From the Blogs: Mendo’s Bogus Zuckerman Awards

by Mark Scaramella, January 7, 2010

Hello, Mortimer.

Hello, Mortimer.

Anderson Valley High School and Fort Bragg High School have won figurative silver medals -- again this year -- in a US News & World Report competition called Best High Schools.  U.S. News functions as a forum for its reactionary owner, Mort Zuckerman, a leading member of the Israel Lobby's media wing, which doesn't necessarily disqualify him or it from school comment, but being awarded a medal from a person who supports the ongoing persecution of Palestinians, well, it might be prudent to pop the champagne in private.

But that, of course, didn't stop Mendocino County's grossly overpaid County School Superintendent Paul Tichinin (who famously doesn't even know what the word "niggardly" means) from announcing last month: "Good News! Fort Bragg and Anderson Valley are in the top 100 Silver award of US News & World Report. Both superintendents were very proud."

Trustee Nice Alterman asked, "Based on what?"

Tichinin replied: "Based on, on... overall common, um, student, 1. achievement, and enrollment in, you know, further education…)"

A woman staffer whispered to Tichinin, "university level coursework."

And Tichinin continued, "university level coursework, following graduation from high and high school graduation (sic)."

The woman then whispered to Tichinin, "It's their second time."

And Tichinin repeated, "It's their second time. They're the silver. There's a gold which is 20 and 90 schools that are silver."

Ignoring Educator Tichinin's failing math achievement, he (and his puppet master) are wrong about "university level coursework" which has nothing to do with Zuckerman's awards. There's also nothing about "following high school graduation."

These awards are basically an exercise in How To Make Statistics Mean Whatever Makes the Superintendent Proud. They have nothing to do with the education of young people.

"We are, of course, proud of the accomplishment," Fort Bragg Unified School District Superintendent Don Armstrong. "It proves a small rural public school can still reach for the top."

Superintendent Armstrong admitted, "Like most formulas, it is a bit difficult to understand and while I have read the entire article I am still unclear on how the numbers are arrived at."

That's because the article in US News was a self-promoting article about its results which sell magazines to the parents of schools and which doesn't go into the methodology, nor does the methodology, which requires some digging to even find, completely explain how the results are skewed.

But those details didn't stop the Superintendents from being proud of their Zuckerman awards.

"The ranking is derived from a formula where they look at what is expected of you in terms of your at-risk population (socio-economic disadvantaged, English learners, minorities, etc.,) and your actual results," added Armstrong. "In a nutshell, we do a good job of sending our Latino and economically disadvantaged students to graduation and college."

Yes, they certainly look at the disadvantaged, minorities and English learners. But the Zuckerman awards have nothing to do with how many of Fort Bragg's Spanish surnamed students go to college.

US News paid an outfit called “School Evaluation Services” (SES), a subsidiary of Standard & Poor’s financial rating service, to do their rankings. SES uses a three-step selection and ranking process based on 2008 state test data. The first two steps are screening moves, the third step is the ranking. The statistical database and selection criteria SES used is available to the public at their website: www.schoolmatters.com where you're welcome to check our conclusions.

Step 1 selects schools which do better than the statewide average in reading and math tests — "adjusted" for the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Since well over half of Anderson Valley High School's tiny student body consists of economically disadvantaged scholars, Anderson Valley easily made the cut at this step with below average test results. Fort Bragg with a hefty 30% of Hispanic students also made this cut.

Step 2 compares statewide math and reading state test results against minority student groups at other schools in California. Again, since AV High is predominately Hispanic, AV gets another big statistical break to make it into the final group which is subjected to Step 3.

In the case of Fort Bragg at least the test results show some decent numbers, but the somewhat better numbers at Mendocino High just down the Coast didn't make the cut because they don't have any Mexican students to speak of, and have much fewer economically disadvantaged.

If a school “made it through” the first two steps i.e., simply above average in statewide tests, after being adjusted TWICE to give numerical preferences for economically disadvantaged and minority students, then the school is eligible for step 3, the ranking.

US News’s rankings in Step 3 are based on a calculation of a “college readiness index” using Advanced Placement test data, not the previously deployed statewide test results. According to the schoolmatters.com website database used by US News, the college readiness index is “based on the weighted average of the Advanced Placement participation rate — the number of 12th-grade students who took at least one AP test before or during their senior year divided by the number of 12th graders, along with how well the students did on those tests."

At AV High School that is a very small number of students.

