The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s veteran education reporter, Cynthia Howell, reported this morning on public school adjustment to the third year of using a new standardized test for judging school performance. A key factor was missing in the discussion.

The big underlying news seems to be that a change in the “cut” score, or what’s determined to be a passing grade in English, is likely to have a negative impact on school “grades”  in the coming school year. The experts up at the Walton-funded school “reform” unit at UA-Fayetteville are of mixed opinion about this.

My own opinion is that a single-letter school grade as a measure of schools is folly. The single-letter grades are more often a measure of the types of students a school receives. Demographics are destiny. As a rule, schools with the poorest students have the lowest scores. Minority-only schools also do poorly, generally, likely thanks to an overdose of poverty.

The impact of poverty was missing from the discussion in Howell’s article. And it’s vital. Consider this passage:

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The results among Little Rock schools varied widely. Baseline Academy and Stephens Elementary were among those that appeared to struggle. Just 11.04 percent of Baseline pupils scored at ready levels in literacy as did 25.15 percent of pupils in math, for example. A total of 12.68 percent of Stephens pupils achieved at ready or better levels in literacy as did 22.83 percent in math.

Other schools such as Jefferson Elementary, Forest Park Elementary, Booker Magnet Arts Elementary, Don Roberts Elementary and Forest Heights STEM Academy reported much greater percentages in the ready and exceeding ready categories.

“How do we get more of those?” Jeff Wood, chairman of the Little Rock Community Advisory Board, asked about the high performing schools. “That’s what the community wants to see — those amazing numbers.”

There’s an easy fix for those low-scoring schools — more middle-class kids, and it probably wouldn’t hurt if they were white. There just aren’t many to go around. This sounds facetious, but consider the facts.

To draw from the passage above, the racial percentages at the schools mentioned:

Baseline  7 percent white
Stephens 3 percent white
Jefferson 71 percent white
Forest Park 73 percent white
Roberts, 56 percent white
Forest Heights STEM, 33 percent white (and 6 percent Asian)

Then there’s an outlier, Booker Magnet, only 8 percent white.

The state doesn’t provide ready access to breakdowns of poverty percentages by school, but the LRSD is 67 percent low-income. It’s a safe bet the highest scoring schools have much lower poverty percentages than Stephens and Baseline. It WOULD be good to know more about Booker. Where school scores outperform expectations based on poverty and race, there are things to be learned.

None of this is to say poor kids can’t learn. That children of color can’t learn. That there aren’t lessons to be drawn from how different schools perform on different tests. Some schools ARE better than others. The danger is to draw too much from test scores and particularly from single-letter school grades. That students improve is the first priority.

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The Democrat-Gazette provided a means to advance charter schools in the story, but the facts proved a little inconvenient. A chart accompanying the story compared ACT Aspire scores of the public school districts and charter schools in Pulaski County. It should be no surprise that whiter charter schools with lower percentages of poor kids did better overall.

But, here’s a funny thing. LRSD white kids outscored all the other schools’ white kids in English and they were narrowly edged out in that category in math by only two schools, eStem and LISA. In combined scores of all races (and LRSD does poorly among Hispanic students particularly) the Little Rock District did of course lag.

But, again, there are statistics and there is context.

While Little Rock has a 67 percent poverty level, eStem’s is 40 percent and LISA is 52 percent. LRSD is 63 percent black, against 53 percent at eStem and 44 percent at LISA. Academics Plus, another higher scoring charter, is 68 percent white and has only 27 percent students classified from poor families.

Here’s an interesting note from the table:

You might remember that Gary Newton, the Waltons’ $237,000-a-year charter school lobbyist was a driving force and had Walton money to start the Quest charter middle school in Chenal Valley as an escape for parents who didn’t want to attend the mostly black and poor Henderson Middle School. Scores of percentages that met or exceeded the “sufficiency level”

Literacy
LRSD whites    Quest whites
73                        61

LRSD blacks    Quest blacks
22                       19

Math
LRSD whites     Quest whites
74                         40

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LRSD Blacks      Quest blacks
25                         12

Newton undoubtedly has a good explanation for the failure of his laboratory of excellence to outscore the despised LRSD and its imprisoned students. But he can’t fall back on demographics. Only 21 percent of Quest students meet the poverty designation, a third of the 67 percent in LRSD. As for race, Quest is 56 percent white, against 18 percent for LRSD.

Perhaps Newton could explain, too, the truly abysmal scores of some charter schools that continue to be reapproved by a state Board of Education that still refuses to let Little Rock School District residents have their school district back.