Secrecy In School Contracting

The RT-D reports some dissatisfaction that the proposals for three new school buildings are not public.

Gnash your teeth all you like, fellow citizens: Your Generous Assembly has decreed that these documents NOT be made public:

D. Any competitive negotiation offeror, upon request, shall be afforded the opportunity to inspect proposal records within a reasonable time after the evaluation and negotiations of proposals are completed but prior to award, except in the event that the public body decides not to accept any of the proposals and to reopen the contract. Otherwise, proposal records shall be open to public inspection only after award of the contract. (emphasis supplied)

Even so, public dissatisfaction over the secrecy is well founded: Our School Board has an extended history of incompetence and, probably, corruption in contracting.  For example:

Perhaps it is good news that at least two of the six members of the “Joint Construction Team” are from the City.  Then, again, it was the City, not the School Board, that built the gym floor at Huguenot.

68.8% Absence Rate at Armstrong

Note: Specialty school reports corrected 6/20.

Continuing with the information from the 2016 Civil Rights Data Collection, here are the counts of absences of fifteen or more school days for the Richmond schools, expressed as percentages of the enrollments.

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Notice that the high schools (highlights in gold) cluster at the high end of the list, followed by the middle schools (yellow).

Not included in that list are the specialty schools:

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Recall that Richmond Alternative is the dumping ground for kids whom the regular schools (mostly middle and high schools) can’t handle.  The 107.9% absence rate tells us two things: (1) total attendance varies throughout the year and they reported it at a time when it was even less than the total absences; and (2) whatever the actual percentage is, it probably is obscenely large.

The absence data for MLK Early Learning, Maymont Pre-K, and Governor’s (misspelled in the federal document) Career, showed “-9,” which is code for not applicable.  Presumably that means they don’t keep attendance records.

The presence of Munford and Fox at the top of the big list suggests that we look for a relationship between these absence data and the SOL pass rates.  When we do that, the elementary school data show the expected negative slopes with R-squared values of about 12%:

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The middle school data show stronger correlations.  Note: Franklin has both middle and high school grades; I’ve left it out.

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The high school correlation (again, with Franklin omitted) is stronger still for math.

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Of course, the correlations don’t prove causation.  For instance, it may be that children who cannot perform well choose to avoid the place where they cannot perform well, school.  We can be confident, however, that whatever those children may learn when they are not in school, it is unlikely to improve their SOL performance.

Finally, these data compliment the truancy data that also speak to Richmond’s egregious attendance problem and that illuminate our School Board’s wholesale violation of the state law that requires it to respond to that problem.

What Do They Learn When They’re Absent?

The estimable Carol Wolf points out that the feds’ 2016 Civil Rights Data Collection has been available since April.  Duh!

Some of the data from the earlier (2014) collection are here and here.

The main data file for 2016 is a 33 MB zip; it unzips to a 461 MB csv.  The xlsx version I’m working with is 637 MB.  Until today, I thought I had a large, fast computer.

The feds report total absences (pdf at 6), whether excused or not, of 15 or more school days.  Here is the distribution of those for the Virginia public school divisions:

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Here is the key to the color bars:

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The range on the graph is from 0% (Danville) to 28.9% (Dickenson Co.).

Maggie Walker is not a division so it’s not in the graph; it’s in the table because the number is interesting, esp. in reference to Richmond, which is almost twice the state average.

For reference, Richmond’s 2017 unexcused absence data are here.

Stay tuned for the data by school.

Something In Those Mountains?

VPAP posted a map showing average acceptance rates by locality for the 2014-2016 graduating classes to 4-year public schools.  The first glance shows high rates in Southwest Virginia and Charlotte County.

The VPAP map scale runs from zero to 100% while the actual numbers for 2016-7 run from 53.3% to 96.4%; the map uses only half of its scale and, thus, compresses a lot of the data.

I turned to SCHEV for the raw data.  I lack VPAP’s mapping capability so here is Excel’s distribution of the rates, with colored highlights on some localities of interest:
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And here, for the SW Va. bragging rights, is the entire list (Charlotte Co., the non-SW entry on the map, is 9, i.e., 8th place, on this one-year-only list):

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Does Elementary School Cheating Make the Middle Schools Look Worse?

