January 28, 2004

(Sub)urban blight

Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster have concluded that problematic behaviors, like teenage pregancies and drug use, are just as rampant in suburbia as in the inner city:

Public high school students in suburbia are just as likely as students in urban schools to engage in sex, get pregnant, obtain an abortion, drink, use illegal drugs, steal and fight, according to a report released today by a New York think tank...The report also found that:

* About half of all public high school students, urban and suburban, have had sexual intercourse.

* 10.5 percent of female high school students in urban schools said they had become pregnant, compared to 9.1 percent of female students in suburban schools.

* Urban and suburban teen-age girls are almost equally as likely to obtain an abortion.

* About one out of seven urban and suburban students have used illegal drugs at school.

* More than one third of suburban high school students smoke regularly, defined as at least once a day in a 30-day period. Among urban students, one fourth smoke regularly.

* About one in five urban and suburban students said they stole something valued at less than $50 within the past 12 months.

The findings are based on surveys by the Department of Health and Human Services of 11,000 public high school students in 1995 and 1996.

Here's the report, by the way. Their summary paragraph:

Parental concern about the rising influence of sex, drugs, and delinquency in urban schools has long been recognized as a significant factor in the last few decades’ population flight from the cities to the suburbs. Parents are fleeing urban schools not just because of low academic performance but also because they believe suburban schools are safer and more wholesome. But the results from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health suggest that fleeing from city to suburb doesn’t produce much difference in the level of these problems one finds at the local school. The desks may be newer, the paint may be fresher, and the faces may be whiter, but the students are just as likely to have sex, use controlled substances, and break the law. The comforting outward signs of order and decency—shiny new schools armed with expensive textbooks and staffed by teachers who have mastered the latest educational fads—don’t seem to be associated with substantial differences in student behavior.

I can already predict some of the comments to this post now - "Time to homeschool."

Posted by kswygert at 08:59 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

The MCAS battle continues

The state of Massachusetts has said to high school students -"Nice try, but no cigar. The MCAS is in your future":

The state's highest court refused yesterday to block the use of the MCAS exam as a graduation requirement, dealing a blow to high school students who are suing to abolish the controversial test. The Supreme Judicial Court denied a request for an injunction to stop the state from giving the high-stakes exam pending the outcome of a lawsuit, saying an injunction "would undermine educator accountability and hinder education reform."

The ruling is the latest development in a class-action lawsuit over the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System that contends that the test unfairly discriminates against minority, special education, and other students who have not been adequately prepared for the exam.

To be honest, it's probably true that some students haven't been adequately prepared. But the fact that minority and special ed students do worse on the MCAS is not evidence that the test "unfairly discriminates." There's differential impact, but the test may still be fairly identifying who knows the material, and who doesn't.

Characterizing the SJC ruling as a minor setback because it dealt with only a small portion of their case, lawyers for the students say they are not abandoning their efforts to have the MCAS declared unconstitutional....Meanwhile, state officials are hailing the decision as a sign of more favorable rulings for MCAS.

Apparently, the lawyers tried to argue the exit exam focused "too narrowly" on English and math. What should it focus on - painting and music? Chemistry and geography? The argument that a test that measures the two most basic educational skills is too "narrow" doesn't make sense to me.

...the judges ruled that MCAS legislation gave state officials discretion to phase in subjects such as history and science "in a reasonable manner and on a reasonable timetable."

In addition, the ruling said, state officials "could properly conclude that a student should have competence in `reading, writing, and arithmetic' before being tested on competence in science, history, and other areas."


Meanwhile, lawyers are preparing for trial in state court on the rest of their case against the MCAS requirement, and are amending their complaint to include arguments that the test also discriminates against students enrolled in schools that were declared "underpreforming" by state and federal government.

"Students attending underperforming schools are students who have not been adequately taught material of the exam," said Godkin. Students cannot be expected to pass an exam based on materials they have not been taught, Godkin argues.

Withholding high school diplomas from students who pass all other graduation requirements violates their constitutional rights, he said.

Okay, let me get this straight. The MCAS is allegedly a "narrow" test, and we know it tests only English and math. Kids at underperforming schools are being denied these skills by their teachers, as evidenced by MCAS scores. They are not learning basic English and math skills.