"The  'quality-adjusted AP' participation, is the number of 12th-grade students who took and passed at least one of the tests before or during their senior year, divided by the number of 12th graders at the school. For the college readiness index, the quality-adjusted participation rate was weighted 75% in the calculation, and 25% of the weight was placed on the simple AP  participation rate."

So the ranking of the schools which made it to Step 3 is based primarily on the number of students TAKING at least one (i.e., generally one) Advanced Placement tests, which is then “weighted” to a significant degree based on how many of them got at least a C (known as a 3 out of 5 in AP scoring) on at least one of those Advance Placement tests.

Remember, one of the Advanced Placement courses is Advanced Placement SPANISH. As noted by the LA Times last year, Spanish speaking students, who make up the large majority of Anderson Valley High School students, usually do reasonably well on Advanced Placement Spanish, regardless of their overall academic performance.

So, basically, if a school has a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students and a high percentage of Hispanic students, they make it into the rankings even if their test scores are below average. Then if the students simply TAKE an Advanced Placement course and can get at least a C on Advanced Placement Spanish, their school gets ranked pretty high, even if their test scores are low and most of their Seniors got only mediocre scores on Advanced Placement Spanish.

By the time these stats emerge from the SES hopper, Anderson Valley High School's almost unique statistical demographics got it a Silver Medal. Fort Bragg's percentage of Hispanics isn't quite as high as Anderson Valley's, but still large enough to push it into Zuckerman's computer generated silver rankings.

However, using schoolmatters.org’s own statewide test data for the year of 2007 to compare Anderson Valley Jr./Sr. High with, say, Round Valley High School, we see that Anderson Valley's reading and math scores, even for the economically disadvantaged and minority students, were much LOWER than Round Valley's even though Round Valley has a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students at 90% of its student body.

So why didn't Round Valley make the cut? 1. They only have 9% Hispanic students, (thus lowering their minority adjustment factor, even though most of the Round Valley students are American Indians, ordinarily considered a minority in the country they once owned), and 2. They didn't submit any Advance Placement test result data to schoolmatters.org.

Mort Zuckerman did not know about Covelo!

So Anderson Valley's ranking has much more to do with its ethnicity and economic demographics, and the number of Spanish speaking students taking an Advanced Placement test, than it does with actual academic performance which, based on the US News state reading and math scores, is significantly LOWER than every other high school in Mendocino County, even when comparing ONLY economically disadvantaged students or Hispanic students. But with one exception: Anderson Valley's Spanish-speaking students do a little better than Willits' Spanish-speaking students. Maybe we should get some kind of prize for THAT.

In fact, all the schools winning Zuckerman medals in California have pretty high minority and economically disadvantaged rankings, another indicator that these basic demographic criteria are much more significant in the US News rankings than real student achievement and unskewed test results.

These kinds of rankings also show that schools are encouraged to give disproportionate attention to the test scores of minority and poor students than they are in challenging less disadvantaged white or non-poor students, a complaint that white parents in Anderson Valley regularly make but mutter to themselves out of fear of being denounced as racists by the well-to-do white liberals who dominate our public schools.

Tests, of course, are far from a complete indicator of student or overall school performance. But the US News’ award criteria — heavily Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, high rates of Advanced Placement Test taking — and the lowered passing criteria that Hispanic students benefit from when they take the Advanced Placement Spanish test — just happen to have been designed to give several large breaks to weak high schools that really ought to focus their attention on teaching children how to read, write and master basic math than celebrate bogus medals from right-wing news magazines.

PS. Feel free to read the US News "methodology" for yourself:

http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/high-schools/2009/12/09/methodology-americas-best-high-schools.html

But realize as you're reading this educratese that the "methodology" is couched in mushy criteria that are both arbitrarily low -- "score of 3 or higher [on] at least one of the tests" -- and skewed.

For a look at how schools compare use the comparison tools provided at:

http://www.schoolmatters.com/schools.aspx/q/page=sc/scid=79537,79543,79539/pid=cmp/up_scid=79537,79543,79539/up_pn=1,1,1/up_ust=CA/up_rb=true/up_csa=2

which is an example only. You can pick your own comparisons and draw your own conclusions.

4 Responses to From the Blogs: Mendo’s Bogus Zuckerman Awards

  1. jake@empirereport.org Reply

    January 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Sounds more like a candidate for TheAVA Awards to me!

  2. Michael DeFrancesc Reply

    January 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    I always get a chuckle out of the AVA’s coverage of Anderson Valley Schools. They always have something negative to say, don’t they? This article is a real stretch; AV gets an award, and they try and spin it into a negative for the school.

