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Swallowed by education’s complicated alphabet soup

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By Meaghan Downs

My favorite writers — journalists, poets and songwriters alike — tell it like it is.
No careful waltzes around the truth.
No ring-around-the-rosy games around what really matters.
Which is why the convoluted language of education, especially the dizzyingly complicated formulas of Kentucky’s new educational assessment standards, is particularly frustrating.
The main and justified criticism of No Child Left Behind legislation was that its standards for school improvement were unrealistic and complicated.
I’m concerned, however, that Kentucky may have jumped out of NCLB’s frying pan into a fiery alphabet soup of manipulated formulas.
“Education-ese” is not a new method of communication, as I’m sure those familiar with the Department of Education know.
It’s much like every bureaucracy that feels the need to invent a more pleasant sounding phrase instead of a much more direct word.
“Letting go” is to “fired” as “Student Growth Percentile” is to “super complicated formula only the almighty state education department knows how to calculate.”
I’m not generally opposed to using mathematical formulas. Formulas determine how much interest I owe for my student loans and how much I need to set aside in my bank account to pay them off.
And for the most part, components of the mathematically inclined assessment model make sense.
Rather than putting pressure on one subgroup to perform at an impossible 100 percent, Kentucky’s new system calculates one goal based on many measurements, from achievement to college readiness to graduation rate.
Eventually, program reviews for curriculum as well as performance reviews for our educators and administrators will be a part of a school’s overall score.
One goal, one scale. Seems simple enough.
But when even our local educators, well versed in the job of explaining the alphabet soup to reporters like myself, don’t fully understand how the state comes up with these calculations, there’s cause for some worry.
Here’s a little excerpt on how the Kentucky Department of Education plans on addressing individual gap group scores: “All schools with gap groups underperforming in the third standard deviation (commonly called 3 Sigma) will face state consequences … The Kentucky Department of Education will use the 3 Sigma model to eliminate the masking of low-scoring groups and will conduct ongoing data analysis to determine if the model needs adjusting.”
What’s 3 Sigma you ask? Good question.
Dust off your statistics textbook, because you’re going to have to recall what standard deviation, or “the average distance each score is from the average” is to figure it out.
And don’t expect KDE to offer helpful hints or easy-to-read charts; you’ll have to do the mathematical detective work yourself.
Back in the fall, I wrote a column about the concept of measuring education. How removing NCLB wasn’t going to fix all of Kentucky’s problems when it came to getting our students to improve, and ultimately, excel.
Well, I have a solution for the Department of Education to adopt in its spare time.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Or, at the very least, show your work.
It’s not as though I don’t like wading through pages of jargon. I don’t mind putting together the puzzle pieces to make up the whole of what the future of Kentucky education will look like.
And to be honest, once I dug deep into the math and re-familiarized myself with statistics and the empirical rule, the assessment formula made more sense.
Not every educator, parent and administrator has the time to take a crash course in Education Math 101, but all those who will be affected by the state formula have a right to understand how KDE arrived at its answer.
Make no mistake: the “Unbridled Learning Accountability Model” isn’t as free from NCLB’s complicated reins as its name suggests.