August 13, 2003

The valedictorian flunks out

No, despite your high hopes upon seeing the header, this is not a Blair Hornstine story - but it's just about as sad.

There is a young woman named Bridget Green. She was all set to be valedictorian of Fortier High School in New Orleans. But instead, she skipped graduation, because she's likely to be flunked out. Not because of some grading dispute or plagiarism charges, but because she flunked the math portion of the exit exam five times.

Is she just an innocent victim of a flawed standardized test? Well, while the Graduate Exit Exam (GEE) may not be perfect, its conclusion about Ms. Green's true math skills has been externally validated:

Had the GEE been the only test that gave Bridget Green so much trouble, perhaps critics of that test would have a point. But she also did poorly on the ACT, a tool that colleges nationwide use to determine a student's readiness for higher education. Ms. Green's composite score on that test was 11. According to the American College Testing Web site, that places her in the 1st percentile. Of all the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders who took the test within the last three years, 99 percent of them did better than Ms. Green.

Emphasis mine. This NOLA op-ed is scathing:

Just this year Ms. Green received an A in Algebra II. In most places, an A in that subject indicates the student has demonstrated mastery in factoring polynomials and dividing them, solving quadratic equations and plotting them and is adept at solving complex word problems. Obviously, Bridget Green hadn't mastered those skills or she would have passed the test...

How cruel it is to give a student A's and B's and name her valedictorian when she's that far behind the rest of the nation. How cruel it is to her classmates with lower grades who've been tricked into thinking they've received an education when they, too, have been cheated...

The teachers and administrators at Fortier High have some explaining to do. If the senior with the best grades can't pass a 10th-grade test, what, if anything, are students being taught?

What, indeed. How on earth can this be? How can a valedictorian place in the lowest percentile of the ACT? That's so low as to believe that she didn't really make an effort, or just filled in the bubbles randomly.

There's a more sympathetic, and informative, article about Ms. Green here:

Green, who failed to pass the 10th-grade level test on five occasions, isn't the only student at Fortier who missed this year's ceremony. Of the 220 students who began the school year as seniors, 125 graduated in May. School officials said at least 30 had the grades to graduate but failed the test...

Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state school board, said the real problem is that the school failed Green. "This story puts a face on the squandered opportunities, the way we're robbing children of an education," said Jacobs, a former member of the Orleans Parish School Board. "This school had no expectations of this student."...

[Brigid's] only weak spot was math. In 10th grade, when she first took the graduate exam, she eked out a passing grade on the English section but bombed on the math portion. She said the questions on the test looked nothing like what she learned in class...

Green didn't quit trying. In the following two years, she put in extra effort to catch up, according to Robert Welch, her math teacher. "She was a real hard worker," Welch said.

...Green was feeling confident when she faced the exam for the fifth time this March. Her hopes were fueled by her performance in Algebra II, where she earned an A. When she took Algebra I, she earned a C.

Why on earth did she earn a grade that high if she couldn't pass 10th-grade math items? And math courses are cumulative. Grades tend to go down as one progresses along the math continuum, not up. If Ms. Green didn't have a good grasp of Algebra I concepts, how did she manage an A in Algebra II?

Needless to say, the testing critics are out in force and ready to overlook even this most outrageous example of mis-education:

"I wish our public officials and even (the state Board of Elementary and Sceondary Education) would take a second look at the test," said C.C. Campbell-Rock, a local activist who has long fought to abolish rules that tie student promotion to test performance.

C. C. Campbell-Rock, I think you're a fool. This test is providing a massive wake-up call to a school system that inflates grades and doesn't provide its students with the educational skills they need to go on to college - and you think the tests should be abolished? Not before someone figures how a student could have the highest GPA in her senior class and not understand 10th-grade math.

A middling score on the ACT wouldn't be impossible here - I've known valedictorians and salutatorians who didn't have anywhere near the highest SAT scores in their classes - but the 1st percentile on the ACT for someone who received an A in Algebra II? No. If reality wasn't going to slap Ms. Green in the face here, it was certainly going to slap her later, when colleges refused to admit her despite her valedictorian status. Despite the claim that math is Ms. Green's "only" weak spot, her overall ACT score would have been better if that were the case (she even admits she "eked" out a passing score on the English component). It's hard to believe that she's been cheated out of a real education only in math.

How hard is the GEE? Judge for yourself. A set of 10th-grade sample items is here. Skip to page 5 for the math items. Students are required to "add signed numbers and find the largest sum", interpret graphs, interpret the most basic statistics (mean, median, mode), and use simple geometry for proportional reasoning in the multiple-choice section.

In the constructed response example given, a student is required to find figures with sides of differing lengths that have the same area and write a simple one-variable algebraic expression to find the area of a rectangle with length x.

And the valedictorian couldn't do this? And critics are telling us to take another look at this exam? I'd say we take another look at what Fortier High considers to be Algebra II work. And what about the students who had lower GPA's than Ms. Green? At least 125 of them passed the GEE, meaning they managed to overcome the obstacles of this school's dubious educational tactics.

Do I think Fortier High is unusual among Louisiana's schools? Not after reading this summary from CABL, the Council for A Better Louisiana:

A snapshot of Louisiana's economic and quality of life indicators shows that:

* A significant number of public students score below “basic” levels on academic tests and the although the rate is improving, the state has a significant dropout rate -- with nearly 16,000 high school students leaving in 2002.
* Academically, many of our public middle schools are performing poor or failing levels.
* Academically, many of our high schools are performing at poor or failing levels.
* Four out of 10 college freshmen from our public high schools must take remedial courses.

CABL also notes that the passing rate on the GEE is set at the "Approaching Basic" level, which puts the 75%+ passing rate into perspective. The higher education indicators are much more informative - 39% of Louisiana's college students are enrolled in "Non-credit Developmental Courses", which is a polite way of saying "remedial" - and the 6-year graduation rate is an appalling 39% as well.

None of these facts support the theory that this is an isolated incident - that Ms. Green is merely bad at math or nervous about taking tests - nor do they support the demand that these high-stakes tests should be abolished. Ultimately, I have to agree with this letter writer:

One thing is clear. Standardized tests like the GEE and ACT are a necessary evil. A grade of A or B at some New Orleans high schools does not accurately reflect knowledge or ability.

Without requiring the GEE, a college or employer does not have any confidence that a high school diploma is anything more than an attendance certificate.

Wayne L. Johnson
New Orleans

Posted by kswygert at August 13, 2003 08:21 PM