In terms of the 2017 average SOL pass rates, Richmond had the second worst schools in Virginia.  In that morass of awfulness, the middle schools stood out: Their performance was even worse than awful.  Indeed, in 2017 MLK had the worst SOL performance in the state.

Some time back I asked the formidable Carol Wolf why the Richmond scores fall into a pit between the fifth and sixth grades.  She said the teachers tell her the elementary schools are cheating. 

Now we hear that there has been an institutional cheating program at Richmond’s Carver Elementary School.  And the data suggest that other elementary schools have been doing the same thing, especially as to the disabled students. 

The SOL data by grade are consistent with this picture. 

Let’s start with the 2017 Reading pass rates.

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In the elementary grades, we see Richmond’s abled students scoring some fifteen or more points below their peers statewide while the disabled students were closing in on the state average for disabled students.  The Richmond pass rates, especially those of the disabled students, plummeted in middle school while the statewide numbers dropped much less.

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Statewide, as in this case, the pass rates for disabled students have been running about thirty points below the rates for abled students.  At Carver and elsewhere, we have seen some disabled pass rates near, and sometimes better than, the state average non-disabled rates.

If, as seems probable, Carver’s and some other schools’ numbers are bogus, we would expect the pass rates of the affected students to have tumbled when those students entered the sixth grade and received unenhanced scores.  The data here are consistent with that picture, with, as expected, a larger drop for the disabled population.

Indeed, these data suggest a whole lot of score boosting in Richmond’s elementary schools.

The math data paint much the same picture.  Notice, also, the score decreases continuing into the seventh grade, both in Richmond and in the statewide data.

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The 2016 data tell much the same story.

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One departure here from the simple view: Richmond’s non-disabled math scores that year dropped more than the disabled.  Perhaps there is another factor at work on the math testing.

In sum, we can view these data as one more reason to think Carol was right: It looks like they’re cheating in (at least some of) Richmond’s elementary schools.

BTW:  VDOE has the data to nail this issue.  If students entering middle school from some elementary schools show large score decreases while students from others do not, VDOE can identify the elementary schools that may be inflating their pass rates. 

Silly me.  Of course VDOE has not performed, and will not perform, that analysis.  Their manifest interest is in high scores and increased graduation rates, not in education.

That leaves it up to our new Superintendent.  He also has the data and he has an interest in not having a cheating scandal on his watch.  We’ll see whether he follows up.

Carver By the Numbers

The estimable Jim Bacon noticed that the disabled students at Carver outscored their abled peers on the reading tests in 2017.  He said:

While Carver students as a whole out-performed their peers in Richmond schools and state schools, those classified as disabled out-performed their peers by mind-blowing margins. Either Carver has cracked the code on teaching disabled students or… it has been aggressively manipulating test results.

A deeper dive into the numbers suggests that Bacon is being too kind by suggesting that “crack[ing] the code” might be an alternative.

First a quick bit of history:

And a short timeline:

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Turning to the data, here are the 3d grade reading pass rates by year for Carver, Richmond, and the state.  “Y” indicates disabled; “N” indicates not disabled.

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The state data, blue, show the statewide drop with the new tests in 2013.  Throughout, the disabled students, the red points, generally underperformed their more abled peers, the yellow points, by about thirty points on the new tests.

The yellow lines are Richmond.  The disabled performance before 2013 reflects their cheating on the VGLA tests.  Since then, Richmond’s disabled students have generally scored below the state average by up to ten points while their more abled peers have been low by about fifteen. 

(In light of Richmond’s overall lousy performance, we can wonder whether those disabled numbers are artificially boosted.  But that is a question for another day.)

Then we have Carver, the green lines.  There is some year-to-year variation, as can be expected from a smaller population.  The non-disabled scores were low before the new principal and have been stratospheric since. 

The scores of the disabled Carver students have been spectacular.  Before 2013, it looks like Carver was abusing the VGLA, along with too many other Richmond schools.  The disabled scores plummeted in ‘13, with the abolition of the VGLA.

