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On school rankings

November 12, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

State test data is by no means the final word on a school's quality, but it is worth knowing. The reason is that it compares all schools, of all types, on one consistent set of basic standards - the things the state Education Department has decided students need to learn in each grade.

Plenty of people want to know how schools are doing in that regard: locals and those looking for a potential new hometown or scouting out the labor pool. Yes, factors like the relative wealth in a location or the degree of parental involvement affect those scores beyond the control of any faculty or staff, but people know all about extenuating circumstances and that they'll probably have to figure those things in. Still, they want to know the bottom line: How much of the basics have the kids learned?

To meet that demand, Buffalo-based magazine Business First recently analyzed the last four years of state test data and ranked 431 school districts in 48 counties of upstate New York, not counting tiny districts like Keene and Long Lake.

Saranac Lake and Lake Placid schools showed up well, and we warmly congratulate them for that. They were ranked second and fourth, respectively, in the 21-school Plattsburgh region of the magazine's regional breakdown; Chazy was first. Overall, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid were 90th and 113th, respectively.

The Tupper Lake district ranked 12th in this region and 327th overall, and officials there have criticized the Enterprise for reporting the results of the study. Superintendent Seth McGowan said it was irresponsible of the paper to publish the results without conducting our own analysis, comparing Tupper Lake schools to ones that match its circumstances, including enrollment, community wealth, pupil-teacher ratio, percentage of students with disabilities and total general fund budget.

"It takes an extraordinarily complex data set and tries to oversimplify it in a way that reflects it incorrectly," Mr. McGowan said of the Business First ranking.

He said it's unfair to compare schools just because they're near each other. That's oversensitive, in our view. Again, people do want to know how the various schools in a region are doing on the same baseline. Every serious news organization probably would have liked to meet that demand with an investigative report, but Business First did it first, so we reported it.

We aren't being judgmental about it, thinking, "Oh, this school stinks and this one is better." We're able to look at a set of data and think about the reasons for the variations - factors like the ones Mr. McGowan mentions - and we give the general public credit for being smart enough to do that, too.

Tupper Lake's economy has slumped more than its Tri-Lakes neighbors, and it's eminently clear nationwide that students in wealthier areas tend to get better grades. For one thing, parents in those places are more likely to have university education, uphold higher expectations and get more involved with their kids' learning. Also, the school districts have more tax revenue to spend on things the state won't cover. The unfair pounding the state gave Tupper the last two years on funding cuts - Albany apparently thinks Tupper is wealthier than it is - made district officials lay off a quarter of the faculty and staff, slash sessions for music and library, and raise taxes drastically. Yet last year, Tupper's state test scores hovered right around the state average, about the same as those in Lake Placid, a district that hardly needs to rely on state funding at all. (Business First looked at the same test scores, but four years' worth of them.)

It looks to us like Tupper educators are bearing down and doing a great job for the community's kids. We were by no means implying criticism of them by publishing Chris Knight's fair report; we were just stating the facts, accurately and without fear or favor.

What's unfair is Tupper school board President Michael Dechene's jab at us at Monday's school board meeting.

"To me, this is a type of bullying," Dechene said of the Enterprise. "I wasn't happy with the article. But that's what they're there for. They sell papers that way."

That's shooting the messenger, and on false pretenses. Yes, we make our living reporting the news, but we don't exploit or distort the truth. If that issue of the Enterprise sold well because of that story, it was because it was information people wanted to know, not because we dressed it up.

If all this sounds like a defense of the No Child Left Behind obsession with standardized test scores, it isn't. We remain skeptical of teaching to tests and of basing teachers' pay on their students' scores. But these tests still say something important, and no one should cover up their results or apologize for them out of fear that people will blow their importance out of proportion.



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