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About Those ACT Scores… Mercedes Schneider Desperately Wants to believe the RSD has failed, but the data tells a different story

St. Tammany Parish teacher, blogger, and inveterate pessimist Mercedes Schneider desperately wants to believe New Orleans’ Recovery School District – and by extension, its students – have failed.

For years, she has taken to her blog to malign the district at every available opportunity, dismissing evidence of the RSD’s progress as either smoke-and-mirrors or outright lies concocted by the bureaucrats at the Louisiana Department of Education. In fact, it seems every other week Schneider announces she’s uncovered another “bombshell” about New Orleans’ charter schools, discoveries that promise to bring down those treacherous officials at RSD and their evil overlords in Baton Rouge.1

I. Schneider: All Bombast, No Bombshell

Her latest “bombshell” centers on the RSD’s 2014 ACT test results, which Schneider accused the LDOE of intentionally withholding because they reveal the district is failing. So Schneider took matters into her own hands and published what she said were Louisiana’s statewide ACT scores. Claiming she received the data from “a friend works in admissions at one of Louisiana’s institutes of higher education,” Schneider said she was obligated to publish them in “an effort to finally offer the public RSD research that has not been warped and refashioned into the hologram of victory by a very-pro-privatizing Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE).”2

John White arrives to work with a hot cup of joe and a fresh batch of RSD data to warp and refashion.
John White arrives to work with a hot cup of joe and a fresh batch of RSD data to warp and refashion.

However, when LDOE released the official ACT results last week, they showed that Schneider’s numbers were incomplete and inaccurate.3 But when faced with the news that her ACT data was flawed, what did Mercedes do? Well, like any self-righteous anti-education reform crusader, she steadfastly refused to let something as nit-picky as objective facts stand in the way of her smear campaign. Over the past two weeks, she’s published a total of seven blog posts on the ACT scores, in which she uses faulty analysis to bolster her claim that the RSD is a sham.

II. Mercedes’ Inadvertent Case For Common Core Math

As I documented previously, although Schneider has a doctorate in statistics, you wouldn’t know it from her so-called “research” on the RSD, which is riddled with errors thanks to her sloppy methods and lack of context about New Orleans’ schools. For example, one of her recent posts looked at the percentage of students in the RSD who met the ACT requirements for TOPS – Louisiana’s public college and university scholarship program – which included a spreadsheet she created [see below] listing the number of TOPS-eligible students at each RSD high school. Schneider said her data shows “six RSD high schools each graduated less than one percent meeting the requirement, or 16 students out of 274 (5.8 percent).”

Apparently you don't need to know how to calculate percentages to get a PhD in Statistics these days...
Apparently you don’t need to know how to calculate percentages to get a PhD in Statistics these days.

…Oh wait, no it doesn’t.

In fact, anyone who knows how to calculate percentages could tell you that more than 1% of students met the minimum ACT score requirement for TOPS at ALL six high schools referenced. I guess it’s a good thing Schneider teaches English and not math – thank god for small favors.

Furthermore, while Schneider also notes in the post that, “of the 16 active New Orleans RSD high schools, five graduated not one student meeting the Regents 18-English-19-math ACT requirement,” she fails to mention that one of those five schools is an alternative school, and another three either have closed or will close at the end of this school year.

This is a perfect illustration of Schneider’s modus operandi: she makes foolish mistakes and omits (or is unaware of) relevant facts because she isn’t trying to draw conclusions about the RSD’s performance. On the contrary, she’s already decided the RSD is a failure and simply tries to present data in a way that bolsters that conclusion.

III. The Real Story: Progress, Not Perfection

When we compare ACT performance between 2005 and 2014, the progress the RSD has made is clear. Let’s begin by looking at the Spring 2005 ACT Composite Scores in the 14 high schools that were taken over by the RSD after Hurricane Katrina:

2005 ACT Scores in High Schools Transferred to RSD

School Name2005 Grad CountACT CountACT Comp. Avg.
Alcee Fortier 1133914.4
Booker T. Washington 402113.0
Frederick A. Douglass 633614.6
G.W. Carver 1025414.6
John F. Kennedy22214013.6
John McDonogh15310014.0
Joseph S. Clark843514.2
L.B. Landry653614.4
Rabouin Career Magnet12210215.0
Marion Abramson28717614.8
O.P. Walker18811914.8
Sarah T. Reed20112114.4
Walter L. Cohen845213.9
OPSB Takeover High Schools1750106814.4

The first thing to note is that nearly 40% of graduating seniors didn’t even take the ACT that year and it’s fair to assume that those students who did were considered by their school counselors to be “on-track” for college. Nevertheless, the average ACT Composite Score across those 14 schools was a dismal 14.4.

