Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Now if only we could get a refund...

Okay, let's start with the good. Rosie is starting Pre-K next week, at the very Catholic school we intend to send the kids to for grade school. It's a great school, one of the best in the state, and we wanted to get her enrolled so she would naturally be enrolled for grade school without a problem. Plus the exposure will be great for her, plus the schedule, normality, and socialization. She's looking forward to going and I'm looking forward to taking her there.

So while entering her school schedule into Google Calendar (thus making it available to the people who need it) I thought, "hey, I have all this info for the Phoenix diocese, why not compare the schools there to the Scottsdale Unified School District we're paying taxes for."

This turned out to be a bad, bad idea. Yes, I have lots of info to share, lots of comparisons, and lots of data. What is the one thing I am missing?

Flippin' test scores!

Okay, everyone remembers No Child Left Behind, one of the greatests wastes of taxpayer money ever? In response to that, AZ now has the AIMS test which is supposed to measure student and school performance. Now I always remember the ITBS (Iowa) as it was the reigning champion of school tests while I was in school one suburb away. The Phoenix Diocese still uses this wildly popular test, and for good reason. The test both supplies real numbers and norms for the entire country. This is a great tool, letting teachers and parents know how the students scored compared to their grade level and the entire country if they so choose.

The AIMS test... where do I start. Not only have the standards been lowered MANY times (almost every single year since they were testing it my senior year of high school, 1999) but the test doesn't give real, comparative numbers. If you look really hard through the AZ Department of Education website, you can find scores by district and school, which will tell you the percentage of students who failed to meet, met, or exceeded expectations. This took me about an hour. For the average parent who doesn't stay at home, the hour that took would be precious indeed. For these normal folk there are school ratings, i.e. failing, underperforming, performing, highly performing, and excelling.

The only problem is that there is no easy explanation for those terms, and to find an explanation at all, a parent has to wade through more documentation i.e. another hour of my time. So what did I find when I went looking for these ratings? MORE FLIPPIN' CALCULATIONS. After about a half hour of trying to figure out advanced level statistics and their version of "points" I gave up. The whole thing doesn't make sense, is not comparable to any other state's system, and bottom line cannot be compared to the numbers from the private schools.

So I'm going to have to do something I hate to do. I am going to have to substitute deduction for raw data. I'd rather have the raw data.

Now before I begin, let me start by saying right off the top that I'm being extremely generous concerning the public school system compared to our school of choice. I'm comparing the Phoenix Diocese to the entire Scottsdale Unified School District. The Phoenix Diocese includes some of the poorest people in the metro Phoenix area. The SUSD, many of the richest. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that compared to the Phoenix public school districts, SUSD is rich indeed. The public school that Rosie would otherwise attend is, however, one of the least funded of the SUSD schools due to its neighborhood which is comparable to the neighborhood which surrounds the Catholic school. But anyway...

The ITBS scores I found for the Phoenix Diocese are from 2005, and are two types: Percentile Rank, and Grade Equivalency. The PR is ranked on national norms, and is based on the percentage of students nationwide who tested lower than the student in question in that grade level at that time. The GE is the grade level (grade . month of grade) which the student performed at. So, for example, if the PR is 72 the student tested better than 72 percent of students at the same grade level at the same time nationwide. If the GE is 5.4 that's 5th grade, 4th month.

Phoenix Diocese:
3rd Grade Math PR:63 GE:3.5
Reading PR:69 GE:3.8
5th Grade Math PR:65 GE:5.8
Reading PR:75 GE:6.6
8th Grade Math PR:72 GE:10.4
Reading PR:73 GE:10.5

Now if you'll notice, the PRs and GEs gain each testing level, until at the 8th grade the students are averaging 2 1/2 levels above their current grade level, which is especially impressive considering that the testing is done in September. Now this is unfortunately where I have to leap into deduction, because the data is not comparable. For a student population to exceed expectations by 31%, it is logical that the vast majority of the students met expecations and a rather large percentage exceeded them. But more importantly, the relative numbers rise, proven that the students are not backsliding but indeed advancing forward. I do really wish I could just compare average GEs between the districts, but thanks to AIMS this is the best I get.

