SBAC Results Suggest a Widening Gap Between High- and Low-Performing Districts

by Categorized: Data, Education Date:

Local school officials got something of a break this year from the ritualized hand-wringing that typically accompanies the release of the state’s standardized-test results. With the first statewide administration of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium penciltest, 2015 is a benchmark year, setting a baseline of scores that officials will be hand-wringing over in 12 months.

But while state officials correctly warn against comparing achievement scores on the SBAC test to the prior CMT and CAPT tests, there is a way of to get some insight into how schools and districts are progressing. The Courant conducted that analysis for 19 towns in the Hartford region, and the results offer some evidence of a widening gap between the highest- and lowest-performing districts in the state.

For the analysis, the Courant examined the percentage of students scoring at high achievement levels on the SBAC test (those who met or exceeded the target achievement level) and calculated how each district performed compared to the state average. We did the same thing for the CMT and CAPT tests in 2013 – the last year the tests were widely administered (looking at students deemed “at goal”). Then we looked at whether districts had improved their position relative to the state average, or whether they lost ground compared to the state as a whole.

For simplicity’s sake, we grouped elementary grades and middle-school grades, and we combined data for the reading and writing portions of the CMT and CAPT tests, as the SBAC test includes a single English-language test.

As shown in the graphs below, for nearly all subject/grade levels we analyzed – high school English was the only exception – there is a clear trend in which towns that outperformed the state as a whole in 2013 generally extended their margins over the state average on the SBAC test, and towns with achievement levels below the state average two years ago fell farther below the average this year.

To read the charts: Blue arrows indicate an improvement in a district’s position relative to the state as a whole, and orange arrows indicate a decline. Data points above the zero line indicates a performance exceeding the state average, and points below the zero line indicate performance lagging the state average.

So the first arrow below shows that 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in Avon had an at-goal percentage in math in 2013 that was 30 percent above the state average. That’s the bottom of the arrow. On the newly released SBAC test, the percentage of elementary students meeting or exceeding the target achievement level was 73 higher than the state average. That’s the top of the arrow.

For elementary school math, the chart shows that of the 11 towns that performed above the state average in 2013, all  but one extended their margins. Similarly, of the eight towns that lagged the state average two years ago, all but one lost more ground compared to the state average. Most of the other charts show a similar trend.

We’ll extend our analysis beyond these Hartford-area towns and see if the trend holds statewide. To explore SBAC scores for your town, see the chart and visualization created by my colleague Stephen Busemeyer.

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Yet Another Effort to Keep the Public in the Dark about the Public’s Business

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Transparency/FOI Date:

It is extraordinarily well-settled law in Connecticut that personnel records related to the official conduct of our civil servants are public records that must – with rare and well-delineated exceptions – be released to members of the public, who employ those civil servants.

And yet, decades after the state Supreme Court resolved any serious question about the obligation oftopsecret public agencies, the dockets of the Freedom of Information Commission are routinely clogged with cases in which one town or another is trying – through ignorance or willful law-breaking – to keep personnel files secret.

Usually, the arguments are worn and tired, but occasionally an agency will come up with a novel, if misplaced, justification for skirting the law. That’s the case with a complaint brought against the Ansonia Police Department, which refuses to release personnel records for one of its officer. Continue reading

Secrecy-Obsessed Bureaucrats Battle for Coveted “Golden Padlock Award”

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When the Boston Globe sought records related to crashes involving Massachusetts State Police cars, the agency said it would be happy to comply – for a fee of $62,200. The agency was also willing to release a log of public-records requests – for $42,750. And the Staties told a reporter for the Bay State Examiner that he would have to pay a $710.50 “non-refundable research fee” just to find out how much the agency would ultimately charge for copies of internal-affairs documents.golden_padlock

For “habitually going to extraordinary lengths to thwart public records requests, protect law enforcement officers and public officials who violate the law and block efforts to scrutinize how the department performs its duties,” the Massachusetts State Police was named one of four finalists for the Golden Padlock Award, a slightly tongue-in-cheek honor bestowed annually by the journalism organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

“It normally takes months or longer to respond to news media FOI requests. Requests for basic documents routinely produce refusals, large portions of blacked out documents or demands for tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified fees,” IRE gushed in announcing the department’s nomination. The news organization also quoted a 2013 story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that declared: “The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender – verging on a career criminal – when it comes to breaking a state law intended to ensure government is accountable to the people it serves.”

