Devonshire Elementary got a nice moment of national recognition on the Today Show this morning, but it's too bad NBC education correspondent Rehema Ellis didn't double-check her numbers.
But the numbers in the CMS announcement were incredible. Literally.
"Since a turnaround effort began five years ago, achievement at Devonshire, which has more than 95 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged, has soared. In 2008, only 68.4 percent of students were at or above Level III," wrote CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte, referring to the state exam rating that's considered passing. "Today, 94.8 percent of students are at or above Level III."
If that were true, I'd have done a front-page story, as I did with Windsor Park Elementary, which topped CMS' high-poverty schools with a 2012 pass rate of 82 percent. But the state's school report cards show that Devonshire had pass rates of 54.9 percent in reading, 90.5 percent in math and 64.4 percent in fifth-grade science, for an overall composite of 71.4 percent.
When I asked Stalberte about that, she sent out a correction: "The numbers (listed) are the proficiency composites for fifth-grade math, not the overall proficiency at Devonshire Elementary."
In 2008, Devonshire's overall proficiency rate was 42.9 percent. But as I recently told a group of Davidson College students embarking on summer internships with local education groups, any report that touts big gains since 2008 should set BS detectors pinging. That's because North Carolina students had one chance to pass or fail the exams in 2008; starting the next year, first-time flunkers got a second shot. The result of the rule change was not trivial, especially at struggling schools. In 2009, Devonshire's overall pass rate was 55.1 percent after the first test and 64.2 percent after the retests, according to CMS reports at the time.
This morning's report featured good interviews with Devonshire faculty and families. Especially touching was a segment in which a student got teary at hearing his father say he's proud of his academic success.
But the numbers? "The school went from 40 percent to 93 percent of the students performing at grade level," Ellis reported, introducing a whole new set of numbers that don't seem to connect with reality.
CMS leaders and advocates often bemoan the gap between the district's glowing national reputation and local perceptions. No doubt that's partly because local critics and, yes, reporters sometimes latch onto the negatives. But it's also partly because national reporters, researchers and advocacy groups sometimes promote an oversimplified view of CMS. They may not be aware of the testing change that made all sorts of reforms look successful -- and the new administration has shown no inclination to distance itself from the "big gains since 2008" game.
Educators, students and parents who are working to break the links between poverty and failure deserve our respect and attention. But no one should fudge numbers to give it to them.
"That's a phenomenal change in that school," Matt Lauer said at the end of the segment. You might even say it's incredible.