Accentuating the Positive or Misleading the Public?

Most of us who have ever worked for a private business have experience in trying to highlight the things we do well.  A restaurant with an extensive wine list will emphasize the variety of wines they offer in adverts, and maybe not mention that they don’t serve dessert.   A business that’s received awards for processing the greatest volume of home mortgages won’t mention how many of their mortgages ended up in foreclosure. A weight loss company will advertise that they have the greatest numbers of customers reach their goal weight of all the national weight loss programs.  They just won’t mention that it’s only 5% of their customers.

Business people know that highlighting what you do well attracts new customers and brings old customers back.

But what about government entities, like the police, fire and rescue, or public schools?   Government entities exist to serve the public; the money they receive to perform their duties comes from the taxpayers.  Unlike private companies, who are subject to the whims of free choice and will lose customers and go out of business if they don’t do a good job, government entities will still get taxpayer money no matter how well or poorly they do their jobs.

Because government entities are going to get their taxpayer money no matter how well or poorly they perform their duties, the public requires that government entities report various measures of their performance.  Police departments are expected to report crime statistics, and police chiefs are held accountable when crime rates increase.  Fire and rescue departments are expected to report response times, and held accountable when slow response times jeopardize public safety.   Public schools are expected to report test scores, and, in theory, held accountable when scores don’t meet community expectations.

What would you think if a school division selectively reported test scores to highlight success and failed to report when test scores were below expectations?

Several weeks ago PWCS reported on the ACT scores for several of our schools.  The press release was titled, “Prince William ACT Scores Exceed National Scores” and stated the following:

August 22, 2012

Students in Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) scored above the national composite average for the fifth straight year on the college benchmark ACT. Students in four Prince William County High Schools exceeded the state average while overall Division scores remained the same as last year. Battlefield, Brentsville District, Forest Park, and Osbourn Park students achieved composite scores of 23.5, 24.0, 22.4 and 23.4 respectively, exceeding the state composite score of 22.4 and joining other PWCS schools in besting the national outcome of 21.1.

PWCS students exceeded the national average score in all four content areas–English, mathematics, reading, and science–on the ACT administered last year. More students ever took the test. The number of PWCS graduating seniors taking the ACT has increased each year since 2007-08, with a 28 percent increase overall from that year to 2011-12.
ACT scores assess high school students’ general educational development and ability to complete college-level work. Unlike an aptitude or reasoning test, the ACT is designed to be an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The ACT consists of multiple-choice questions. ACT results are reported on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score. Visit the ACT Web site for more information.>

Sounds great, right?

Except for what’s missing – like how PWCS fared when compared with Virginia as a whole on the ACT and how the other seven Prince William County public high schools fared on the ACT.  One look at those scores and you understand why.

PWCS scored below Virginia averages in every content area tested on the ACT.  Let me say that again, and in bold, because it’s really important. PWCS scored below Virginia averages in every content area tested on the ACT. The other 7 PWC high schools that weren’t listed in the press release scored below county and US averages in every content area tested on the ACT, with the exception of Woodbridge HS, which scored above US averages but below state and county averages.

Unlike the SOL, the ACT is a voluntary test, so these scores represent our top tier students, the students we’d expect to go to college.  And in that top tier group, ACT scores only exceed state averages in 4 of our 11 high schools; that’s 36%.   The other 7, 64%, are below state averages.

Still feel like cheering?

We saw the same approach with SOL scores.  PWCS reported how well our students performed relative to state averages.  A school board member reported on his facebook page that PWCS had exceeded state averages in 21 of 28 areas tested, and proclaimed success!

What we weren’t told, again, was the most telling.

Yes, pass rates were above state averages in 21 of 28 areas tested, but we were below state averages in 7 of the 9 areas tested in High School.  That kind of explains why our SAT and ACT scores continue to lag behind state averages.

Yes, quoting the school division’s press release, “PWCS students achieved higher pass rates than the state on all elementary math tests”.   Unfortunately, pass rates were below state averages in 4 of the 9 areas tested for Math, and below state averages in all of the High School level math subjects tested on the SOL.

Yes, Reading scores went up after several consecutive years of declining, but they were up by the same margin statewide, so that increase may be due to a testing irregularity as opposed to the results of improved instruction.

When compared with other school divisions in our area, our test scores only exceeded Manassas and Manassas Park.  Our pass rates were below Fauquier, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Stafford on just about every subject tested on the SOL. We’ve been below Fairfax and Loudoun for years, but Fauquier and Stafford have only recently begun to kick our butts. At one point a few years ago our SOL scores in Math were close to Loudoun’s. Not so much anymore.

Which bring me to another, final point.  Why do we compare ourselves with Virginia averages and then declare success when we do about average for Virginia?  We’re one of the most affluent counties in the state.  Like our neighbors in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Stafford, our citizens tend to be highly educated.   We should be doing better than average for the state.  We should be one of the top performing school divisions in the state. But we’re not.

I can understand accentuating the positive.  I totally get that.

But our schools are struggling, especially at the high school level and especially with high school Math.  Our SAT and ACT scores show that.  They have for years.

So do our SOL scores.  They have for years.

But you have to be willing to look at the scores to see that, and I’m not sure PWCS is willing to do that. They’re too busy accentuating the positive to step back and admit that there might be some negative. From what I’ve read, our school division appears to believe that things in our schools are just peachy keen and that average for the state is an acceptable goal.

I think it’s unacceptable.


2 Responses to “Accentuating the Positive or Misleading the Public?”

  1. Lori Says:

    Wow….good reading……since I have a son at makes me really think! Thank you

  2. Postivie or Positive? « PWC Education Reform Blog Says:

    […] on Clueless Citizens are Good For…Dorrie on Clueless Citizens are Good For…Lori on Accentuating the Positive or M…RGB on Opting Out of State TestsCassandra Albert on Opting Out of […]

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