Is Sacramento’s “best” school “beating the odds” or loading the dice.

The Sacramento Bee ran its regular West-Campus-is-the-best story this weekend, with the lede:

“West Campus High School regularly defies the odds.”

West defies the odds, the Bee says, by consistently outperforming other area high schools in tests and in U.S. News & World Report’s best high schools ranking — despite serving a relatively large proportion of low-income families.

“That has long made it an anomaly among public high schools — a campus with 865 students that reflect both diversity and large share of low-income students who, nonetheless, regularly beat out students in the county’s most affluent neighborhoods.”

The headline on this particular West-Campus-is-the-best story (there have been an awful lot of them over the years) is, “West Campus beats the odds again on new statewide tests.”

Which is nonsense, of course. Beating the odds means getting an improbable result. Which, maybe, superficially. The Bee notes the well-known correlation between family incomes and test scores. So it’s unlikely for school with lots of low-income kids to get high test scores, right?

No, West Campus students getting high test scores is anything but improbable, given what the Bee discloses lower in the story:

“The school keeps student body performance high by identifying high-achieving students through an application process and then ‘disenrolling’ low-performing students who, after academic probation, don’t make the grade.”

In fact, looking back through past West Campus stories in the Bee — did I mention these stories are pretty frequent? — we learn that only about half of the students who apply to West Campus are admitted. West Campus isn’t beating the odds. It’s loading the dice. Stacking the deck.

But in all the Sacramento Bee stories that I’ve read about West Campus over the years, they never really question the value of rankings or comparisons of test scores between schools like West Campus, which select their students, and regular public high schools which aren’t allowed to do that kind of sorting.

And the semi-annual Sacramento Bee West-Campus-is-the-best story actually does a disservice to West Campus. Because maybe they really have some kind of secret sauce there that is helping kids succeed, and they’re not just playing a sorting game. You’d have to actually acknowledge that selection effect in order to tease out the effect of whatever West is doing differently in the classroom.


Originally published at cosmogarvin.com.

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