And in response, these plaintiffs wants to claim both that the tests are "unfair," because they're measuring what they're supposed to be measuring, and that kids from underperforming schools, who haven't mastered basic English and math, deserve diplomas. My head is spinning. If the MCAS is "unfair" because kids haven't learned the material, why should we assume they should be allowed to graduate? And where in the constitution does it say that these, or any, students have the right to a diploma?

Posted by kswygert at 08:53 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

More certification hurdles in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has changed its mind about teacher certification:

One of the two states that had agreed to accept a series of national tests as the sole basis for teacher licensing appears to have reversed itself on the issue.

At least for the time being, Pennsylvania is requiring candidates who have passed the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence exams to enroll in state-approved education programs and complete internships under its auspices before receiving standard state certification...

Pennsylvania is one of just two states that have embraced the ABCTE system. Idaho followed Pennsylvania's lead last fall. What's clear now, however, is that aspiring new teachers who might have envisioned taking the board's tests and receiving a Pennsylvania license without necessarily having to take courses or enroll in college-level teacher preparation won't be able to go that route...

From the beginning, the ABCTE has faced an uphill battle against teachers' unions and schools of education, which say passing tests is not enough to qualify teachers for the classroom. The group has, however, won support from the U.S. Department of Education, which favors opening new routes into the classroom.

Posted by kswygert at 08:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Battle of the Bulge

Is an increase in testing resulting in a "bulge" of 9th-graders, and a dropoff of students in the higher grades?

The bulge is the name education researchers give to the percentage increase in students in the 9th grade over the number who were enrolled in 8th grade. Over the same period, statistics show that growing numbers of students seem to be disappearing between the 9th and 10th grades.

The researchers attribute those trends to the rising use of standardized exams, stiffer course requirements for graduation, and, more recently, the growth of "high stakes" accountability programs. In the face of those developments, they say, schools are retaining students in 9th grade—and, in some cases, derailing them from the path to a regular high school diploma.

Sounds like the NCLB is catching some kids in high school who don't seem ready for high school, and they're being left behind - in the 9th grade. Is it really a "national emergency" - or a sign that we're not doing a good job of educating those 14-year-olds?

Other experts interviewed last week did not quibble with the trends the report documents. They did take issue, though, with some of the study's methods and conclusions.

John Robert Warren, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said other factors besides the movement for academic standards and high-stakes testing might explain the growing 9th grade bottleneck and sliding graduation rates.

"Is it because kids quit school?" he said. "Is it because they move to a different state? To say that it's because of high-stakes testing would require more careful investigation than they have done."

Even if grade repeaters are causing the bulge, added Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the New York City-based Manhattan Institute, is that good or bad?

"Ultimately, we care about graduation rates as an indicator of acquisition of skills," he said. "If students are being retained in 9th grade because they lack the skills to be promoted, then it does them no good to pass them on to the 10th grade."

I agree with that.

Like their critics, the authors recognize that the drop in graduates could stem from a variety of factors, some of which they attempted to rule out.

To see whether the students were leaving public schools for private schools, for instance, they looked at private school enrollments nationwide, but found that the numbers had held steady. They also looked at statistics for home schoolers, teenage-mortality rates, and U.S. Census Bureau data on the percentages of school-age children migrating out of states.

Those broad statistical checks were not systematic enough to convince researchers such as Mr. Warren that the standards and testing movement was at fault. But Mr. Haney and his co-authors insist that such policies are the most likely culprit.

What's more, they say, some anecdotal evidence suggests schools may be actively "pushing out" students who are likely to fail high-stakes exams. Such exams are used to decide which schools or teachers get bonuses, which students graduate or move to the next grade, and which districts earn failing labels.

Their report points to Houston, for example, where administrators in 15 schools last year reported dropout rates incorrectly. ("Houston Case Offers Lesson on Dropouts," Sept. 24, 2003).

According to their own results, bulges were found in all but three states - Arkansas, Louisiana, and Maine. And in 12 states, the bulge was huge - 15% or more extra freshmen. Do the researcher really believe that the shenanigans in Houston have been replicated to this extent across the entire country?