This is the third year IRE has led the hunt for “the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States.” Last year, the award was shared by the U.S. Navy FOI office, which not only stymied efforts by a reporter to obtain information on a shooting spree at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., but also accidentally sent the reporter an internal memo outlining the plan to keep records secret; and the governors of Oklahoma and Missouri, who went to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark about problems with prison executions.

Joining the Massachusetts State Police as finalists this year are the Colorado Judicial Branch, which keeps records of its spending and disciplinary actions under wraps; The Texas Department of Public Safety, which tried to block inquiries into the validity of its border-security program; and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has stonewalled efforts to learn more about the massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan by an Army staff sergeant.

“There is a unique brand of courage displayed by public officials who deny, delay and circumvent the public’s right to know with a straight-faced sense of duty,” said Robert Cribb, a Toronto Star reporter and chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock committee. “They carry forward a rich tradition of undermining open records laws with ingenuity, commitment and condescension deserving of our acknowledgement.”

The winner will be announced at IRE’s annual conference this weekend.

Charity Fraud Charges: Four Down, Hundreds to Go

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Ethics, Government, Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

The fraud case brought against four spectacularly inefficient cancer charities is welcome news to watchdogs who have studied the fleecing of generous donors by Donateunscrupulous nonprofits. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to more than 1.5  million tax-exempt organizations. The great majority are legitimate operations. But some – hundreds for sure – are little more than conduits that funnel money to professional fundraising firms while devoting pennies on the dollar to charitable purposes.

And there is often little the government can do about it. Continue reading

No Shortage of Detractors for Racial Profiling Findings

by Categorized: Data, Law Enforcement, Public Safety, Race/Ethnicity Date:

Racial and ethnic disparities in policing has long been an uneasy topic in Connecticut and across the country. And that was reflected in reaction to a Sunday story in the Courant reporting that black and Hispanic motorists pulled over for traffic violations were more likely to receive a ticket than were white motorists pulled over for the same offense.

Many commenters and email writers were quick to challenge the findings,  advancing a slew of reasons why the data or the analysis was flawed, and confidently assuring that there was a legitimate reason for any disparities in policing. Some raised legitimate questions. Others misunderstood the analysis.

The Courant performed a similar analysis in 2012 – and received a similarly visceral reaction from many readers.  So as we did three years ago, here’s an elucidation on a few of the topics raised by readers.

The most common misconception was that the reported disparities simply indicate that black and Hispanic drivers violate traffic laws at higher rates than white motorists. “Could minority drivers commit more motor vehicle violations than non-minority drivers?” one poster asked. “No, this can’t be true. that would be racist.” Continue reading

Fake Alumnus at “Life Experience” School Gets Yet Another New Job!

by Categorized: Education, Ethics Date:

Paul N. Johnson sure gets around.

After the Courant exposed that a degree-selling outfit calling itself Denton University was claiming Genentech CEO Ian Clark as a graduate, Denton Clark_Clark_Genentechrepeatedly reworked the online “alumni profile,” eventually swapping out Clark’s photo and claiming it was actually alumnus “Paul N. Johnson” who was the CEO of Genentech, a multi-billion-dollar drug company.

Wednesday, the profile was changed again, to delete any reference to Genentech. And now, Paul N. Johnson – who days ago was allegedly a biology graduate of Denton running a huge pharmaceutical company – has been re-imagined as a computer science graduate running an electronic medical record firm, among other things.