    The fact is, Anderson Valley has an amazing public school system with an inspired and thoroughly competent staff. Having taught at the high school, myself, I can attest the fact that educators there are some of the best you can get, and the Valley is blessed to have them.

    FACT CHECK: The claim in this article that, “Anderson Valley’s reading and math scores, even for the economically disadvantaged and minority students, were much LOWER than Round Valley’s” is simply false. Anderson Valley’s API score (which is the state measure of how well a school does on tests) is 763, while Round Valley’s is 596. You can find that data on the state’s webstie. In the world of education, these numbers are drastically different. They are the difference between a failing school and a superior school. Round Valley is in year two of Program Improvement (which means they have failed to meet their test score targets for last four years in row). AV has never been in Program Improvement.

    Here is a bit of data for those interested: Anderson Valley has a the highest ranking (10) you can get, compared with other schools of the same size and student body make-up. This means AV is in the top 10% of schools in the state when compare with similar schools! AV has an overall state ranking of 7, which means they are in the top 30% of all schools in the state. For what it’s worth, Round Valley has a statewide ranking of 1, which means it is in the bottom 10% of all schools in the state.

    I wish that the AVA would recognize how lucky they are to have they type of people they have in the local schools, but given the paper’s history, I doubt that is going to happen. Here is the real issue: All those awesome people that have made that school into what it is are getting up there in years. Let’s hope AV can attract some new young teachers with the same optimism and talent. With the property values in the Valley and the pay for teachers in Mendocino County, it will be real challenge to make that happen. Now that is good topic for a news article…thank you much.

    • Mark Scaramella Reply

      January 15, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      It’s good that somebody from Anderson Valley Unified responded to this, at least, even if it is somebody no longer at the “blessed” AV Unified, who may be more inclined to put a positive spin on his opinion of his former employer than we may be in the other direction.

      Mr. DeFrancesco probably missed the complimentary item we wrote about AV Unified’s decent API scores a couple of months ago which might undermine his point about how the AVA tries to twist all school news into negatives. Mr. Francesco probably also hasn’t been reading the AVA’s “School News” column which strains mightily every week to paint every little activity at AV Unified into perpetual uplift — which we never contradict, even though there’s plenty to contradict. (But of course, if we did, the school staff would predictably react to any skepticism about the school as, according to one teacher a few years ago, “humiliating the children.”

      Interestingly, positive as it obviously is, “School News” never talks about academic achievements at AV Unified, focusing primarily on the usual happy school activities — goat rearing projects, field trips, fund-raisers, rallies, special days for women and gays, sports, etc. — which have nothing to do with core educational accomplishments.

      The point of the Zuckerman Awards piece was not to “spin” the good news into bad news. It was to point out that the Zuckerman Awards are so demographically skewed that they “award” demographics much more than academics and are not much, if anything, to brag about.

      But AV Unified (and Fort Bragg Unified to a lesser degree) are bragging about them without even understanding how they’re arrived at. Heck, no need to look a gift award in the mouth — unless you’re the meany-face local newspaper.

      In addition, Zuckerman & Co. don’t use the API scores for their initial rankings and screenings, they use their own set of test data. And for 2007 AV Unified was indeed worse than Round Valley. For 2008 AV Unified does seem to have scored better than Round Valley according to Zuckerman, but that, too, isn’t much to crow about. Nor is never having been on program improvement.

      We hope AV Unified can attract good teachers too. There again, we covered the district’s attempts to rezone a few acres for “affordable” teacher housing in 2008, but the school board itself nixed that idea. With declining enrollments and more large cuts in edu-funding on the horizon. the real “stretch” for AV Unified will be to even continue doing what they’re doing now, no matter how many bogus Zuckerman Awards they get.

  3. Jamie Trubia Holland Reply

    January 20, 2010 at 8:24 am

    I attended AV High for my junior and senior years (class of ’96) after transferring from a large suburban school in Torrance, California. Advanced Placement courses were not (and I presume still aren’t) taught at AV High, but at the time, I thought that a student might sit for an exam even if that student hadn’t taken the course.

    When I asked AV’s guidance counselor about taking an AP exam, she looked at me in utter confusion. Mouth open, brows knitted together, the whole nine yards.

    “What’s AP?” she asked.

    Brother. I think I just got up and left at that point.

    The school had some incredible teachers in my days. Karen Taussig won State Science Teacher of the Year in ’96, partly because she helped two of her advanced marine biology students make it to the rather elite final round of the state science fair.

    I’m quire sure the AVA covered that story, by the way.

    (P.S. Hi, Mark!)

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