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Clickable data on D.C. schools

I am, I admit, surrounded by cool technology and young people who know how to use it. I also confess I am, in at least a technical sense, a blogger, knight errant of the Internet age. But you also may have noticed that there isn't much tech stuff in this column. I am a word guy, just barely able to log myself on and click the right icons to get what I have written on the Web.

So it both shocks and pleases me that this weekly column, exclusively online since its birth ten years ago, is revealing today a new Web tool from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) that many school wonks like me are going to find irresistable.

Its inventor, Jeff Noel, assistant director of school quality at FOCUS, is one of those young people who live for this stuff. He has been working on ways to help kids learn, and help adults understand how to aid them, in several states and for several enterprises. As he sat next to me in our little conference room in the Post's Alexandria bureau, he smiled tolerantly as I yelped in excitement at what this new toy could do.

My children and young colleagues at this point would be asking me to hand them the laptop so they could play. Okay, here are two links to the new school quality data tool designed by Noel for FOCUS, a non-profit organization that promotes charter schools in D.C. They are working on more, but these are good examples of what they are up to.

Here is a set of graphs showing the weakness of the current way of rating schools, using the No Child Left Behind "adequate yearly progress" measures.

Here is the site's School Data Explorer, its central feature, showing not only how schools are doing now, but how they have improved, or not, over time.

............................Oops. Sorry. Got distracted. I was trying out the various features. They are addicting. I can't wait to see what more talented analysts, like the D.C. schools blogger GF Brandenburg, find interesting--or frustrating-- about this approach.

For those of you who don't have time right now to check it out, the data explorer offers a scatterplot of D.C. public schools, both regular and charter,
with the percentage of students who scored proficient in 2009 on the vertical axis and school change from 2006 to 2009 in percent proficient on the horizontal axis.

You can search for individual schools. The Cesar Chavez-Capitol Hill public charter school is in the upper right quadrant, a good place to be, with 2009 proficiency of about 60 percent and improvement of about 25 percentage points, both above the D.C. average. Janney Elementary, a regular school in an affluent part of Northwest D.C., is much higher in proficiency, about 85 percent, but improved by only about 5 percentage points between 2006 and 2009, below the D.C. average. So it is in the upper left quadrant.

Another part of the data explorer presents the growth of various categories of students at each individual school, both charter and regular. Proficiency rates are shown with vertical bars. I looked up Ballou High, one of the lowest-performing of the regular schools. The bars were barely visible in 2006, but as I clicked up the line to 2009, they got higher.

Barnaby Towns, the director of communications for FOCUS, said "this new tool allows us to get at school performance data that has been hard to obtain in D.C. and pinpoint the schools that are registering strong growth in student proficiency as the potential high-performing schools of the future: those doing a good job now which will produce the right results in future."

It matters, he said, "because accountabilty is as important to the health and vitality of the public charter school movement as the autonomy which allows schools the freedom to innovate in their school policies and educational program. D.C.'s public charter school reform introduced the principle that underperforming public schools should lose their right to operate and that no school has an automatic right to operate. The Public Charter School Board rejects two charter applications for every one it approves and has removed the right to operate from one in four charter schools. It should take appropriate action with underperformers."

I have been calling for quicker action to close poorly performing charter schools, as President Obama has asked. But you have to be careful when you do that. This tool can distinguish schools, both charter and regular, that have special missions that affect their test scores.

"A few charters serve disproportionately special needs student populations which, out of fairness to these students and schools, should be compared among each other, rather than with schools that have a more typical and lower proportion of special needs students," Towns said.

Noel has worked with school data systems in Michigan, Ohio, California and Hawaii. He is now assisting both the D.C. Public Charter School Board and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in sorting out the data for both regular and charter schools.