“Computer Engineer Alumnus Paul N. JohnSon has been Assigned as Cheif Executive Officer at Iros International, where He is managing also Lab Interface Projects,” the freshly rewritten profile now proclaims, complete with strange grammar, spelling errors and odd capitalizations. “Based in New york, he also heads EMR consultancy company name Allscripts which is also using genetic engineering research techniques in their labs and develop medicines with the help of Pharmaceutical Company.”

Iros International does not appear to be the name of any active U.S. company. Allscripts is a real company – although it’s based in Chicago, and its CEO and president is not named Paul Johnson.

The photo of Johnson in the fake alumni profile, meanwhile, remains that of a University of Minnesota student named Alfonso whose picture appeared in the student newspaper – before it mysteriously found its way to Denton’s website next to the name Paul N. Johnson.

The Courant’s original report a month ago found that some “life-experience” schools – loosely regulated businesses that offer advanced degrees with little or no academic work – routinely use inaccurate images and content on their websites. While Denton deleted references to Genentech and its CEO, other dubious portions of the website remain intact.

Denton still features “Ben Crawford” as a medical sciences degree graduate who raves about Denton’s classroom lectures – which do not exist. But the photograph of “Ben Crawford” is actually a stock image, and his testimonial about the school was lifted from a real alumni profile for a woman named Alison Wood, who appears on the website of the University of Birmingham, in England.

And a third alumni profile on Denton’s website, purportedly for a masters in education student named Amy Meehan, is actually a photograph of one graduate of Britain’s University of Southampton, with text taken from a profile for a different Southampton grad.

“I researched all of the opportunities for my specialism and Denton was not only local but also held a fantastic reputation. I spoke with colleagues and contacts within my field and they all agreed that Denton was by far the best option for me to pursue my academic studies,” the Denton website quotes “Amy Meehan” as saying – even though a representative acknowledged that Denton offers no academic studies.

That bears more than a passing resemblance to a quote by Lois Sellwood on Southampton’s website: “I researched all of the opportunities for my specialism and Southampton was not only local but also held a fantastic reputation. I spoke with colleagues and contacts within my field and they all agreed that Southampton was by far the best option for me to pursue my academic studies.”

The photo, meanwhile, is actually a picture of Southampton graduate Sophie Gaunt.

Gaunt, in particular, was easy to identify. On Denton’s website, the image Denton claims is Amy Meehan has the filename “Sophie-Gaunt-144×144.”

As they have in the past, Denton officials did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Dodger Stadium Sells Enough Hot Dogs to Round the Bases 3,551 Times

by Categorized: Data, Sports Date:

Baseball season gets underway this week, and the cheering in the stands may be matched only by the cheering at something called the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which is gleefully looking forward to the consumption of 18.5 million franks and another 4.2 million sausages at ball parks between now and the World Series.

The Council, part of something called the American Meat Institute, estimates season-long hot dog and sausage sales will rise about 6.5 percent at the nation’s 30 major league ballparks. dodgerdog And leading the way by a mile are fans in Los Angeles, where concessionaires are expected to sell 2.5 million of the park’s legendary Dodger Dogs. The 10-inch frank, which typically gets higher marks for nostalgia than culinary prowess, has a starting price of $5.50, and climbs from there with several variations, including the Brooklyn Dodger Dog with a snappy casing, and the chili- and jalapeno-topped Doyer Dog.

Fans of the Dodgers eat a million more hot dogs than the second-place New York Yankees, and outsell the sixth-placed Fenway Franks by 3-to-1. At the bottom of the pack is Kauffman Stadium (no relation) in Kansas City, where a barbecue pit and a smoker draw fans to cuisine the city is decidedly more famous for.

While the hot dog remains the staple of stadium fare, sausage sales are surprisingly plump at some ball parks, particularly in the Midwest. At Miller Park in Milwaukee, sausages actually outsell hot dogs, an indication of the marketing success of the stadium’s campy Sausage Race competition.

Below is a chart of estimated dog sales at all 30 parks.

