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Posted at 8:40 AM ET, 11/17/2010

Researcher finds good data scarce at DCPS

By Bill Turque

In 2008, education researcher Becky Smerdon had a plan to study dropout rates in DCPS. The idea was to look at the middle school records of students who had left high school before graduating, to see if there were any common "early warning" indicators to identify and help those at risk of dropping out.

But Smerdon, a research fellow with the Council of the Great City Schools, quickly hit a dead end. Only 23 percent of the students in her study group had three consecutive years of usable data in their files. So she switched to Plan B: trying to understand why DCPS did such a poor job maintaining and using student data. Her study of four Pre-K-through 8 schools in 2009 found that former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's vision of a school district where instruction was driven by reliable, carefully scrutinized data was a long way from reality.

Smerdon found, for example, no standard method of collecting attendance information. In some cases students were marked present by default unless specifically entered as absent. Test scores were used "to identify and focus on the students just below the threshold of passing," the so-called "low-hanging fruit" (Rhee's phrase, not Smerdon's), who could most easily goose schoolwide proficiency rates. Moreover, teachers and staff "had little time--or had no real impetus to make the time--to review, reflect or plan using data."

"In a district where most everything is still kept in hard copy only--grade books, report cards, even attendance records as required by the court, establishing procedures to collect and analyze data electronically is a mountain to move," Smerdon wrote.

Without improvements, she said, "using data to drive instruction will continue to be a misnomer, one that is spoken but not really accomplished."

Erin McGoldrick, DCPS chief of data and accountability, points out that the study was based on site visits to just four schools and that Smerdon herself cautions that it reflects the situation more than a year ago. But McGoldrick added: "We welcome this feedback, which helps DCPS continue to move toward our mission of making sure that there is a great teacher in every classroom."

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By Bill Turque  | November 17, 2010; 8:40 AM ET
 
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Comments

this info will be ignored as people will still prefer to buy into the hype of Rhee more than the realities of DCPS.

As i have stated time and time again. I used to work at DCPS and know people there or in the state ed office in some capacity. In many-many regards, NOTHING HAS CHANGED!!! The historic and systemic incompetence continued shielded by the power of Rhee.

Posted by: oknow1 | November 17, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Good job, Bill - now write an article about this for the Print version and get a quote from Casserly, head of the group that did the study. He has been a great Rhee promoter, saying about DCs improving NAEP scores that "gains of this magnitude do not happen by accident."
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/09/AR2009120903940.html

It would be interesting to see if he’s willing to place any responsibility on Rhee for this dearth of data.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Come on, Turque. I figured with Rhee gone you would stop trying to find things to blame her for and start looking into the real issues plaguing the system.

Smerdon(aka Captain Obvious)'s four-school research project sounds cute, but I would hardly call it comprehensive....

The reality is that at the elementary school level, reports cards are not stored electronically. That would help tremendously as far as records retention.

But that's not a problem created by Rhee or even ignored by Rhee. Before you can move to an electronic system you have to have a system that is ready for it.

The electronic system that tracks high school information (DC STARS) is just now on track to being cleaned up.

The problems of DCPS are deep-rooted and have festered for years. Please stop digging for dirt from the past 3 years and take a look at how things have been in the crapper for the last 30.

Posted by: GetOuttaHere | November 17, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Turque,

I appreciate your post on my study--it's always nice to have one's work read. I'd just like to post a few points of clarification, if I may. First, I am not a fellow with the Council. I received a competitive grant from them but I am an independent researcher. Second, while DCPS may be an extreme case, most of the data challenges are not unique to the District. Finally, DCPS was very generous with their time and data and supported this work from beginning to end. At no point did they or the Council ever attempt to alter the study or anything my co-author and I wrote in the report. I know the District has put a lot of effort into improving their data systems and DCPS staff has read my report and asked questions, leading me to assume they are interested in learning from it, rather than dismissing it. I also recognize the extreme difficulty of trying to move from a data system(s) designed for federal compliance reporting to one that can be used to inform local policy and practice...not to mention shifting to a system where data are used to inform decisionmaking in the classroom, building, and district. Personally, I have nothing to gain or lose by having my name associated with a positive or negative story about DCPS and/or Michelle Rhee. But, in this case, my hope is that my report is not interpreted as a critique of either. No doubt, there is a lot of work left to be done regarding data quality and use. My goal was to help DCPS and districts like it improve their systems because I believe good data are central to school improvement. I sincerely hope that the take away messages from the report are the suggestions and recommendations that we put forth.
Thank you again,
Becky Smerdon

Posted by: bsmerdon | November 17, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

McGoldrick added: "We welcome this feedback, which helps DCPS continue to move toward our mission of making sure that there is a great teacher in every classroom."