I've no doubt that accountability measures are the cause of some of this bulge - and like Mr. Greene, I don't think it's a bad thing. But I think it's ridiculous to claim that fudging the accountability numbers is one of the causes.

Posted by kswygert at 08:40 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A charge of manipulated test scores

A wrongful-termination lawsuit has been filed in the US District Court that accuses East High School (Colorado) of fudging test score numbers:

A former East High School teacher assigned to improve the school's standardized test scores filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit Tuesday that accuses school officials of forcing disabled and minority students out of the school to improve test results. The lawsuit that Donna Otabachian filed in U.S. District Court also accused officials at East High of undermining attempts to help those students do better on the Colorado Scholastic Assessment Program, or CSAP, test.

An East High vice principal "identified high-risk EHS students and intentionally dropped the at-risk students from the EHS roles, with intent to manipulate the March 2003 CSAP scores," Otabachian alleged in her lawsuit...

Otabachian said she lost her job at East High after complaining to district officials and teachers union officials about the situation. She said she also was wrongly accused of stealing computers and of incompetence. Union officials themselves opposed efforts to improve test scores because that would have meant greater accountability for teachers, Otabachian alleged...

Posted by kswygert at 08:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Professor Mom is in the house

A storefront business in Oregon called Professor Mom is in business to help homeschooling parents:

As home schooling becomes a more and more popular option for families with children with special needs which are not met by the public schools, families who are simply fed up with unresponsive public education, and those who assess the efforts of public education as falling short of teaching to the capacities of their children, business is starting to fill the gap to assist home schoolers. Professor Mom, a storefront business in Central Point, also hosting a web site addresses that need.

First off, home schooling is a legal option in Oregon. There are some laws dealing with it that the potential home educator must consider.

Will your child be at least 7 years old as of September 1st of this year? If NO, then no further action or notification is required. OAR (Oregon Administrative Rule) 581-021-0026 (11) If the answer is yes, then you need to send a one-time written notice of your intent to home school your child. OAR 581-021-0026 (4) The notice is sent to the Education Service District (ESD) for your county. You can find the ESD address at the Oregon Home Education Network website under "Resources"....

If you are interested in learning more about home schooling and its benefits and burdens, contact Professor Mom.

Professor Mom's Homeschool Center
834 S Front St
Central Point, OR 97502
(541) 664-0303
Monday - Thursday 10:00 - 5:00 PM PST

Sounds like a great resource to me, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing spring up in other states.

Posted by kswygert at 08:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Should test scores affect teacher pay?

Lauren Esposito argues against tying teacher pay to student performance in The Battalion:

There has been much debate recently over whether or not teachers' salaries should be partially based on their students' progress in standardized tests. Many teachers are rightfully outraged by the idea that their incomes may be affected by standardized test scores and childrens' opinions of their classes.

Why should they be "rightfully outraged" at their income being tied to a measure of their effectiveness and a measure of student satisfaction? Granted, both of these measures contain error, but I find it hard to believe that both test scores and student opinion are completely unrelated to teacher quality, and I believe in higher pay for better quality.

Currently, teacher salaries are based on experience and education. Though it may seem natural to base a salary increase on the performance of a given teacher, student grades may not be directly related to their teacher's ability. This could hurt certain teachers more than others - regardless of their teaching ability - by giving an insufficient raise to some of them, and more than what is deserved to others.

Wait, now we're talking grades, and not test scores. Which is it? I don't believe in tying grades to salary because the teacher has complete control over grades, and can give every student an A. When grade inflation comes into play, grades are indeed not related to teacher ability.

If this new pay scale is indeed going to be set in place, the school districts and their locations need to be taken into account when the teachers are being observed and the final scores are being calculated.

If the teacher is in a lower income area, the test scores of their students may not, historically speaking, be as high as the scores of those students residing in more affluent school districts. One cannot help but wonder if the teachers who took on a challenge by trying to bring quality education to a poorer area are going to be penalized for doing so. If teachers' pay is based on student performance, this scenario seems feasible.

Yes, but to "take on a challenge" means, in my mind, that these teachers want to help students in poorer areas improve. Change in test scores is one way to assess that improvement. If a teacher decides to teach at a poor school, but her students finish the school year no better than they began, why reward the teacher for being motivated but ineffective?

