I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, July 22, 2019

How Student "Creaming" Works

This latest series on Camden's schools is in three parts:

Part I (this post)

Part II

Part III

There is, as usual, so much wrong in this Star-Ledger editorial on Camden's schools that it will probably take several posts for me to correct all of its mistakes. But there's one assertion, right at the very top, that folks have been making recently about Newark's schools that needs to be corrected immediately:
Last year, for the first time ever, the low-income, mostly minority kids in Newark charter schools beat the state’s average scores in reading and math in grades 3-8 – incredible, given the far more affluent pool of kids they were competing against.
This is yet another example, like previous ones, of a talking point that is factually correct but utterly meaningless for evaluating the effectiveness of education policies like charter schooling. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of test scores and student characteristics, which keeps the people who make statements like this from having to answer the questions that really matter.

The question in this case is: Do "successful" urban charter schools get their higher test scores, at least in part, by "creaming" students?

Creaming has become a central issue in the whole debate about the effectiveness of charters. A school "creams" when it enrolls students who are more likely to get higher scores on tests due to their personal characteristics and/or their backgrounds. The fact that Newark's charter schools enroll, as a group, fewer students with special education needs -- particularly high-cost needs -- and many fewer students who are English language learners is an indication that creaming may be in play.

The quote above, however, doesn't address this possibility. The SL's editors argue instead that these schools' practices have caused the disadvantaged children in Newark's charters to "beat" the scores of children who aren't disadvantaged. And because the students in Newark's charters are "beating the state's average scores," they must be "incredible."

Last month, I wrote about some very important context specific to Newark that has to be addressed when making such a claim. But let's set that aside and get to a more fundamental question: given the concerns about creaming, is the SL's argument -- that charter students "beat" the state average -- a valid way to assess these schools' effectiveness?

No. It is not.

Let's go through this diagram one step at a time. The first point we have to acknowledge is that test scores, by design, yield a distribution of scores. That distribution is usually a "bell curve": a few students score high, a few score low, and most score in the middle.

This is the distribution of all test takers. But you could also pull out a subpopulation of students, based on any number of characteristics: race, gender, socio-economic status, and so on. Unless you delineate the subpopulation specifically on test scores, you're almost certainly going to get another distribution of scores.

Think of a school in a relatively affluent suburb, where none of the students qualify for free-lunch (the standard measure of socio-economic status in educational research). Think of all the students in that school. Their test scores will vary considerably -- even if the school scores high, on average, compared to less-affluent schools. Some of the kids will have a natural affinity for doing well on tests; some won't. Some will have parents who place a high value on scoring well on tests; some parents will place less value on scoring well. The students will have variations in their backgrounds and personal characteristics that we can't see in the crude variables collected in the data; consequently, their scores will vary.

The important point is that there will be a range of scores in this school. Intuitively, most people will understand this. But can they make the next leap? Can they understand that there will also be a range of scores in a lower-performing school?

There is, in my opinion, a tendency for pundits who opine on education to sometimes see children in disadvantaged communities as an undifferentiated mass. They seem not to understand that the variation in unmeasured student characteristics can be just a great in a school located in a disadvantaged community as it is in an affluent community; consequently, the test scores in less-affluent schools will also vary.

The children enrolled in Newark's schools will have backgrounds and personal characteristics that vary widely. Some will be more comfortable with tests than others. Some will have parents who value scoring well on tests more than others. It is certainly possible that the variation in a disadvantaged school -- the shape of the bell curve -- will differ from the variation in affluent schools, but there will be variation.

In my graph above (which is simply for illustrative purposes) I show that the scores of disadvantaged and not-disadvantaged students vary. On average, the disadvantaged students will score lower -- but their scores will still vary. And because the not-disadvantaged students' scores will also vary, it is very likely that there will be some overlap between the two groups. In other words: there will be some relatively high-scoring students who are disadvantaged who will "beat" some relatively low-scoring students who are not disadvantaged.

And here's where the opportunity for creaming arises. If a charter school can find a way to get the kids at the top of the disadvantaged students distribution to enroll -- while leaving the kids in the middle and the bottom of the distribution in the public district schools -- they will likely be able to "beat" the average of all test takers.

Is that what's happening in Newark? Again, the differences in the special education and English language learner rates suggest there is a meaningful difference in the characteristics of the student populations between charters and public district schools. But further opportunities for creaming come from separating students based on unmeasured characteristics.

For example: charter schools require that families apply for admission. It is reasonable to assume that there is a difference between a family that actively seeks to enroll their child in a charter, and a family that does not. Some of the "high-performing" charters in Newark have high suspension and attrition rates; this may send a signal to families that only a certain type of child is a good "fit" for a charter (some charter operators are quite honest about this). These schools also tend to have much longer school days and years; again, this may signal that only students who have the personal characteristics to spend the extra time in class should apply.

There is a very real possibility that these practices have led to creaming -- again, in a way that won't show up in the data. If the creaming is extensive enough -- and is coupled with test-prep instruction and curriculum, more resources, and a longer school day/year -- it wouldn't be too hard for a charter to "beat the state's average scores."

Is this a bad thing? That's an entirely different question. Given the very real segregation in New Jersey's schools, and the regressive slide away from adequate and equitable funding in the last decade, it's hard to find fault with Newark and Camden parents who want to get their children into a "better" school if they can. On the other hand, the fiscal pressures of chartering are real and can affect the entire system of schooling. Further, concentrating certain types of students into certain schools can have unexpected consequences.

A serious discussion of these issues is sorely needed in this state (and elsewhere). Unfortunately, because they refuse to acknowledge some simple realities, the Star-Ledger's editorial board once again fails to live up to that task. I'll get to some other mistakes they make in this piece in a bit.

Star-Ledger Editorial Board


John said...

Have you looked at the extent to which creaming would have to occur to get results that exceed the state average? I imagine averages and standard deviations are available for both. I'd be curious about what percentage of low end of the curve would have to be excluded to get those results. At first glance, it doesn't seem possible achieve those results based on creaming. Have you looked at it?

twopowers said...

In Illinois, the funding follows the child. Charter school creaming is highly evident in the beginning of school year when the outreach to parents with a "Look how great our school is. Your child needs to be here" approach. The charter school acceptance is high in Chicago, and due to creaming, the not-a-good-fit group is bounced back to the public schools. The charter schools keep all of the funding and the public schools do not get any funding. They must make do for many more students with no money.