 AM

Seattle Public Schools and the case of the missing standardized test scores

Among discerning parents and education advocates, Green Lake Elementary has a good reputation.  So it was a surprise to some when the school posted a sharp drop in state standardized test scores for the 2011-2012 school year . With a single test, the Northeast Seattle school dropped from good to fair bordering on struggling.  The screen snapshot below of Green Lake’s scores on the Washington State Board of Education – Achievement Index shows the problem. Green Lake posted a lot of ones, mainly from the writing and science portions of the state Measurements of Student Progress test. That pushed the school down into struggling range, according to the index’s performance rating scale that ranges from one to seven scale. What happened?

Green Lake Elementary School ratings on the state Achievement Index. (https://eds.ospi.k12.wa.us/WAI/IndexReport/dropdown)

Green Lake Elementary School ratings on the state Achievement Index.
(https://eds.ospi.k12.wa.us/WAI/IndexReport/dropdown)

Green Lake was the victim of missing test scores. It all started when Principal Joanne Bowers raised the alarm after noticing gaps in the data where test scores should have been. She wasn’t the only one perplexed. Yvonne Folan, a former Green Lake parent and mother of two elementary-school-aged kids was perplexed by the precipitous drop. Turns out, all of Green Lake’s fourth grade writing test scores and fifth grade science test scores were missing.  That was weird. The test booklets had been packed in boxes and sent to a testing vendor in Minnesota to be sorted and scored. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction counted the missing scores as zeros, hence Green Lake’s dismal performance in writing and science.

The test booklets were traced by their bar codes to the vendor in the Midwest. Well, at least Seattle Public School officials could breath a sigh of relief that the booklets had left Seattle and blame laid elsewhere. The district’s attention now turns to assuring Green Lake families and prospective families that current ratings on the state index is not an accurate reflection of Green Lake’s academic performance. For those thinking that such assurances require a leap of faith, Eric Anderson, the district’s manager for Research, Evaluation, & Assessment:

“Previously missing test scores (mostly in science and writing) are the explanation for Green Lake’s low scores on the state accountability index,” Anderson wrote in an email to school officials. As proof, Anderson points out that none of Green Lake’s math booklets was lost and Green Lake performed quite well on the state index for mathematics.

That’s the good news. The bad news? “Although most of Green Lake’s missing scores were subsequently recovered, they were not located in time for the state to recalculate an accurate index score,” Anderson notes. “We nonetheless understand that this has reduced transparency for anyone seeking to understand Green Lake’s overall achievement profile for 2011-12.”

Test booklets rarely go missing. But a reliance on test scores as one of the key measures of school performance requires OSPI to develop a process for recalibrating school results. Students can appeal a grade; schools should be able to hold the state accountable for accurate data. The state must also come up with a separate calculus for scoring zeros on standardized test. A zero does not mean the student or school performed poorly– in Green Lake’s case it indicated an absence of performance altogether — yet it pulls down the grade as though it were a poorly-taken test.

It is important to get this right.  The School Achievement Index is a huge piece of Washington’s accountability system, one mandated by the state Legislature and adopted by the state Board of Education in 2009. Federal education law requires all states to have a performance index. Washington’s is an easily accessible database that presents a clear picture of how schools are improving over time, as well as demographics and progress reports on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps.

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