The National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, does not support tying teacher pay to student scores, said Tom Blanford, associate director for teacher quality. Such a plan could ignore the kind of performance that doesn't show up in test scores, such as a teacher who prevents a child from dropping out or one who inspires excellence in poetry.

Why is it assumed that neither of these qualities would show up in test scores? A student who is encouraged to stay in school would do so, I imagine, if school became meaningful to him, and I fail to see why that wouldn't transfer to better grades and scores. A student who becomes excellent in poetry is going to have a good grasp of the English language, and will do fine on the verbal standardized tests.

It's not that I don't appreciate the intangibles that teachers do for students; it's not an easy thing to get students interested in Chauncer, or geometry, or plate techtonics. I just don't believe we should all assume that there are thousands of wonderful teachers who inspire their students yet don't teach them to read or do basic math.

With the teachers' increase in pay being primarily based on test scores, it would give them no reason to interact with the students in any other way than to just cram basic material into their heads in preparation for a standardized test. This is not the type of education that is helpful for children in schools now and in the future. The teacher who is able to reach the child, and unlock his or her imagination or a dream is more worthy of a pay raise than one who can make students retain point-specific information.

The idea that dreams are incompatible with facts is a false dichotomy, and I doubt Ms. Esposito could come up with any "dream" - to be a poet, to be an architect, to be a doctor - that doesn't involve the need to retain a whole lot of specific information. A child with no information is a dreamer, but not a doer. And a child who never learns that basic information (which can be taught without "cramming," by the way) isn't going to go anywhere with their imagination (which children seem to have a great deal of without teacher input.)

According to the Teacher Quality Bulletin, a survey done by Public Agenda found that 51 percent of parents want teachers in their district to receive monetary rewards if their students consistently perform well on the tests.

Would the parents also want the teachers' pay to be docked if their students did not perform on a standardized test at a level that they chose?

My guess would be yes, because those parents are employed in jobs where their pay is tied to their performance, and those parents want to see their kids do well. And they don't quite understand why a year of teaching ineffectively should count as another year of experience towards higher pay.

It comes down to the fact that if the students put forth a sufficient amount of effort, their teachers would receive a raise at the end of the year because, in theory, the students will then do well on their standardized test and demonstrate the ability of the teachers at their school. But even if the students do score well, and the teacher is able to get a raise, there really is much more to rating a "quality" teacher than a few standardized test scores, and that should be taken into consideration.

Well, yes. There are other things to take into account. A teacher who raises test scores but is a bully who scares her kids is not a good teacher. But a teacher who is all about dreams and imagination and love who leaves her students illiterate is not a good teacher, either. Ignorning test scores entirely, and refusing to tie any sort of effectiveness measure to teacher pay, means that students will remain at the mercy of teachers who disdain learning actual facts and skills. If Ms. Esposito is to believed, there is plenty of disdain for factual information in the teaching profession.

Posted by kswygert at 08:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 27, 2004

Fear of a tiny gun

This adds new meaning to the old phrase, reductio ad absurdum:

Terry Wilson-Spence thinks administrators at Spokane Public Schools may have jumped the gun when it comes to her 8-year-old son. The third-grader, along with two other boys, was suspended Friday from Bemiss Elementary School for bringing toy guns to the northeast Spokane school.

But, according to Wilson-Spence, the toy guns her son carried in his pocket were for GI Joe action figures. The guns are from only 1 inch to 3 inches long -- half the size of a pencil.

Emphasis mine. This is the logical conclusion - to the absurd - of hysterical rules that ban all weapons, regardless of the type of "weapon" is it, or whether you have to be an 11-and-a-half-inch doll in order to use it.

...the school district is standing by its zero-tolerance policy on weapons, which doesn't specify size or type, school officials said.

"We've been very clear with our students and parents that you don't bring anything that resembles a gun to school," said Bemiss Principal Lorna Spear.

"At school you don't need anything that's going to make kids feel unsafe."

I'd take my kids out a school if the principal was unable to make them feel safe when confronted with GI Joe and his military pals. It seems the suspended boys were playing with the tiny toys - and that IS all they are, tiny toys - at lunchtime and allegedly making "threatening actions while playing with the toys."

