kitchen table math, the sequel: New Rochelle Math Department Chairman Struggles with Basic Calculations

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New Rochelle Math Department Chairman Struggles with Basic Calculations

In a school that claims to have achieved massive improvements in math test scores over the past two years, what to make of a school board presentation where the head of the math department is unable to perform even the most basic mathematical calculations?

A few days ago, I had the misfortune to attend a local school board meeting held at the Isaac E. Young Middle School in New Rochelle, NY.  I was there to speak on an entirely different matter but found myself in utter shock as speaker after speaker presented charts and tables and graphs where the information in their presentations directly contradicted what they were telling school board members.  The board asked just one question over two hours.

The low point was a sorry presentation by the head of the math department who was supposedly comparing the percentage of students scoring at or above expectations on a state math exam between 2006 and 2008.  According to this math genius, the growth from 2006 to 2008 showed a three year growth rate.  Apparently, eight minus six equals three in New Rochelle.  Even more pathetic was his inability to calculate that growth rate.  For example, for black and African-American students, 46% scored "at or above" in 2006; in 2008 that figure was 71%.  In New Rochelle you apparently calculate growth rate by subtracting 46 from 71 to get 25% growth instead of the old-fashioned way where growth is calculated by measuring growth from a base amount  or (71-46)/46 = 54% growth.

Based on his calculation of 25% growth over three years or about 8% a year, he told the board that while the growth rate was not as high as he would have liked, the good news is that the data showed "steady and sustainable growth".  Except that the data actually showed an annualized growth rate three times higher, a rate that is, by definition, unsustainable.

There is a lot more to say about New Rochelle but first I would like to thank Catherine Johnson for the opportunity to post here about the many problems parents are facing in New Rochelle, NY.  We certainly have the deck stacked against us in our effort to foster greater transparency within our school district so every little bit helped.

How bad are the problems?

Last year a white supervisor at the same middle schools hung a stuffed animal - a monkey - on a noose in the building.  One of the janitors, who is black, removed it and complained.  The result?  The supervisor hung up TWO MORE nooses to retaliate for taking down the first noose.  The initial response of the District was to reprimand the supervisor.  When the NAACP got involved the supervisor was suspended for three weeks.  How many places in the United States do you know where a supervisor could hang a stuffed monkey from a noose and keep their job?  The NAACP is now suing the District.

As an experienced blogger, I have often been approached by people in New Rochelle to help them start a community blog to shine a light in a city of close to 100,000 people with no local newspaper and therefore almost zero accountability by the press for local government and the local school board.  Over the summer I finally broke down and helped them create New Rochelle's Talk of the Sound (the city is located on Long Island Sound).  I am now helping them file Freedom of Information Law requests, source tips from inside the school district and otherwise shine a bright light on the people who run the local school system.  The first time I went to follow up on a tip - again at this same middle school - the District responded by sending two police detectives to my house based on the false claim they did not know me.

Sadly, many are being duped by the highly questionable data in New Rochelle.  The State has named the school "improving", MetLife gave them an award and now, based primarily on this sort of data BusinessWeek ranked New Rochelle one of the best places to raise kids in the United States.  Now, I live her, have four kids and my wife works for the District.  I really WANT this to be true.  It isn't.


14 comments:

Adam Glesser said...

"The low point was a sorry presentation by the head of the math department who was supposedly comparing the percentage of students scoring at or above expectations on a state math exam between 2006 and 2008. According to this math genius, the growth from 2006 to 2008 showed a three year growth rate. Apparently, eight minus six equals three in New Rochelle."

While the term three year growth rate may be inappropriate, there are three years of test data in question: 2006, 2007, 2008. This doesn't seem like too big of a deal and it is not that tough to figure out.

"Even more pathetic was his inability to calculate that growth rate. For example, for black and African-American students, 46% scored "at or above" in 2006; in 2008 that figure was 71%. In New Rochelle you apparently calculate growth rate by subtracting 46 from 71 to get 25% growth instead of the old-fashioned way where growth is calculated by measuring growth from a base amount or (71-46)/46 = 54% growth."

It is very common to talk about change both in percentage change and change of percentage points. For instance, when Obama increased his lead in the polls, they mention the number of percentage points he gained, not the percentage increase in percentage. There is a reason for stating things in this way. If only 1% of students pass an exam and the following year 2% pass an exam, you can argue the success rate increased by 100%. But this is extremely misleading and so you say that the increase was 1%.

"Based on his calculation of 25% growth over three years or about 8% a year, he told the board that while the growth rate was not as high as he would have liked, the good news is that the data showed "steady and sustainable growth". Except that the data actually showed an annualized growth rate three times higher, a rate that is, by definition, unsustainable."

