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Don’t Bury The Lede: At-Risk Students Are Beating Expectations In NOLA High Schools [UPDATED 10/10/14]

UPDATE – 10/10/14:

On Friday, October 10th, John Ayers, Executive Director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives announced they were retracting their report, “Beating the Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools,” because it was determined the study’s methodology was flawed. Ayers released the following statement announcing the retraction:

The Cowen Institute has withdrawn its recent report Beating the Odds, which indicated that some public high schools in New Orleans, especially those that serve the most vulnerable youth, are performing better than predicted.

After its release, officials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate. The report will not be reissued.

As a result of this incident, the Cowen Institute will thoroughly examine and strengthen its internal protocols to ensure it adheres to the highest standards of review and accuracy in its research and in future reports.

We apologize for this mistake.

John Ayers, Executive Director

There’s an old saying in journalism: “don’t bury the lede” – that is, don’t hide the most important information from readers, put it your introductory paragraphs. It’s a lesson one sometimes wishes our friends at Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives would follow. This morning, the Cowen Institute releases a new report, “Beating the Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools,” and buried in the document is arguably the study’s most important statement:

“On key measures of student achievement (EOC, ACT, and cohort graduation rates) many high schools with high proportions of vulnerable students are performing better than predicted in New Orleans. In particular, all schools with available data in New Orleans had cohort graduation rates that were at or above their predicted levels.”

Considering where we started with our high schools, this is huge news and just more proof that New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms have helped raise academic achievement across the board.

Prior to the storm, New Orleans’ non-selective public high schools were some of the worst in the country and were failing to provide students with the education they deserved. For example, in the 2004 – 2005 school year:

  • All 13 of the district’s non-selective high schools were failing, with an average School Performance Score of 26 out of a possible 200 points1
  • 25% of the 12th graders enrolled in those 13 high schools did not graduate
  • Only 18 students – out of 2,302 seniors attending the district’s non-selective high schools that year – earned a four-year TOPS scholarship for college

Thankfully, today’s report from the Cowen Institute shows a vastly improved situation in New Orleans high schools. The study looks specifically at what they call “vulnerable students” (those who qualify for free/reduced lunch, failed the 8th grade LEAP test, are overage, or are identified as special needs) and uses statewide data to predict how schools should perform on end-of-course tests (EOCs), ACT, and cohort graduation rate measures, given their student populations. Here’s what they found:

I. Performance on End-of-Course Tests:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 10.18.59 PM

60% of New Orleans high schools met or exceeded predicted performance on EOC tests, with Landry-Walker High School coming out on top, scoring over 30 percentage points higher than would be expected on these exams. It should also be noted that all three of the schools run by Collegiate Academies, which has been the target of several unfair attacks over the past year, outperformed predictions on EOC tests by 25 percentage points or better.

I guess walking in line works: All three schools in Collegiate Academies' network outperformed on EOC tests.
I guess walking in line works: All of Collegiate Academies’ schools exceeded expectations on EOC tests.

II. ACT Performance:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 10.22.12 PM

12 out of the 18 high schools that received an ACT Index in the 2012-13 school year met or exceeded their predicted performance.2 Again, Collegiate Academies distinguished itself on this measure, with their flagship school, Sci Academy, outperforming its predicted score on the ACT Index by 34 points.

Sci Academy outperformed its predicted ACT Index by 34 points.
Sci Academy outperformed its predicted ACT Index by 34 points.

III. Cohort Graduation Rate:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 10.24.39 PM

13 out of 15 high schools exceeded their predicted cohort graduation rates in 2011-12, with the other two schools performing as expected.

IV. The Big Takeaway:

The big takeaway from the Cowen Institute report is simple: New Orleans’ school reforms are working and their impact is reaching even those students who face the added burdens of poverty, disability, or a history of underachievement. Critics should stop quibbling with the numbers – or denying them outright – and instead focus on how we can push students even further. As the study’s authors note:

“These findings show that all schools have the capacity to improve their students’ academic achievement; many schools were able to beat the odds and excelled despite having higher rates of vulnerable students.”

College-bound seniors pose with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (center) and RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard (right).
College-bound seniors pose with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (center) and RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard (right).

  1. From another perspective: In 2005, any school with a School Performance Score below 60 was considered failing – i.e., the city’s high schools weren’t even close to passing. 
  2. As noted in the report, some high schools did not receive an ACT Index in 2013 because they had not yet added a 12th grade at that time. 

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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