Now, let’s turn to this past year’s ACT scores in the RSD. Since the 2012-13 school year, all students have been required to take the ACT in order to graduate. Therefore, the ACT data from 2014 provides a much broader picture than the 2005 data, which excluded the 40% of seniors who never took the test. In spite of this fact, the average ACT Composite Score across the 16 non-alternative high schools in the RSD was 16.5, a gain of 2.1 points since 2005:

2014 ACT Scores in RSD High Schools (non-alternative)

School Name2014 Grad CountACT CountACT Comp. Avg.
G.W. Carver334315.2
Sarah T. Reed756814.5
Walter L. Cohen353113.7
Algiers Technology Academy515314.9
Cohen College Prep525318.7
Dr. M.L.K. Charter353915.3
Carver CollegiateNANANA
Carver PrepNANANA
John McDonogh544913.3
Joseph S. Clark526014.2
KIPP Renaissance909817.9
Lake Area New Tech13613716.2
Miller-McCoy Academy232215.3
Sci Academy768218.2
Sophie B. Wright637517.1
RSD High Schools (non-alternative)1043110616.5

We see similar gains when we look at TOPS eligibility between 2005 and 2014. Only 5.6% of students who took the ACT in 2005 received TOPS-eligible scores in the 14 high schools that were taken over by the RSD:

2005 TOPS Eligibility in OPSB High Schools Transferred to RSD

School Name10/1/04
Grade 12
Alcee Fortier 123113426
Booker T. Washington 5040202
Frederick A. Douglass 12163314
G.W. Carver 152102101
John F. Kennedy284222808
John McDonogh259153516
Joseph S. Clark13584123
L.B. Landry10665123
Rabouin Career Magnet12212210414
Marion Abramson38428732840
O.P. Walker204188415
Sarah T. Reed244201213
Walter L. Cohen11384505
OPSB Takeover High Schools242418348022102
% Totals: 75.7%4.4%1.2%5.6%

On the other hand, this past spring, nearly 23% of graduating seniors received a TOPS-eligible score:

2014 TOPS Eligibility in RSD High Schools (non-alternative)

School Name10/1/13
Grade 12
Algiers Technology Academy5851314
Joseph S. Clark7452NANANA
Cohen College Prep5352101626
Dr. M.L.K. Charter3935235
Carver CollegiateNANANANANA
G.W. Carver5133000
John McDonogh10754415
KIPP Renaissance10290192241
Lake Area New Tech13213624832
Miller-McCoy Academy2523033
Sarah T. Reed9275303
Sci Academy9376182341
Sophie B. Wright816391120
Walter L. Cohen4335202
RSD High Schools12641043115124239
% Totals:82.5%11%11.9%22.9%

Admittedly, the data shows that we still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring that all students in the RSD are college-ready by the time they graduate from high school. And, perhaps the gains the RSD has made over the past decade seem insignificant to Mercedes Schneider because she has had the luxury of teaching in the whiter, more affluent, and traditionally higher-performing district of St. Tammany Parish on the other side of Lake Ponchartrain:

Site Name 2005 ACT
Comp. Avg.
2014 ACT
Comp. Avg.
ACT Avg. Chg.
% Minority
RSD-NO High Schools (non-alternative)14.416.5+2.1≈ 91%≈ 99%
Slidell High School20.820.4-0.4≈ 49%≈ 39%

Still, the progress the RSD has made over the past ten years is significant, especially considering where we started back in 2005, and it will no doubt continue to improve – I just wouldn’t count on Mercedes Schneider ever acknowledging that fact.

A group of seniors from Sci Academy's Class of 2014 pose with t-shirts and pennants from the colleges  where they were accepted.
A group of seniors from Sci Academy’s Class of 2014 pose with t-shirts and pennants from the colleges where they were accepted.

  1. Editors’ Note: As of publishing time, no treacherous RSD or LDOE officials had been brought down. 
  2. Editors’ Note: LDOE officials would neither confirm nor deny the existence of these so-called “victory holograms.” 
  3. For the sake of brevity, I refrained from enumerating the lengthy list of disparities between the two data sets, but you can compare them for yourself here: Schneider’s 1/31/15 Data vs. LDOE Official ACT Results

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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