As we approach the four year anniversary of the tumultuous firing of the the teachers at Central Falls High School (CFHS), regarded nationally as a watershed event in the Obama administration’s school reform efforts, we must once again consider the success or failure of what followed (and preceded).
Progressives and ed reform skeptics are somewhat hamstrung in this process, as we tend to discount the validity of reformers’ goals and metrics. It often seems like wiser strategy to not accept their premises. Yet, if we ignore this data, we risk unilaterally disarming our own arguments or simply lessening our own understanding of the situation.
With that preamble, consider some charts tracking Central Falls High School 11th grade NECAP proficiency rates, compared to the statewide 11th grade proficiency rate to provide perspective on overall trends. 2007 through 2013 covers all the years the 11th grade NECAP has been administered statewide, all data from RIDE’s website.
In all these charts, CFHS is in red, RI public schools statewide in blue, where applicable, CFHS transformation plan goals in yellow and RI statewide Race to the Top goals in green.
RIDE triggered the crisis in Central Falls following the application of the 2009 NECAP, either immediately before or after RIDE received the 2009 scores (it is hard to say which would be more irresponsible). As you can clearly see above, CFHS was named “persistently low-performing” after two consecutive years of double digit growth in reading proficiency, with a higher proficiency rate and lower achievement gap compared to the rest of the state than they have achieved since the transformation.
CFHS’s transformation plan hoped to “to sustain the rate of growth experienced in the past few years” while focusing their attention on math and other issues. This clearly did not work, and it has taken the school four years to approach the status quo ante in NECAP reading proficiency.
We all still pay to administer the NECAP writing assessment, but since it was not used for No Child Left Behind accountability, it has mostly been ignored by RIDE. Despite the lip service they may give to “multiple measures,” they cannot even be bothered to consider all the tests they administer. Regardless, as a relatively low-stakes, straightforward and authentic ELA test, it helps to corroborate trends in reading scores.
While both CFHS and RI writing proficiency jumped in 2013, the gap between the two is still 8% greater than it was pre-transformation.
Increasing math proficiency was the academic focus of the transformation plan.
While the authors of the plan stated “we are confident that our targets are reasonable” after consideration of “historical CFHS NECAP data… the proportion of students on the cusp of proficiency levels, and… statewide NECAP averages,” in retrospect, that was wishful thinking (or a politically necessary exaggeration). In reality, getting CFHS up to 14% proficiency is a substantial improvement based on a tremendous amount of hard work by students and teachers. But it is not what reformers projected after repeatedly citing CFHS’s 7% proficiency rate in 2009 as a justification for firing all the teachers.
For the NECAP science exam, I shifted the year label back a year to match with the fall test cadres above, and included the goals from RIDE’s strategic plan. The results are depressingly similar to the math test.
Taking a longer perspective on the CFHS data, a few things seem clear:
- The school’s academic performance prior to the transformation was not as bad as reformers thought or presented it.
- Rushing the process did not “save” the students in the school. The test scores of the student cohorts in the school during the process clearly suffered. They were worse off in reading and writing achievement according to the NECAP scores.
- In the four years since RIDE named CFHS “persistently low performing,” the gap between CFHS and RI state proficiency rates has increased on all four NECAP tests.
CFHS has had success improving their graduation rate, but it is important to note that while the four year graduation rate jumped 20% between the classes of 2010 and 2013, when most students in those cohorts took the NECAP in the junior year, the class of 2010 outperformed 2013 in NECAP reading and writing (in fall 2008 and fall 2011, respectively). The class of 2013 did outperform the class of 2010 by 3% in math and science, but there is no evidence that the 20% improvement in graduation rate was driven by increased student learning as measured by NECAP.
In short, dramatic changes have not created dramatically different results on RIDE’s NECAP assessment. It does not mean that nothing can improve urban high schools in Rhode Island, in fact, our recent track record includes some notable successes, including some all too fleetingly implemented at CFHS in the past twenty years, should we choose to re-examine them. But the “fire ’em all” Central Falls transformation has not worked, on its own terms, by its own standards.