Educational statistics and rankings: what they do, and do not, represent

Dr. John Stockwell: Executive Director, Spartanburg Academic Movement and Member, SC Education Oversight Committee

Dr. John Stockwell: Executive Director, Spartanburg Academic Movement and Member, SC Education Oversight Committee

US News and South Carolina’s Education Ranking

US News and World Report caught the bull by the tail three decades ago when it launched its annual “college rankings” issue. Though the print magazine is defunct, the rankings live on, now including healthcare, crime, infrastructure, opportunity, economy, and pre-K through 12 education. 

Their popularity resides in the reduction of complicated comparisons to simple digits. Few of us have the inclination to dig into their methodology, but we should.

Earlier this month US News issued state-by-state rankings of pre-K – 12 education. South Carolina ranked 48th.  To argue with the ranking sounds defensive.  On the other hand, letting the bull rampage the china shop is irresponsible.

There is no single ranking that can represent with validity the complexity of education. For example, comparing “states” with one another masks the incredible disparities that exist “within states.” In one of South Carolina’s counties, the 4-year graduation rate is 59%.  Spartanburg County’s is 87.2%. It is meaningless to declare that the graduation rate is 73.1%.  Yet, this is the simplistic analytical model upon which much of the rankings are based.

US News relies on proxies to calculate rankings: ACT scores, graduation rates, 8th grade math and reading, pre-K enrollments; and it selects arbitrarily how it will weight these proxies to arrive at rankings.

US News uses the ACT as the chief indicator of college readiness. It fails to mention who takes and doesn’t take the ACT from state to state. Among the five states ranked highest (MA, NJ, NH, CT, and VT), less than one-third of high-schoolers take the ACT, and they self-select to do so. 

South Carolina requires 100% of 11th graders to take the ACT. Why? Because we want a realistic look at post-secondary readiness among all students, not a self-selected few. We want the capacity to advise all students where to turn for post-secondary certification. We want to create the possibility that a surprisingly good score will persuade an uncertain student to go to college.   

Of course, requiring the ACT of all 11th graders “hurts” our statewide average, but it helps us immeasurably learn more about our graduates. Were we to limit testing to a self-selected few, we too could trade away that knowledge for higher rankings. But which is the better practice?

South Carolina requires 24 credits for graduation. New Jersey requires 22 and other states among the so-called top five require 20 or fewer. Their graduation rates are slightly higher than ours, and that simple fact – absent the hours required to graduate – yields higher ratings. Which is the better practice?

Research demonstrates that the return on investment in early childhood education is substantially greater than any other stage of learning. South Carolina’s pre-K quality rating by the National Institute for Early Education Research is 4th in the nation. Is the credit in the rankings equal to the ROI?

State Superintendent Molly Spearman points out that we’re leading the country in our apprenticeship program. Not credited in the rankings.

The “Profile of the South Carolina Graduate” expects schools to address not only world-class knowledge but also world-class skills and personal characteristics. The ambition of the “Profile” is a national best practice. Not in the rankings. 

Finally, what fails completely to get attention in the rankings is the profound impact of household poverty on academic achievement. It is no accident that the top five ranked states have incomes substantially higher than South Carolina’s. Yet Spartanburg County is addressing poverty and academic achievement head-on, witnessing some of our greatest gains among our most disadvantaged populations. Not in the rankings.

Consider interventions across our county impacting academic achievement from cradle to career: declining teenage births, increasing birth weights, Quality Counts child care centers, expanding 3K and 4K in schools, developmental delay interventions, programs to address summer slide, individual graduation planning starting in 8th grade, rich array of AP courses, dual credit opportunities, expanding apprenticeships, increasing graduation rate seven years running. None credited in the rankings.

Why does US News “rank” states in the first place? In the somewhat patronizing words of assistant managing editor Mark Silva, “as many balances of power shift from Washington, D.C., to the states, it’s essential to understand which states are doing best at what matters most to Americans.” Sounds good. Sells well. But it masks some really sloppy social science, and thereby damages reputations.

South Carolina’s teachers, schools, Department of Education, Education Oversight Committee, and we here in Spartanburg County are undertaking the more rigorous science of examining what really works in teaching and learning. And we are looking the difficult challenges of poverty straight in the eye, addressing learning disparities directly.

If we’re going to look the bull straight in the eye, it’s wiser to take it by the horns than by the tail.

John C. Stockwell, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Spartanburg Academic Movement

Member, SC Education Oversight Committee

March 17, 2017

Read, Rattle, and Roll

On October 29th the Spartanburg Academic Movement will host “Read, Rattle, and Roll” in partnership with Help Me Grow South Carolina and the Bridge at Green Street.  “Read, Rattle, and Roll” is a free developmental screening event for families in Spartanburg with young children ages 2 months – 5 years. The event will take place at the Bridge at Green Street located at 446 Brawley Street in Spartanburg’s Northside community.

What is developmental screening?  

Early childhood developmental screening is the process of detecting delays in reaching typical developmental milestones, referring children for additional assessments, and initiating early intervention services.  According to the South Carolina Developmental Screening Landscape Survey, the most widely used screening tool is the Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ-3).