After the arrival of the new principal in 2012, Carver’s disabled students often outscored the non-disabled state averages and, in 2015, outscored even the non-disabled Carver students.

Friar Occam would tell us to select the simple explanation: Those Carver scores were “aggressively manipulated.”  That is, they were cheating at Carver, wholesale, both before and after 2012.

Next, fourth grade reading:

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The missing Carver disabled datum for 2013 probably represents a population small enough to trigger the VDOE suppression rules.  Otherwise, these data tell the same story as the third grade numbers (with a notable higher score by the disabled population in 2017).

Fifth grade reading:

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These data are a variation on the same theme, but with the stratospheric Carver scores persisting into 2017.

Turning to the math tests:

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Note the missing Carver data for 2012.

There are some interesting details here, notably the lower 2017 pass rates in some cases.  Jim Bacon posits “that something changed in the way the SOL tests were administered to make manipulation more difficult.”

The Big Picture is clear, however, imho: The people running Carver have been cheating, prodigiously.  Whatever their technique (I’m hearing tales they posted the answers on the blackboard), they have obtained spectacular pass rates for the non-disabled students and have achieved even better than equal opportunity score boosts among the disabled population. 

I don’t think we need to wait for the retesting for confirmation.  I think that jail would be too good for the staff at Carver.  Stocks for the Carver staff and a bushel of tomatoes for each Carver parent would be a good start.

Cheating at Carver?

The recent numbers at Carver have been spectacular. 

For reference, here they are, along with a bit of history:

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When I asked our former Superintendent whether they were cheating at Carver, he ducked

When Carol Wolf asked the new Superintendent, he asked VDOE.  Here is the (initial) result. 

Message from the Superintendent

Dear RPS Community,

We recently received information about potential irregularities with SOL testing procedures at Carver Elementary and consulted the Virginia State Department of Education (VDOE) regarding next steps.  Based on their initial exploration, it is clear that, in some instances, standardized procedures for testing were not followed.  

In alignment with the VDOE’s conclusions, we believe it is in the best interest of our students for them to re-test under proper protocols.  While we understand the burden this places on students and staff, having accurate student performance data allows us to better support our students and our educators.  We are working closely with the Carver administration and staff to communicate with parents and answer their questions and concerns.

I take testing integrity extremely seriously.  We have extraordinary students and they deserve the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities without question. If you have a concern about testing protocols at any other RPS school, you can anonymously share information by calling RPS at (804) 780-7906 or the VDOE at (804) 225-2102.

Jason Kamras
RPS Superintendent

VDOE says:

The Virginia Department of Education is investigating reported irregularities in the administration of Standards of Learning tests at Carver Elementary. The investigation is being conducted at the request of Richmond Public Schools. VDOE is also providing guidance on the retesting of students.

Carol points out that a number of other folks have raised questions about those remarkable SOL pass rates.  As well, the “irregularities” here involve the adults, not the kids.

Let’s hope the details will soon follow.


Truant Students; Lawless School Board; Feckless Board of Education

The always kind Clerk of the School Board sent me the list of unexcused absences for the 2016-17 school year.  That list shows the number of unexcused absences for each of 27,221 students.

CAVEAT:  VDOE reports a Fall membership at RPS of 24,868 that year.  Perhaps the 2,353 difference reflects turnover during the school year; perhaps there is a problem somewhere in these datasets.  In any case, these are their numbers.  I’ll go with the 27,221 total, given that I have absence numbers for that many students.

Here, to start, is the distribution:

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OOPS:  An alert reader noticed that the axis labels were reversed on this graph in the original post.  This is the corrected graph.

While I’m at it, here is that graph abbreviated to show only the distribution for 40 or more absences:

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Those numbers range from 5927 students with no unexcused absences to the one Big Winner with 137.  (That is one hundred thirty-seven; it is not a typo.)

At the other end of the scale, only 21.8% of Richmond students had no unexcused absences.  Said otherwise: 78.2% had one or more unexcused absences.

Or, for a more detailed picture:

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The “7 or more” is a magic category.  Va. Code § 22.1-258 requires the following:

  • Any absence: Notify parents; obtain explanation;
  • 5 absences: Attendance plan;
  • 6 absences: Conference with parents; and
  • 7 absences: Prosecute parents or file CHINS petition.