Now the SUSD data from 2005. Each grade level is tests against state expectations (I rather prefer the national norms) and a percentage of students passing or exceeding expectations is given. Let's assume that the "met expectations" number is approximately 50th percentile, just in the hopes (most likely futile) of being logical.

So here we go...

3rd Grade: Math: 46% met, 39% exceeded (85%)
Reading: 61% met, 20% exceeded (81%)
5th Grade: Math: 45% met, 41% exceeded (86%)
Reading: 65% met, 20% exceeded (85%)
(note: there are actual nominal gains here)
8th Grade: Math: 54% met, 24% exceeded (78%) huh?
Reading: 69% met, 14% exceeded (83%)

So in Math there was a notable drop, Reading a nominal drop, and overall no gains. Compare that to the Phoenix Diocese, whose students performed better each testing level.

But Catholic schoolkids spend much more time in class, you can't hope to compare, right?

No, not really. Like I said, I've gone over the school calendar. The Catholic school in question has 157 full days (7 1/2 hours each) and 20 half days (4 hours each). The SUSD has 176 full days (also 7 1/2 hours) and 4 half days. So that's really 167 school days at the Catholic school, and 178 school days at SUSD. The public school student actually spends 11 more days in class. So what's wrong? Well, first of all, someone at SUSD decided it would be good to split the 2nd quarter in half, ending it 3 weeks after return from Christmas Break. Why this makes sense I don't know, but it evidently did to the school board. That means the teachers spent at least 5 school days refreshing before testing, making the gap is school days significantly less. So there at least the schools are roughly equal.

But Catholic schools are much more expensive, have much better teachers right?
Well, yes and no. Almost nothing can replace a good Jesuit-method teacher, which is why we chose this school to begin with. But as for cost, no not really. For example...

For 167 school days of full day Pre-K, we are paying a total of $4650. $3800 of that is actual tuition, $250 for school improvement fee (one per family), and $150 registration fee. The other $450 is fees if we DON'T do the 20 hours of volunteer work per family (worth $15 per hour) and make $150 worth of SCRIP profit for the church. SCRIP is gift cards bought from the church that can be used at places like grocery stores, gas stations, and other retailers at face value and cost. The church receives a percentage of the profit (around 4% average, up to 20% for some) and it's like spending cash. We figure we'll do that in Amazon SCRIP alone. What else is great about this system is that after that $150 in profit is met, the church will split the profit with you and apply it to tuition. This is a great way to reduce tuition costs, as you can sell SCRIP to just about anyone. Also every family is required to donate time or money to Catholic Tuition Organization, 95% of which goes towards scholarships and grants for family who cannot pay the tuition.

So yes, the $4650 we could pay is a lot of money, but not in comparison to other preschools in the area, which will charge $600 per month instead of the average $465 per month we are paying (or $420 if we are doing the community service, which we will).

But what is the grade school tuition?

Well, if you are a non-Catholic who doesn't contribute or volunteer, the yearly tuition (paid over 10 months) is $7150, or $6300 base ($6700 with necessary fees). If you are a contributing member of the parish, base is $3950.

So how much of our taxpayer dollars goes towards the average SUSD student?

$8400. Yes, that much, NOT counting school improvement bonds. So your average student costs the taxpayer more (much more overall) to send to a public school than to a private school. This is why school vouchers are such a popular idea with fiscal conservatives. They save much more money than they cost to implement.

So let's go over this again. Although the test scores from the AIMS are suspiciously hard to intepret and compare, it is evident that the students from the Phoenix Diocese advance more, spend less time in school, and cost less to send to school. Factor in a good-old-fashioned Jesuit education, smaller classes, the joys of uniforms, and mandatory parental involvement, and it's obvious where our kids are going.

Now if only we could get a refund for all those pesky property taxes...


Just call me Mel, everyone else does.