I assume this means they were pointing the toys at other kids and going, "Bang bang." That's when a principal with any sense would tell them to put the toys away and give them a lecture on playfighting in school. You see, it was the boy's actions here that were probably rude and intrusive, not their possessions, and while the other students may have felt nervous, they were in fact in no danger from them at any time.

Suspending these kids on a "weapons" charge sends the message that it's the "weapon", not the behavior, that's the problem, and it also sends the message that these kids are a danger to others, when they weren't. So it's the wrong decision on two counts, and the school administrators look like fools for standing behind this policy.

Sadly, they're fools with a precedent:

This is not the first time miniature weaponry has gotten a Washington student in trouble.

The Seattle School District suspended a 10-year-old boy in 1997 for bringing a replica of an Army-issue handgun to school. That inch-long plastic gun also belonged to G.I. Joe, an action figure that's been a favorite of boys since 1964.

Does anyone else here suspect that the G.I. Joe action figures are feared and hated by Washington's educrats? Not politically correct enough, I suppose. If Barbie came with a pink rifle, would that be okay?

Posted by kswygert at 11:46 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Brave New World of Admissions

I've mentioned Cliff Sjogren and his unusual ideas for modifying the college admissions process before. Jay Mathews solicited letters asking Ms. Sjogren, and everyone else, to describe how they would change college admissions. The results? Well, they're pretty..revolutionary.

Clifford Sjogren, former chief admissions officer at the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California [a summary of his original idea]:

Emphasize high school grades, adjusted for each high school's degree of grading difficulty. Replace early decision plans with nonbinding rolling admission. Consider SAT or ACT scores only if they are average or above average, because low scores may not mean low ability. Welcome a written student statement on anything that might interest the college. De-emphasize extracurricular activities and eliminate legacy and faculty preferences for in-state public university applicants...

As I pointed out before, low SAT scores and high grades might point to grade inflation, so if the interest here is to judge each high school's degree of "grading difficulty", the SAT scores of their students would come in quite handy for that. Yes, some smart students bomb out on tests, but if large numbers of A students do poorly on the SAT, something other than test anxiety is to blame. And I hope the written student statement will be assessed for the quality of the writing, and not just the topic chosen.

Rod Davis, Parent:

For selective colleges, especially tax-supported public colleges, I am now convinced that for the two-thirds of every class that is admitted without special considerations being given, the decision should be reached through a lottery. That lottery should be open to any and all applicants that pass a substantive test or tests, like the SAT II or AP tests, formulated by the college or consortium of colleges. The tests should measure those skills and knowledge each college believes are essential for success.

In other words, first make sure they've got the skills, then use the lottery system (in place of, I assume, "diversity," essays, legacies, etc.). This doesn't remove all the controversy about the tests, though.

Virginia Kim, Law student:

Do not even bother requesting the SAT or ACT. Focus instead on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests, which almost all selective college applicants take, and since most students don't take them until the end of their senior year, require a year off. Do not accept applications from current high school seniors. Instead, schools should require all applicants to have their high school degree in hand at the time of the application.

Okay, but what do they do for that year? And what about students who attend high schools that don't offer AP classes? Is the AP exam standard the same as now what's require to exempt certain college courses?

Martha Marrazza, Junior Walt Whitman High School:

Emphasize diversity in applicants, with a point system that rewards passionate or unique students; applicants who net the most points are accepted. Points for extracurricular activities, leadership or honor positions are doubly counted. SAT or ACT scores only act as tiebreakers when there is a deadlock between two otherwise qualified students.

Technically, everyone is unique, and you can be passionate and still be undisciplined, or dumb as a post. Do all extracurricular activities count the same, and aren't most leadership position points going to reward the popular over the loners? And if the SAT/ACT is meaningful enough to be a tiebreaker, why not use it earlier in the process.

Fred Reed, Writer and parent

Avoid college altogether by establishing a difficult test, a longer and more detailed version of the Graduate Record Exam, that could be used as proof of a college education even if you do not have a degree, just as the GED test can be used in lieu of a high school diploma. This would prove that you were ready for college-level jobs even if you didn't go to college.