Those two ideas don't even go together. Either McGoldrick was asked a poor question or doesn't know how teachers might actually use data to improve instruction. (Hint: test scores don't make the most useful data)

Posted by: dcparent | November 17, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Here’s an interesting section from page 22 of the report* that points out the need for “strategic reflection of daily interactions with students” in addition to data. Bill, please find out if Casserly and Interim Chancellor Henderson agree with that. It des not seem to reflect the way IMPACT is used, which is strictly based on in-class 30 minute observations of teachers in the classroom.

“The Inquiry Phase of using data effectively entails creating an overview analysis of the data as well as “digging” into the analysis to the root of the problem in question. Staff that we interviewed discussed using DC BAS data as
their sole source of inquiry. However, other sources of information are also critical for examining student and
school performance and well being, as indicated in Figure 4. Is attendance a problem? What about staff retention?
Test data are just one piece of a larger puzzle. It is like a check engine light being on or off—when the light is on you know there’s a problem, but you’re not sure what it is. When the light is off, you figure things are moving along smoothly even though your brakes may be failing or your battery running low. Focusing only on test scores without also analyzing additional information will result in an incomplete understanding of the situation and even less understanding of how to resolve it.

For example, what if the student was absent repeatedly prior to a test and they missed valuable information? What if they have been getting into trouble lately and spending time in detention or suspended instead of in the classroom? Should you drill them in finding main ideas if they got these questions wrong or try to build up their reading level? Or both?

These questions and many others cannot be explored in isolation – or with isolated data. One suggestion for the types of data to analyze and how often can be found in Figure 4. The best use of data comes not necessarily from assessment results of formal tests but from the strategic reflection of daily interactions with students.

* http://www.cgcs.org/publications/DC_FellowReport2010.pdf

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

It only solidifies how in one breathe a DCPS school can be deemed a drop-out factory and in the next breathe it is ranked US News and World Report.

Plainly put Johnny can't read, nor can he be found if he graduated.

Posted by: PowerandPride | November 17, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

dcparent - I suspect that McGoldrick's stock response to tough questions.

I also suspect Mcgoldrick is running scared, knowing how little she knows about data.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

dcps is basically in the stone age!
i can't believe that attendance is still done on paper!

Posted by: cosnowflake | November 17, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Turque, now that Rhee is gone, it would be good to just work to improve the system without referencing her less that stellar work. She frankly was not at work often enough to get anything done. She was on every panel and at every conference in the country, promoting herself.

All you have to do is look at the high schools in DC. DCPS is working hard to shove all of it's ill-prepared students into charters while they establish admissions criteria at their schools. half of the high schools in DC will not accept DCPS students.

Next you need to look at OSSE, at best they have been the spear carrier for the dirt of the Fenty/Rhee coalition.

Posted by: topryder1 | November 18, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Rhee's administrative team is still here running the schools - probably just as they did when she was here, so yes, the investigation should continue.

Posted by: efavorite | November 18, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"Her study of four Pre-K-through 8 schools in 2009 found that former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's vision of a school district where instruction was driven by reliable, carefully scrutinized data was a long way from reality."

You need to understand the difference between a goal (vision) and a slogan. Rhee's data-driven schools was the latter. Rhee and the "reformers" are willing to create bogus "data," but they have no use for, or understanding of, real educational, sociological or psychological data.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 18, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

No surprise here...the truth that the Rhee administration was one huge, devastating experiment for the District is slowly beginning to surface.

Posted by: vscribe | November 19, 2010 2:44 AM | Report abuse

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