These actions are not optional: The statute says “shall” throughout.

In 2017, Richmond had 7,234 students with seven or more unexcused absences; they brought 173 prosecutions and filed 60 CHINS petitions.  That’s a 3.22% compliance with the law.  Viewed otherwise, it’s a 96.8% rate of violation by our School Board.

The flagrant violations of 2017 are part of a history of flagrant violations:

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Our Board of “Education,” which has the duty to enforce § 22.1-258, has done nothing about this ongoing defiance of state law.

In the meantime, Richmond had the third lowest reading pass rate and the second lowest math pass rate in the state in 2017.

Your tax dollars at “work.”

Turnover at Westover Hills

The story about Westover Hills in the Times-Dispatch suggests that Virginia Loving has been Principal there since 2011.

The SOL performance there since 2011 has not been encouraging:

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Note: The Reading scores dropped statewide with the new tests in 2013; math showed a similar effect with the new tests in 2012.

RPS has just posted a job listing: “Principal – Westover Hills Elementary – 2018-2019 School Year.”  The start date is July 1.

I hear the party line is that Loving is “retiring.”

Where Have All the Dollars Gone?

On the 2017 data (the latest available from VDOE), Richmond spent $2,578 per student more than the average Virginia division (data are disbursements, not including facilities, debt service, and reserves). 

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Multiply that excess by the 22,916.17 students (Don’t ask me where 0.17 students come from.) and you get an excess expenditure of $59.1 million.

Other data on the VDOE Web site can offer clues as to where that money is (or is not) going.

To start: If Richmond were paying its teachers more than average, that could suggest a healthy purpose for some of the excess money.  As to those salaries, VDOE’s Table 19 gives us the following:

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Hmmm.  Richmond is paying its average teacher $7,207 less than the division average.  That number times our 2,274.53 teachers (Looks like teachers also come in fractions.) tells us Richmond is saving $16.4 million per year from those lower salaries.

Versus the average, Richmond is spending that $16.4 million somewhere, but not on teachers, so let’s add the counterproductive salary saving to the $59.1 million excess expenditure.  That gives a total of $75.5 million per year.

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Next, the number of teachers.  If Richmond had extra teachers per pupil, the cost of those teachers could explain part of this $75 million.

VDOE’s Table 17 gives us the data:

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A little arithmetic tells us that, vs. the division average, Richmond is has an extra 278 teachers.

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At an average salary of $50,567, Richmond is paying $14.1 million per year for those extra teachers.

It’s not clear that smaller classes produce better learning.  But Richmond seems to be trying, so let’s’ offset that $14.1 million against the overspending:

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We often hear that special education and poverty are major contributors to Richmond’s higher costs.  It is difficult to come by data to quantify that.  The closest I have come is SchoolDataDirect, the now defunct Standard & Poors data service that was supported by the Gates Foundation.

S&P calculated adjustments to spending on core operating activities to account for poverty, special education, and geographic factors.  On the 2006 data, here are their numbers:

The difference in adjustments is -6%; that is, on those (old) data, Richmond schools were 6% less expensive than average (in terms of “core” spending) because of those three factors.

Based on that counter-intuitive result and the absence of current data, let’s pass on those factors.

One final item: Richmond’s excess expenditure for O&M is $77 per student, a total of $ 1.7 million.  If all that were justified (and given the sorry state of our old school buildings, Richmond surely could justify a much larger O&M expenditure), Richmond would still have been spending an extra $59.7 million on something.

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Richmond’s disbursement total (as with all the numbers above, not counting facilities, or contingency reserves) was $344.2 million.  (That’s right, just over a third of a BILLION dollars!)  The $59.7 million excess was 17.3% of that total.

What we got for that money was the third lowest reading pass rate and the second lowest math pass rate in the state.

Until RPS can explain where all the money is going and what they are going to do to redirect it to a useful purpose, there is no reason at all to increase the school budget.  To the contrary, these data make a case for cutting the RPS budget by at least $59.7 million.