An economist offers ideas for tracking academic achievement

Despite the reams of test scores, enrollment figures, attendance records and other data it collects on public schools, Connecticut falls woefully short in trying to make sense of it all, a noted state economist says.

Lawmakers are writing legislation to design a new statewide data collection system to meet requirements of the federal Race to the Top school reform program, but Fred Carstensen said they are overlooking a solution that already exists.

“It’s on a state computer” at the Department of Labor, the University of Connecticut professor said.

Carstensen, head of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, was referring to a research model developed as part of a groundbreaking study published by the center two years ago.

carstensen, fred 4-6-10

Fred Carstensen

The study, “Next Steps: Preparing a Quality Workforce,” tracked about 170,000 high school sophomores from Connecticut for more than eight years as they entered college and the workforce. The study, which focused on students who took a statewide 10th-grade test between 1996 and 2000, could easily be adapted to build a system to analyze the long-term performance of students, teachers and schools, according to Carstensen.

“Simply a remarkable study of immense potential,” he said.

Connecticut officials are revamping the state’s education data system as they gear up to compete for a second round of awards in Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion incentive program to spur innovation in America’s schools. Only two states – Tennessee and Delaware – were named last week as winners of the first round.

Connecticut began building a new education data system five years ago, assigning each student a unique identifying number, making it easier to track student progress from year to year. However, the system still lacks several crucial elements, according to federal reviewers who examined the state’s initial Race to the Top application.  The state, for example, has not yet completed procedures for matching student data to individual teachers or for linking data from elementary and secondary schools to higher education, reviewers said.

The reviewers gave Connecticut only 10 of a possible 24 points on a rating of its data system. Tennessee and Delaware each received the maximum 24 points.

Carstensen singled out Tennessee as a model, saying the state has gathered nearly two decades of detailed information to monitor long-term student progress and other factors related to school performance.

“The gap between Tennessee and Connecticut is just enormous,” he said.

One of the most difficult problems confronting educators is the challenge of linking student progress to teacher and principal evaluations – a key goal of the Race to the Top guidelines.

Although lawmakers continue to revise the proposed legislation, Carstensen said the initial bill under consideration in Connecticut failed to take into account the complexity of the issue.

“There are an awful lot of things about school organization and the context in which teachers function to know you can’t just look at student progress and say the teacher is at fault or the teacher deserves credit,” he said. “That’s just ridiculous.”

He added, “How do you measure a teacher when 50 percent of the students change during the year?”

He said a meaningful system ought to include a wide array of data, “beginning with the [student’s] earliest contact with the educational system,” including pre-kindergarten programs, and continuing through college. He said it should cover factors such as class size, absenteeism, disciplinary issues, family characteristics, turnover of teachers and students, physical facilities, access to computers, school size, graduation rates and the presence of support personnel such as social workers.

Some local teacher unions have refused to support Connecticut’s Race to the Top application because they object to the effort to link teacher evaluation to student performance.

“I have a huge problem with that,” said Gary Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association, the local teachers’ union in Bridgeport, one of the state’s poorest cities. “Our kids come to school with a lot more issues than suburban kids do,” he said. “Now you want to evaluate us based on test scores when the playing field is not level?”

Developing an evaluation system based on student data is tricky, but possible, said Stephen Coelen, author of the Next Steps study and senior research fellow at the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.

Coelen, who once worked at Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said Connecticut should build partnerships with universities and other research institutions to develop its data system. A strong system should collect data even when students move across state lines, he said. “States that take it seriously and have multiple [data] measures are going to be performing better in the long run,” he said.

In New Haven, a recently approved teachers’ contract won praise from the Obama administration because it provides for development of a system to link student and teacher performance.

Alex Johnston, head of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN, has lobbied aggressively for legislation to bolster the state’s data system. He disagrees with critics who say the proposed legislation is unfair to teachers or too simplistic.

“It’s nobody’s intention that the only pieces of data we’d be using [for teacher evaluation] are the [state] test scores,” he said.  The proposed legislation “leaves a lot of room for districts to define student achievement growth,” he said.

Johnston is a member of a working group of educators and others that is advising lawmakers on legislation related to the state’s Race to the Top application, including the data collection proposal. The group was convened by Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, and Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee.

Gaffey has not talked to Carstensen about the legislation but said the working group shares the belief that the new data and evaluation system should not be oversimplified. “It sounds like we’re on the same track,” he said. “There has to be context beyond just what the numbers say.”