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ARE TEST SCORES PRIMARLY STATIC? Turning Around a Failing School Is “Extremely Difficult” but Not Impossible, According to New Report

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“Nearly two thirds of low-performing schools in 1989 are still low performers two decades later. But there is a ray of hope, as about one third of these schools show evidence of improvement. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that a low-performing school becomes a high-performing school; the chances (four out of 290) are less than one out of seventy.”

A new report from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy finds that turning around a failing school is “extremely difficult” but not impossible. After comparing test scores on the California Assessment Program (CAP) from 1989 and 2009, The 2009 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? finds that test scores are primarily static and concludes that the odds of turning around a failing school are “daunting.”

“School achievement appears astonishingly persistent,” said Tom Loveless, Brookings senior fellow and author of the report. “Nearly two thirds of low-performing schools in 1989 are still low performers two decades later. But there is a ray of hope, as about one third of these schools show evidence of improvement. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that a low-performing school becomes a high-performing school; the chances (four out of 290) are less than one out of seventy.”

The report compares the test scores of 1,156 California schools that contained an eighth grade in 1989 and were still operating in 2009. As shown in the table below, 184 (63.4 percent) of the 290 low-performing schools scored in the lowest quartile (Quartile 1) in 1989 and again in 2009. Seventy-nine schools (27.2 percent) moved up from Quartile 1 to Quartile 2; twenty-three schools (7.9 percent) moved from Quartile 1 to Quartile 3, and four schools (1.4 percent) moved from the bottom quartile (Quartile 1) to the top quartile (Quartile 4).

 

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On the other end of the spectrum, 182 (nearly two thirds) of Quartile 4 schools in 1989 were still there in 2009. Eighty schools (about 25 percent) slipped from the fourth to the third quartile and twenty schools (7 percent) declined to the second quartile; only seven of the highest-performing schools in 1989 (2.4 percent) had fallen from Quartile 4 down to Quartile 1 in 2009.

Loveless attributes the lack of school movement to the “institutional DNA of schools” by which a school’s culture is passed down from outgoing students and teachers to incoming generations. “Some of it may be due to how school populations change, with teachers and administrators—and kids and their parents—slowly transitioning in and out of schools,” Loveless writes. “The newcomers learn about the culture of a school from those who have been there and are preparing to leave.”

The report also includes an analysis of the 2009 math scores on NAEP and examines whether converting failing schools to charters is an effective way to reform schools.

The complete report is available at http://tinyurl.com/ygm5qbm.

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