Follow the leader

Wisconsin's "Read to Lead" Task Force had its fourth meeting on July 29, 2011 at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (a video of the meeting is available, thanks to coverage by WisconsinEye). The Wisconsin Reading Coalition has prepared a thorough and helpful synopsis of the meeting. And here are my brief notes on Twitter (beginning with a brain hiccup tweeting "August" instead of "July"):

The meeting showcased the remarkable progress of Florida students (especially those in low-achieving demographic groups) after reading reforms were instituted in 1999, in a presentation from guest speaker Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Levesque credits much of that success to Florida's system of assigning "A through F" grades to schools and to its systematic and focused kindergarten-through-third-grade literacy program (including the requirement that students be able to read at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade). (For even more, see Levesque's presentation and extensive Q&A at the La Follette School of Public Affairs' "Building a New School Accountability System for Wisconsin" conference from the previous day, July 28, 2011, archived at Wisconsin Eye, and highly recommended.)

As Florida's success story becomes more prominent in the discussion of what's next for improving education in Wisconsin, there have been some who'd prefer to downplay the magnitude of that success, or to claim that Wisconsin is better-than/not-really-that-much-behind Florida—so where's the fire? Most often, average statewide scale scores on the NAEP reading assessments are cited in support of these conclusions, since the 2009 NAEP reading average scale score for Florida fourth graders was "only" 6 points higher than the average scale score for Wisconsin fourth graders, and the average scale score for Florida eighth graders was actually 2 points lower than the average scale score for Wisconsin eighth graders. However, there are significant differences in the demographic composition of Wisconsin and Florida's students:

(Source: National Center for Education Statistics)

Because of these differences, comparing students on a statewide basis, rather than by constituent subgroup to subgroup, can be misleading (this is "Simpson's paradox," elaborately defined here, and entertainingly illustrated here). Here's how it plays out in comparing Wisconsin and Florida (bearing in mind that a 10-point scale score difference is approximately equivalent to one grade level):

We're shown that dramatic progress is achievable when we look at Florida's gains from 1998 (the year before Florida's reading reforms began) to 2009 (data for 2003 is included in place of 1998 where numbers for 1998 weren't available):

I hope that an objective understanding of where our students stand and an appreciation that progress is possible for them can overcome the conventional wisdom of "we're doing just fine" and "those kids can't learn anyway." I also hope that the task force will begin in earnest to address the whale in the wading pool: the methods and content of reading instruction.

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