Sunday, March 3, 2024

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Even ABSS propaganda can’t put positive spin on dismal academic performance


“The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry   of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”                                              – from George Orwell’s book 1984


George Orwell would have been proud of the Alamance-Burlington School System’s attempted public relations blitz of doublethink (or doublespeak) last week.

With a seemingly straight face – straight as best one can judge a propaganda piece, euphemistically termed a news release, put out last week by the school system – school officials tried to put a positive spin on absolutely dismal state test scores for the school system, as reported by the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

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To our embarrassment for our profession, some news media regurgitated the school system’s disinformation (in some cases word for word), apparently without looking at or evaluating the actual scores, statistics, or information from DPI – neither on the school system as a whole nor on the performance of individual schools.

Here’s the school system’s spin: ABSS “saw significant gains in the 2022-23 school year.  Fifteen of the district’s 36 schools maintained school performance grades of C or higher.”

Significant gains?

In what sense, we wondered?

Only an imaginary one.

Unless ABSS has also changed math calculations, as well, we’d be hard-pressed to find a way to consider the results “significant gains.”

School apologists and flailing school board politicians sometimes resort to labeling this newspaper and others who don’t join them in vapid cheerleading over mediocre academic performance as being “negative.”

For our part, we’re not trying to be negative, we’re just following the old Joe Friday adage, of providing “Just the facts, ma’am.”

And here are the facts:

Eight schools had a change in their “grades,” from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2022-2023 school year.  (Keep in mind, these are statistics compiled by the state’s Department of Public Instruction, not the school system’s critics or The Alamance News.)  Three improved (the school system listed two of the three in its release; perhaps they didn’t notice the third).

But what they certainly overlooked was the fact that five schools had year-end performance grades that were lower than the previous year.

So, again, if ABSS hasn’t turned math into the same Orwellian  redefinition of terms, that’s approximately 37 percent (3 schools) among those with any change whatsoever that improved, while 63 percent of the schools with any change (5 schools) declined.

Significant gains?

The second sentence of the release says “fifteen of the district’s 36 schools maintained school performance grades of C or higher.”

Well, that’s sort of true – as far as it goes. Perhaps we can give it at least a rating as a half-truth.

What’s unmentioned is the other half of the truth: fully 17 of the district’s 36 schools “maintained” school performance grades of Ds or Fs.

Incidentally, those 15 schools with C or higher consists of 1 school with a grade of A, two schools with Bs (two fewer than last year, by the way), and 12 with Cs.

(Keep in mind that the numerical value of a “C” grade, according to DPI, ranges from 55 to 69.  Those levels would represent a “D” or “F”, based on the 10-point scale that ABSS uses to grade its students’ work – so a “C” is hardly anything to brag about.)

And, of course, no mention whatsoever is made of another key component of the DPI statistics, graduation rates.

ABSS graduation rates declined at three of six high schools, and overall countywide.  Down, by the way, for the second consecutive year.

[Editorial continues below chart of recent ABSS grade performance.]

Somehow, in a statement which superintendent Dr. Dain Butler is at least said to have thought or uttered, he is “encouraged by this newly released data.” [Emphasis added; he’s encouraged.]  He adds, “these scores indicate that we are moving our schools in a positive direction.”


Positive direction?

Truly an Orwellian interpretation.

The ABSS press propaganda goes on to cite “growth” statistics within the performance scores which ostensibly showed “progress.”

Well, we guess it must be progress in something other than the final performance grades, which remained depressing.

The “growth” statistics are a fractional footnote (constituting about 20 percent of the overall grade) that desperate school systems latch onto when there’s nothing else they can brag about.

It’s pretty much the equivalent of saying the dining room on the Titantic was quite pretty as the ship was sinking into the ocean.

It’s largely a meaningless statistic with an equally meaningless effect on what remained a poor to middling performance by most ABSS schools.

In addition to our disappointment with the substance of the schools’ performance, we’d have to say we’re also disappointed in the superintendent’s performance, as well.

We had been optimistic over much of his first year that he was going to be a tough pragmatist who intended to focus on academic achievement and right a stagnant school system.

But if he actually finds anything about these scores “encouraging” or “positive,” we have clearly misjudged him.

He sounds more and more like every other superintendent atop a mediocre school system.

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