It took him three months to create this tool. Please use the comment function on this column to tell me, and him, how it works for you, and what you think should be added, or changed. There are very few cities that offer such an intriguing look at how their schools are changing. Have some fun with it, and pray that I learn enough from this to risk more discussion of how best to use the Web to help schools.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | January 8, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  school test score data; D.C. schools; Friends of Choice in Urban Schools; showing how schools change; Jeff Noel; Barnaby Towns; No Child Left Behind;  
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It's clearly a tool aimed mostly at policy wonks since the one thing parents would want to know - what's the best school for my kid that's within X miles? - isn't there. Of course that may be a deliberate decision since including a filter like that would introduce a competitive atmosphere to the site which the organization might be seeking to avoid, at least at this point.

Of course if FOCUS doesn't generate that sort of information some other organization, sooner or later, will.

Posted by: allenm1 | January 8, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

Interesting tool, but in order to buy into it, you'd have to agree that "proficient" scores on the DC-CAS signify some respectable measure of achievement. (Don't forget, the DC-CAS scores are categorized as "below basic," "basic," "proficient," and "advanced.")

My kids have taken that test, as well as SSATs and ERBs. There is no comparison in difficulty and range of knowledge tested. A kid scoring "advanced" on DC-CAS can easily score as low as the 40th percentile on SSATs.

Posted by: trace1 | January 8, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

This data provides much greater value than the traditional snapshot of how a school is doing at a point in time. It tells you how well schools are doing at helping students improve over time. While testing is only one measure, this is a proxy for which schools are accomplishing above and beyond the average for students. As a parent, I want to know that my student won't just tread water (or worse, lose ground), but will become more accomplished the longer they remain at the school. You don't have to be a policy wonk to see that students at Noyes Elementary (which happens to be in a high poverty neighborhood), are making significant gains over time, scoring at levels that equal or exceed those in many of the upper NorthWest schools in this database, and that the growth in achievement over three years has been much greater than in many of those schools. As a parent I would conclude that the quality of teaching and leadership at that school is probably extrordinary. I would probably draw the same conclusion for E.L. Haynes PCS as well, and put both schools on my list to consider.

Data that is collected and made public in this way is so useful to families. Colorado does an excellent job. Check out the Colorado Growth Model for an example of current best practices:

Posted by: emilymb1 | January 8, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Not fully related, but importnant nonetheless:
Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard
By TEACHER OF THE YEAR Anthony Mullen on January 7, 2010 9:12 AM
"Mullen sat through a luncheon meeting "listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators disrespect my colleagues and profession." After the "three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator" were done trashing teachers, Mullen was asked what he thought. He offered the analogy and conclusion:

I'm thinking about the current health care debate. And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.

I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.

Posted by: edlharris | January 9, 2010 1:17 AM | Report abuse

At the clickable website,
compare Hardy MS with Shaw MS and remember which one is changing principals.

Posted by: edlharris | January 9, 2010 1:33 AM | Report abuse

Cool site, although (as other commenters have pointed out) devoid of context that can provide essential mitigation.

This reminds me of the fantastically interesting resource at (The most celebrated among these is the Per Capita Income vs. Life Expectancy At Birth, graph, which also shows population, animated to flow from 1800 to 2007, at Instead of being limited to test-score change over a three-year period, which glosses over ups and downs in some cases, this data's "movement" (animated) could be revealed through Gapminder -- data can be uploaded through a Google tool. Wouldn't that be cool to see?

One question that occurred to me: in about half the schools there seem to be higher scores for Latino kids than African-American, and about half vice versa. Worth looking at some of those schools to see what (about curriculum, population, etc.) may be affecting those scores? I didn't check, but I wonder if majority (i.e., if one population is larger than another) correlates with higher or lower scores among these "traditionally underrepresented" groups?

Posted by: carlrosin | January 9, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I think the new school quality data tool designed by Noel for FOCUS is both pioneering and, in terms of transparency, resourceful for parents, educators and stakeholders. I also applaud FOCUS for holding conferences with charter schools to work through some of the kinks and limitations (inaccurate data). However, FOCUS should now “focus” on including multiple measures of data toward showing accurate student achievement growth. As it stands, the only assessment data they are using to measure such a broad construct (student achievement) is DC-CAS data. Let's not forget about some of the inherent trends and inequities in the District's schools that attribute to low achievement...

Posted by: rasheeedj | January 9, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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