I don't think that's really possible, and it make my head hurt just to think about designing such an exam. And oh the howls of outrage from those who fail; talk about "high-stakes"!

Posted by kswygert at 11:24 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The man needs a plan

At a North Philadelphia high school, speakers gave inspiring message of hope and determination to the almost-entirely African American male audience:

"A Seal of Approval: A Black Man's Success Story" was designed to help the students - nearly all of them African-American - avoid life's pitfalls on the mean streets that encircle the school and in their classrooms...

"It was an honor for me to be here to listen to these black men - the cop and the other staff - try to teach the young black brothers how to do right, how to do good, how to go to school - not just to hang out," said [student] Saleem.

The featured speakers - all graduates of the city school district - were John Teague, 41, an education-to-career coordinator at Roxborough High School; Officer Curtis Ghee, 35, a community-relations officer with the city's Police Department, and Craig Smith, 25, Strawberry Mansion's education-to-career coordinator...

Smith and the two other speakers did their best to enlighten their audience by reading poems from Nelson Mandela and Langston Hughes, and by explaining W.E.B. Du Bois' Talented Tenth concept. They also warned against idolizing the materialism of hip-hop culture, and they shared their own triumphs over adversity and those of the historic figures whose portraits adorned the auditorium walls.

"Many of them had to hide in barns with lanterns to read," Officer Ghee said, referring to the likenesses of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. "They could get hung, and burned and killed for reading. You have it. They paved the way for you - take it, run with it," he said, imploring the students to value their own educations...

Teague, who has earned two master's degrees, told them "a plan" is essential to success. "If you don't have a plan...in America, and you like the neighborhood that you're in now, this is where you're going stay," Teague continued. "If you're a black man in America without a plan, you're going to meet the officer and some of his colleagues."

Posted by kswygert at 11:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

NAEP scores and Simpson's Paradox

Jay Mathews is back in the WaPo with an article on what the media are missing when reporting test scores, and a good explanation of Simpson's paradox:

Mention Gerald W. Bracey's name in any assemblage of educational pundits and you will often hear an awkward silence...Bracey has often offended self-appointed experts like me by exposing us to the truth, and he is rarely invited to any of our parties.

His article [ the February issue of the American School Board Journal], "Simpson's Paradox and Other Statistical Mysteries," exposes a great gap in our coverage of test score results. With great regularity, mainstream newspapers like mine, as well as popular magazines and the big networks, report on the lack of improvement in our public schools. We use words like "stagnant" or "sluggish" or "static" or "flat" to describe the achievement levels as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP...

But here comes Bracey to explain that we are being deceived by Simpson's Paradox. A statistician named Edward Hugh Simpson came up with this a half century ago. It works on all kinds of phenomena. Bracey defined it for me this way: "Simpson's Paradox occurs when the aggregate group score shows one pattern but subgroups show a different pattern."

When you break down the NAEP and SAT data into ethnic subgroups, for instance, you find that minorities have improved their averages markedly, which is exactly what our increased spending on schools had been designed to achieve. On the NAEP reading test, for instance, non-Hispanic white 17-year-olds had only a small improvement. They went from 291 points to 295 points, while the overall average went from 285 to 288 points. But African Americans in that same period jumped 26 points, from 238 to 264, and Hispanics increased 19 points, from 252 to 271.

The same thing happened with the SAT. Non-Hispanic whites showed a modest increase of 8 points, from 519 in 1981 to 527 in 2002, while African Americans were up 19 points, from 412 to 431, Puerto Rican Americans were up 18 points from 437 to 455 and Mexican Americans up 8 points from 438 to 446. Asian Americans increased 27 points, from 474 to 501.

To the math-challenged among us, this makes no sense. How could almost every ethnic group increase significantly while the overall average went up barely, or not at all?

As Bracey explains, we are overlooking two important factors: (1) minorities make up a much larger portion of the total testing population than they did before, and (2) although they have shown significant improvement, their averages are still relatively low. When you add more low scorers, even if they improve over time, you are not going to see much improvement in the overall average.

In other words, when you're lumping together all test-takers, and you see only a tiny rise in the overall average, that doesn't mean that, within every subgroup, there's only a tiny rise. If there are big differences in both sample sizes and peformance in subgroups, as there is on most standardized tests, then the disaggregated data will tell a much different story - sometimes, the opposite story - than the dataset as a whole (which is why, in statistical analysis, you always disaggregate your data).