The ASQ-3 is a standardized screening tool completed by family members and others who are familiar with a child’s common skills and behaviors.  Developmental screening is a non-invasive process that considers the age of the child, the typical milestones for the age range, and parent/caregiver responses on the child’s current abilities relative to the typical milestones.

Developmental screening does not provide a diagnosis of any kind, but can be extremely helpful in identifying children that should seek further evaluation and referrals to early intervention services.  Some concerns that may be revealed through a developmental screen include potential speech/communication delays and gross/fine motor delays.

Why focus on developmental screening?

As highlighted in the article, early detection and interventions can have profound impacts on child outcomes.  In the article, “Justin” is described as a third grader who is meeting all of his grade-level expectations and gets along well with others, even though he is on the autism spectrum.  His story is very positive because his parents were able to detect early signs of autism and have him screened at 18 months old – providing for years of early intervention therapies that have allowed him to meet or exceed many benchmarks thought to be impossible.

Developmental screening allows for the early detection of concerns, further assessment, and the provision of early intervention services as soon as possible.  Those early intervention services provide can be successful in addressing the needs of a child and reduce the likelihood for further special education services.  

Many children, however, have not had a developmental screening and may be experiencing developmental delays that go undetected until they enter kindergarten.  At this point, students are at a disadvantage in their ability to learn and the schools incur the tremendous responsibility of providing many therapy services in school.  Of course, therapies will always need to be provided in a school setting, but for many children, the same therapies provided much earlier than kindergarten can be successful in addressing the delay and reducing the need for services later on. 

A recent article from the Institute for Child Success, “Early Childhood Developmental Screening in South Carolina:  Common Practices, Opportunities, and Challenges” highlights the importance of and impact that early childhood developmental screening can have for a community, including economic and social benefits for students, families, schools, and states.

It is SAM’s desire that through events like “Read, Rattle, and Roll” and the collective focus of partners like our child care community there will be a tremendous increase in the number of children in Spartanburg County that have access to free developmental screenings and the connection to early intervention services so that more and more of our children get the very best start on their journey to lifelong success.

Share this event with your friends and neighbors and encourage young families to attend on October 29th.  

Beth Gets Her Black Belt

So we don't have any ninjas in the office, but congratulations are definitely in order! Beth Thompson, Director of Collaborative Action Networks, just received her Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification at our last Board of Directors meeting. The certification was presented to her by BMW associates Mark Fendley and Eric Hayler following her final project presentation.

Pictured from left to right: Mark Fendley, Beth Thompson, Eric Hayler

Pictured from left to right: Mark Fendley, Beth Thompson, Eric Hayler

In order to receive her Black Belt certification, Beth had to successfully complete 5 weeks of classroom training and demonstrate appropriate use of the Six Sigma method throughout her project.  The Six Sigma Continuous Improvement process provides a methodology and set of tools to move the needle on SAM's indicators of academic success.  Beth’s project focused on improving kindergarten readiness outcomes by organizing the Kindergarten Success Collaborative Action Network (“KSCAN”) and facilitating the group’s work through the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) process she learned during her training.  The KSCAN has began collectively implementing actions that will improve outcomes for our earliest learners. 

With Six Sigma, all Collaborative Action Networks are able to have efficient and effective meetings and make data driven decisions every step of the way. In order to improve cradle to career outcomes for students in Spartanburg County, it is important to understand the factors already contributing to the success of students and inhibiting success for others. Continuous improvement is at the heart of what SAM is about, and Beth's success facilitating the KSCAN using the Six Sigma methodology is proof that it works. 

BMW will welcome a second staff member, Dr. Glen Carson, to their Six Sigma Black Belt training program in September. We are forever grateful for BMW’s investment in the continuous improvement work of SAM.  

Congratulations again to Beth for her hard work and wonderful presentation, and best of luck to Glen as he starts his training next month. 

SAM Welcomes Dr. Glen Carson as Data Manager

Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) recently announced that Dr.Glen Carson has joined our nonprofit organization to further develop our data management efforts. He comes with a wealth of experience within the education system, where he was instrumental as a professional educator and administrator for over 37 years. 

Carson’s expertise will allow us to effectively administer an educational data base essential to support the agenda of SAM and our county-wide partners. 

John Stockwell, SAM’s Executive Director, notes that “Dr. Carson’s experience and knowledge of academic data systems provide a key addition to the SAM team. His work will further enable the Spartanburg Academic Movement’s agenda to improve academic achievement at every stage of learning, cradle to career.”

Dr. Carson comments, “I am excited to start a new challenge at SAM and look forward to working with the SAM staff and its partner networks to advance academic achievement across Spartanburg County.” 

During his years as a professional educator, Dr. Carson has taught mathematics, sciences and research at middle school, high school and university levels. In addition, he has served as an administrator at USC Upstate and in Spartanburg School District Four.  His appointment with SAM is concurrent with a joint appointment in Spartanburg District Seven. Dr. Carson holds a Bachelor’s degree from Clemson University, a Master’s degree from Furman University and a Doctorate from the University of South Carolina.