You see, the 54% growth rate you found is extremely misleading as it made you miss the point. Obviously you can't sustain that amount, but you might be able (for a few years, anyway) to sustain an 8 point annual growth rate.

SteveH said...

"The State has named the school 'improving', ..."

Our state says that our schools are "High Performing" and "Improving". Many say that that this means we have excellent schools. But nobody works backwards from those definitions to see exactly where they came from. I've tried, but it can't be done unless you put the effort into a FOIL request.

What you can see is that the labels come from a proficiency index that is based on how well schools get most all students over a very low cutoff point. That's where the "High Performing" and "Improving" comes from. This is all done while still using Everyday Math. It's done while getting no more students to algebra in 8th grade. These labels only refer to the low end, not the top end. The data and formulas that I do see show how they map low raw scores in the 50% bracket into high proficiency scores in the 90's. You lose all sense of the raw data. It's like relabeling a graph to make a line look flat instead of steep.

How impressive is it to get most students over a very low cut-off in a high SES town?

Robert Cox said...

Adam,

I can't quite follow what you are trying to say in your comment.

It almost sounds like you are trying to DEFEND the math chairman who cannot do math by inventing explanations as to why he made these mistakes or that somehow I am mischaracterizing or exaggerating his mistakes.

Do I have this wrong? If so, how?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Adam. It appears you are aiming your issues with the school at a person who, if mistaken at all, is only guilty of a minor spoken error. Choose your battles wisely or risk not being taken seriously.

Robert Cox said...

A minor spoken error?

He understated the actual data by 350%.

What is your definition of minor?

David said...

The most useful way to compare two passing rates is to subtract them, because this indicates most directly how many more students passed. The department head should have said that the passing rate for African-American students increased by 25 percentage points, not 25 percent.

I don't understand the justification for calculating (71-46)/46. Is there some model according to which the change in the passing rate should be proportional to the current passing rate? Is an increase from 1% to 5% really as significant as an increase from 20% to 100%? This strikes me as nonsensical.

lgm said...

The presenters (math chair and others) are following the format established in their profession by New York State. They don't have the authority to change it. I would say the math chair is between a rock and hard spot, and advise not attacking him professionally - there is nothing to be gained by doing so. If you want to make improvements in the math curriculum or objectives covered, a better route to consider is lobbying the school board to teach more than the minimum objectives set by the state, or the state to include more in the objectives.

With the cigars...I'd give the guy credit for taking it outside. If that's his only vice, it's harmless and it gives him character. Yes, it's against the law and every health class has already brought it up for discussion and concluded that the man is a fine example of an addict and a hypocrite. However, the result of your campaign is only going to be to make him cross the street and smoke off school grounds. Is this really where you want to focus your efforts publicly? Most people will call this nitpicking, some will call it needless personal harassment and most will ignore anything else the group focuses on in the future. A better approach would be to focus on health, and involve the study body in some effort (marathon, race for heart, cancer walk, etc) that culuminates in them winning the prize of the beloved principal giving up cigars on campus, becoming healthier, and enjoying his life more.

Robert Cox said...

It appears that commenters here are not going back to read the posts on "Talk of the Sound" which are linked in the post here. Instead, they seem to be getting lost in maze of trying to find ways to minimize the significance of the errors in the math chair's presentation and otherwise excusing an abysmal performance. Why is that? The links provide the details, context and a more complete outline of my concerns about the local school district. I hope folks here will read those posts rather than indulge in a "shoot the messenger" form of "debate".

Whether you think these errors are "major" or "minor" or whether you think there are some excuses or explanations that can be made that might justify or excuse the errors or whether you think I am being overly critical of the math department chairman is entirely beside the point.

The point is that this middle school is claiming that after DECADES of poor performance on state exams by the black students in this school, within two years of being tagged as a failing school and losing Title I funding, they were able to generate such massive increases in test scores in a very short amount of time. The influx of a large hispanic population is about a decade old in New Rochelle but the hispanic students have performed only slightly better than the black students during that time. Now, suddenly all racial and ethnic subgroups are miraculously performing at about the same level (black=71% up from 46^, hispanic=75% up from 52%, white=77% up from 71%). Meanwhile, white students showed only a tiny fraction of the increase of minority students during the same period; if the test was getting easier or the teachers were doing a better job of teaching to the test then ALL scores should have gone up markedly. It is worth noting that at the predominantly white middle school in the north end (near Scarsdale, NY) white students achieve levels in the mid-eighties so there is certainly precedent for a greater increase in white test scores in New Rochelle.

