Letter: Excellence Criteria, Misleadingly Incomplete

To the Editor:

Reporting by the McLean Connection (MC) generally excels. Nonetheless, some articles, such as that submitted for the Aug. 22-28 issue [“School System Committed to Excellence,” by Ilryong Moon, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board] have fundamental internal disconnects that MC should have identified in a note. The title of this submitted article, “School System Committed to Excellence,” is at variance with the article’s identified performance criteria. The main claim by well-intended Mr. Moon is that the Fairfax County Public schools (FCPS) have “continued to succeed at the highest levels.” However, the performance criteria that he quotes, in support of claims of these levels for the system, are decidedly mixed and misleadingly incomplete as indicated below. Such reporting seems to reflect shortcomings in statistical understandings and transparency needs. More seriously, the overall set of touted performance criteria is quite inconsistent with needed managerial strategies set to measure excellence improvements, as well as levels, of all FCPS students. Particularly given quite disappointing U.S. educational performances compared with those of so many other nations, we can and should do much better. While others could question the conclusion that the FCPS is a “world-class school system,” the more critical question is whether FCPS succeeds in improving on, as well as achieving, proper performance criteria designed to meet FSPS objectives consistent with being “committed to excellence.”

  1. The “FCPS SAT average of 1654” (out of 2400) exceeds state and national averages. This one measure of performance clearly is the best indicator among those he identifies. But it nonetheless is fundamentally incomplete. The reason is that reporting of these averages, without relative changes, ignores the extent to which this average reflects improvement or deterioration. An improvement in the SAT average to 1800 by 2020 would be a desirable goal.

  2. FCPS’s pass rates for the Virginia Standards of Learning assessments during the 2010-11 school year “were 93 percent in English” and “92 percent in mathematics.” There is no indication on whether or not these two percentages reflect an improvement. Moreover, there is no indication of how these rates compare with state or comparable national averages. In addition, one reason that these reported percentages are poor performance measures is that they entice FCPS to focus on students near class pass-fail lines, perhaps between the bottom 2 and 17 percentage points, rather than on all students. Astute teachers likely will assume that students in about the top 83 and in about the bottom 2 percent will likely remain in their respective pass-fail categories. Thus, these two indicators, in themselves, encourage teachers (to improve in this criterion) to ignore roughly 85 percent of students.

  3. The achievement gap “in reading for Black students” narrowed and the achievement gap “in mathematics for Hispanic students” narrowed. The implication in this selective reporting is that gaps in mathematics for Black students and in English for Hispanics did not narrow. More seriously, the implication is that teachers should discriminate by focusing on these students. Of course, one way for teachers to achieve such ill-advised performance criteria would be to ask all Asian students to stop going to libraries and stop their credible study habits. The point here is that all students at every level in every subject should be encouraged to excel and that all performance criteria should be completely consistent with this comprehensive objective.

  4. The article reports from 2011 national rankings that “nearly all FCPS high schools were listed in the top 6 percent” of public schools. But it does not indicate the specific percent of FCPS high schools in the top 6 percent nor the change in the FCPS percent from the prior year. Meaningful indicators also may be how average FCPS public high schools compare with those of averages of all U.S. counties and how this relevant percentile compares with the prior year.

  5. The article lamentably omits any reference to operational performance criteria designed to improve, as well as to sustain, excellence among FCPS students. Regrettably, it was reported publicly that only one-fourth of teacher assessments are to be based on student learning achievements rather than on the current basis of one-half of teacher assessments. Assuming student learning achievements are properly measured for assessing teachers, this planned decline is a step backwards. At least one half of teacher assessments should be based on changes in student performances to avoid an excessive emphasis on possibly biased opinions and manipulations. It is critical that the relevant student performances for assessing teachers should be based on the same students passing from the prior year to the current school year. Such a measure avoids distortions from changes in the composition of students during that period for each teacher. To the extent that teachers do not like teaching to the test, they should participate in identifying proper tests, keeping in mind that they neither should avoid objective assessments of student improvements nor suggest that national and state tests are bogus. Also, administrators should acknowledge (and report on) their urgent need to avoid granting and extending tenure to undeserving teachers and to link enhanced teacher salaries and bonuses to relevant performance criteria.

Dr. David V. Pritchett

Parent among those

disappointed with educational progress.