HotDogs

Connecticut Lottery: 43 Years, Nearly 25 Billion Dollars

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Government Date:

Forty-three years ago, as Connecticut officials were gearing up to sell the very first tickets for the state’s newly approved lottery, Gov. Thomas Meskill bullishly declared that residents’ appetite for legalized gambling would put $14 million into state coffers in that first year – a figure editorial writers at the Courant eyed dubiously as “optimistic.”

The paper needn’t have been skeptical. Meskill hit his figure, and in the years since the lottery’s launch on Feb. 15, 1972, ticket sales – and the state’s take of those sales – have skyrocketed.

In fiscal year 2014, lottery sales in Connecticut topped $1 billion for the fourth year in a row. That’s a hair under $400 a year for every Connecticut resident old enough to buy a ticket. Adjusted for both inflation and population, that is a five-fold increase over that first heady year. And with national surveys showing only about half the population plays the lottery, that suggests the average player is spending close to a $1,000 a year on tickets – with heavy players dropping several thousand.

LotteryByGameAs ticket sales have grown, so has the state’s share of the take, increasing from $14 million the first full year, to $319.5 million in 2014. For the last 20 years, inflation has accounted for much of that growth; since the mid-1990s, ticket sales and state revenue have been generally flat on an inflation-adjusted basis. But overall, the state has sold more than $24.7 billion since the lottery launched, keeping about a third of the money – more than $8 billion – as revenue. Continue reading

A Transparency Advocate’s Legislative Wish List

by Categorized: Education, First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

I recently obtained an internal email in which a lawyer for a public agency laid out the agency’s strategy for responding to a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Step One was identifying the records the agency was willing to release.

Step Two was identifying the records the agency had no intention of releasing.

And then Step Three, almost as an afterthought, was determining whether there was actually an exception under the Freedom of Information Act that would provide a legal basis for keeping the withheld documents secret from the public.

“As we discussed we can always withhold a document even if there is no exception,” the lawyer wrote, with the understanding that the agency might have to concoct a justification for the illegal act if the requester was savvy enough to pursue an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission.

It wasn’t the first such email I had been made privy to, and it reminded me of the need for vigilance in Freedom of Information matters and the importance of constantly reminding the public servants who work for us that they do, in fact, work for us. They’re paid by us, they’re sworn to serve us. And with rare exceptions, all of the paperwork and data they produce and collect while on our payroll belongs to us, and should be provided to us without a fight.

So as the Legislature gets down to business this week, here’s one transparency advocate’s wish list, for any lawmakers willing to champion the not-so-radical concept that the people’s business really is the people’s business. Continue reading

Once again, Spending the Public’s Money to Keep the Public in the Dark

by Categorized: Employment, Government, Transparency/FOI Date:

The Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system, with its 90,000 students and $300 million in state aid, is among the most expensive and most important government operations. So when Michael Gargano Jr. abruptly resigned his $224,554 job as provost last month, the taxpayers of Connecticut might have felt entitled to a robust exit interview, to learn why he was dissatisfied with the governance of the system and in particular how his thinking differed from that of his boss, Board of Regents President Gregory Gray.

But that’s not likely to happen.

As my colleague Kathy Megan has reported, a separation agreement Gargano and Gray signed contractually bars Gargano from uttering a sentence that disparages Gray – or anyone else connected to the state’s higher education network. Specifically, Gargano’s deal prohibits him from making any derogatory statement about the Board of Regents, about his employment with the Board of Regents or about any current or previous member, employee or officer of the Board of Regents.

On the other side of the ledger, the agreement continues Gargano’s paycheck for nearly 16 weeks, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $65,000. That payment – roughly equal to a year’s salary for a typical state employee – is not required by Gargano’s employment contract.

As is typical of negotiated employment separations, the agreement also bars Gargano from suing his former employer. There’s no indication he had any basis for a suit, although if he was in fact treated in a way that violated the law, perhaps that, too, is something the taxpayers had a right to know.

So in the end, an employee of the public has signed off on giving tens of thousands of dollars of the public’s money to another public employee as part of a deal that will keep the public in the dark about the public’s business.

Does anyone have a problem with this?

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