Opinion: A call for accuracy in evaluating school progress

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Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, responds to Howard Blume and Sandra Poindexter’s Aug. 18 article, ‘L.A. Unified bests reform groups in most cases, data shows,’ to propose a better method for measuring school progress. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

This fall, more than two-dozen chronically low-performing schools within LAUSD’s borders will operate under the umbrella of some kind of reform based on significant governance restructuring. No matter the label (turnaround, restart or conversion) the goal is to significantly improve the quality of education in our neediest communities. But how does one measure improvement or, for that matter, quality?


The Times’ Aug. 18 article, ‘L.A. Unified bests reform groups in most cases, data shows,’ tried and failed. It compared turnaround efforts at schools managed by reform groups to LAUSD’s own low-performing schools. The story’s conclusions were based on a methodology so flawed as to render them meaningless.

Essentially, The Times compared student proficiency rates between reform-focused schools like Green Dot’s Locke High School academies with the proficiency rates of LAUSD schools in the bottom 20% statewide. Notwithstanding the fact the story neglected to note that Locke (despite starting in the bottom 2%) still outpaced the LAUSD comparison schools, it is a ridiculously incomplete way to draw conclusions about quality or improvement for low-performing schools.

A better methodology for reporting on the effectiveness of school turnaround efforts should measure the three things that a school turnaround needs to achieve: increased retention of students, increased rigor of expectations and coursework, and increased results. This methodology also more correctly measures improvement in all aspects of a school and avoids the most obvious pitfalls of the L.A. Times methodology: drawing the wrong conclusions about what is really happening at the schools.

Are all of these factors packaged neatly by the state into a ‘reform score?’ No. But with a little work with publicly available information, and the desire to draw accurate conclusions, we can get a much better picture of what is happening in these schools.

Retention: In the 2007-08 school year (the year before Green Dot began managing Locke), 919 freshmen enrolled in school but fewer than 600 took the year-end tests. More than a third dropped out or didn’t take the tests. The following year, after Green Dot took over, 838 freshmen enrolled and 831 took the English exam while 792 took the math exam, an enormous improvement in retention. School-wide, Green Dot continues to retain approximately 91% to 95% of students from enrollment to exam every year.

Rigor: Green Dot’s philosophy is centered on preparing students for college; therefore we emphasize the need for our students to complete the A-G courses required for admission to a four-year college. Over 50% more students at Locke are taking A-G classes and taking the corresponding CST exam than before Green Dot’s arrival.


Results: For low-performing schools, a better measure of a school’s proficiency is to compare the number of students who achieve proficiency with the number of students who enrolled the fall of the freshman year for that class, not with the number of students who took the test. Otherwise, the analysis actually punishes schools that reduce their dropout rate.

At Locke High School not only have our test scores increased but we have managed to retain more students while doubling our proficiency levels and engaging students in a more challenging college-prep A-G curriculum. Locke High School is improving in all three areas at a pace substantially higher than the three high schools that surround Locke, all of which started in a similar place academically.

We agree with the L.A. Times on one thing: We have a long way to go to eliminate the achievement gap and to create ‘turnaround successes’ from chronically underperforming schools. But let’s start with a fair and comprehensive analysis that accurately portrays the important work that is being done by all parties to turn around failing schools. We invite the L.A. Times and other education analysts to examine the issue with the right numbers and truly compare the progress being made. Then, let’s have a frank conversation about what is or isn’t working. All groups who tackle this vexing societal problem with fervor and passion should be recognized for their accomplishments, and we all have a lot to learn from one another.


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--Marco Petruzzi