What are they hiding?
That’s a question on the minds of many watching this year’s Metro school board election, now just over a week away. The issue is test scores—the performance of city schools and students on the annual state TCAP exam. Last year, Metro school system administrators issued a breathless June 22 news release touting “the most dramatic single-year increase since 1990” in proficiency scores for grades three through eight. This year, June and most of July have passed without a peep from Bransford Avenue about scores.
Meanwhile, we’re just days away from a critical school board election, with a majority of seats on the board up for grabs. A subtext for this year’s races all along has been the contentious performance of Metro schools director Pedro Garcia, who was on the short end of a 5-4 board vote to extend his contract last fall. Two of the five who voted against Garcia are up for reelection and a third has left the board, so it isn’t an analytical stretch to imagine that Garcia’s long-term future with the system could be riding on this year’s election outcome.
So where are the 2006 scores? The official line from school officials is a two-parter. First, they say, the test results are reaching them later and in a less usable form than last year. And second, the state’s embargo of the data, delaying public release, is more “strict.” Let’s deconstruct.
Apparently, TCAP results from the state did reach Metro later than last year, but Metro has had individual student scores in paper form for weeks, and received some summary results more recently. Last year’s June announcement trumpeting higher scores was based on calculations Metro performed from that exact kind of summary data. Schools spokesman Woody McMillin says this year’s comparables came only on paper, which makes it “insufficient for compilation of preliminary data.” But Metro’s director of assessment Paul Changas tells the Scene something different: that he has the relevant data and that he’s “done a preliminary analysis.” He won’t discuss any results, though, until Garcia and his chief instructional officer Sandy Johnson give the nod.
That’s where the state education department’s embargo kicks in. The state blocks release of test result summaries until calculations related to No-Child-Left-Behind reporting are complete and school districts have a chance to review results, catch errors and lodge appeals with the state. Metro’s Sandy Johnson explains the timing disparity between this year and last by saying the state’s embargo “wasn’t as strict last year.”
The answers aren’t adding up. “Last year we had the exact same embargo,” says state Department of Education spokeswoman Rachel Woods. Johnson says Metro didn’t violate the embargo last year to go public with the upbeat numbers, but Woods has a different view: “They weren’t free to do it last year; they just went ahead and did it.” She says that the state provided Metro schools with the data last year because they asked for it, and that they provided similar data last week on this year’s test results.
Yeah, yeah, this is a lot of process. But policy is what’s at stake. Metro apparently has the scores and the summary data that could be used to calculate the preliminary numbers that drove last year’s test-score fanfare. Voters go to the polls for school board elections next week with the future of the city school system on the line—and no new information in hand.
It’s a revealing testament to Garcia’s abrasive and at times self-aggrandizing leadership style that many in the community are wondering if the test score delay is more about opportunistic manipulation than candid operational reality. When will the community hear some results? Sandy Johnson has a reassuring reply: “I have no idea.”