You would think that administrators at a school that had achieved such a miraculous outcome would be bursting their buttons with pride yet these administrators diminished their own supposed accomplishment by understating the performance of black and hispanic students by more than 300%. You would think they at least knew what they had done was unprecedented. No racial or ethnic group has EVER achieved such startling increases in performance. Yet, they actually expressed disappointment that the annualized growth rate was not higher because it was just 8.3% (it was actually 27%).

Let me see if I can help the commenters out.

1) Once a year each school in the District hosts a board meeting at which they put on a series of presentations touting the success of the school. These meetings are regular, required events that are scheduled well in advance. So, each presenter had many months to prepare yet the presentations that were made were replete with errors including many in which the speaker stated as fact the exact opposite of what their own slides showed.

2) In the case of the math department chairman, I have focused on one slide that had multiple errors. There were dozens of such slides presented that night. When I spoke to the math chair afterwards he could not understand his errors even when I slowly explained them to him. More to the point he did not understand why the correct calculation showed the opposite of his conclusions' 54% growth every two years starting from a base of 46% of students "at or above" some cut-off is, by definition, not sustainable (hint: in year four you would exceed 100%) yet he described the growth as "steady and sustainable".

3) These are not "minor" errors. The growth rate for black and African-American students was not an average of 8.3% per annum over three years, it was an average of 27% over two years; a 27% growth per annum is not "steady and sustainable"; it is "massive and unsustainable". Therefore the entire point of the presentation - that the school was doing a good job by slowly but surely improving math skills was entirely wrong.

In this context, my question is this: how believable is it that an administration that puts on a series of presentations which showed such a remarkable inability to do basic math, where speaker after speaker grossly misrepresented the data in their own slides, could oversee such an incredible turnaround in math performance for two large racial/ethnic subgroups that had never achieved anything remotely close to the level of performance being claimed. Even if the increases for black and hispanic students was as described in by the math chairman (+25%, +23% respectively) the numbers would be hard to believe. When you consider that the actual numbers were more than TWICE AS HIGH AS CLAIMED (+54%, +47% respectively) you might start to understand why I tend to think there is another explanation.

For those who still don't get it, try reading another post I wrote after attending the recent board meeting:

How Cheating on High-Stakes Testing Works

Robert Cox said...

lgm wrote:

The presenters (math chair and others) are following the format established in their profession by New York State. They don't have the authority to change it.

I am new to this site but I am starting to wonder what flavor Kool-Aid the commenters here are drinking. Do these comments represent the views of the typical reader on this site or I am just attracting apologists for the unions?

Let me see if I have this right, lgm. There is some "professional format" that requires school administrators to lie to school boards and members of the public attending public board meetings? Given the amount of lying that goes on it would not surprise me that there actually is a professional format required by the state education bureaucracy that compels administrators to lie to parents but just of curiosity, what format is it to which you refer? Links please!

lgm said...

Robert,

The NY state Dept of Ed is where you'll find the info on how the calculations for test result reports are done. What the presenter wants to say and conclude to the public beyond that is up to him and his administration.

I appreciate your clarification of your point, however I note it would have been clear if you had stated it and the evidence supporting it in the first place, rather than writing about a dept. chair's presentation.

I'll withdraw from the discussion as your use of insults such as "what flavor Kool-Aid the commenters here are drinking." indicates that you are not looking for thoughtful discussion, nor do you value the time others have given you.

Robert Cox said...

lgm,

There is no "format" for school administrators established by New York State on how they may presenting data from test results. You made it up. That is why you cannot provide a link to support your false claim.

Otherwise, I find your comments fascinating and insightful.

Catherine Johnson said...

Last year a white supervisor at the same middle schools hung a stuffed animal - a monkey - on a noose in the building. One of the janitors, who is black, removed it and complained. The result? The supervisor hung up TWO MORE nooses to retaliate for taking down the first noose.

What??????

(btw, I apologize for being so unbelievably behind -- am just getting to all the posts written in the past 2 or 3 weeks -- )

"It's always worse than you think."

Catherine Johnson said...

I am now helping them file Freedom of Information Law requests, source tips from inside the school district and otherwise shine a bright light on the people who run the local school system.

Let us know how these go. I was in touch with a school board attorney for a while who said that FOIL requests are such a PITA that when you let a district know you're going to be filing one they typically decide just to cooperate with requests.

Of course, I've also heard the opposite story.

The first time I went to follow up on a tip - again at this same middle school - the District responded by sending two police detectives to my house based on the false claim they did not know me.

They're have to knock this off.

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