Howard Wainer, who is a very well-known, well-respected, and prolific psychometrican, has published a great deal on several statistics paradoxes, including the Simpson's one. Here's an article from 1994 in which he examines NAEP results for black and white test takers:

[For the 1992 NAEP 8th grade math assessment] Nebraska's average score was 277 New Jersey's average score was 271. On the face of it, it appears that 8th grade students in Nebraska do better in mathematics than their counterparts in New Jersey. We note further however that when we examine [mean]performance by ethnic group we find:

Nebraska White= 281 Black= 236
New Jersey White= 283 Black= 242

How can this be? Even though Nebraska does better overall than New Jersey, New Jersey's students in both of the major ethnic groups outperform their Nebraska counterparts. This is an example of what statisticians have long called Simpson's Paradox (Wainer, 1986c, Yule, 1903). It is caused by the differences in the ethnic distributions in the two states.

Nebraska White = 87% Black= 5%
New Jersey White = 61% Black =16%

Each state's mean score is a product of the mean score within each ethnic group and its proportional representation in the population. Thus Nebraska's mean is composed of the White mean weighted by 87% and the much lower black mean weighted by only 5%. In New Jersey Whites represent a much smaller segment of the population and so are given a smaller weight in the calculation of the overall mean.

If we standardize all states to a common demographic mixture, say the demographics of the United States as a whole, we find that New Jersey's standardized mean is 274 and Nebraska's is 270. Which is the right number?...To answer this we have to know what is the question that the number will be answering.

If the question is of the sort, "I want to open a business in either New Jersey or Nebraska. Which state will provide me with a population of potential employees whose knowledge of mathematics is, on average, higher?" The unadjusted mean scores provide the proper answer.

If the question is, "I want to place my child in school in either New Jersey or Nebraska. In which state is my child likely to learn more mathematics?" The standardized scores give the right answer...If your child is White, he/she is likely to do better in New Jersey. If he/she is Black, he/she is likely to do better in New Jersey...Presenting the data in a disaggregated way allows these sorts of questions to be answered specifically, but if a single, overall number is needed to summarize the performance of a state's children, for questions like this, one must standardize.

Anyway, back to Jay's takeaway argument:

You can argue that the failure of the white students to improve significantly is a matter of concern, but it is also clear that we have been obscuring the good news about minority score improvements by focusing so much on lack of change in the aggregate scores.

Posted by kswygert at 11:04 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

I am your easy target

Both Chris O'Donnell and Reform K12 make mincemeat of this sappy essay, "I Am Your Public School," which, not surprisingly, was published on an affiliate site of the NEA. It's hard to think of any rejoinders other than what they've already said, but I'll see what I can do.

I am your public school, a 200 year-old experiment giving America the strongest economy in world history. We are 88,000 buildings in more than 15,000 districts. And we are as diverse as this great country....

Some of you would judge me by test scores, but I would remind you that a test only measures one dimension of a student’s development – only in that subject on that day depending on whether the student tests well. Although, my SAT math and science test scores are at a 33 year high, and my ACT scores are up for 11 consecutive years.

Don't you love the way testing critics will bend over backwards to claim that test scores mean nothing - but then they're quick to whip forward and brag about test scores being up? Let's set the rule now - if you claim that test scores are dependent on nothing other than how good a kid is at taking tests, you don't get to take any credit for SAT scores going up.

As for that rise, it's not exaggerated, but bragging about the "diversity" embraced by public schools should be tempered by the reality that the achievement gap has not narrowed among ethnic subgroups (the ACT shows the same gap). There's still a combined gender gap which favors boys, despite the fact that girls tend to get better grades. And the College Board attributes the rise to students taking more math classes - and the reform efforts that have often been opposed by schools, administrators, and teachers' unions.

I remind you that those tests don’t include foreign language, music, art, drama and other vital extracurriculars.

Because, as we all know, talent in foreign languages and music is completely unrelated to a student being well-educated in reading and mathematics. As for the drama part being vital, Chris says it best: "I guess the American economy is the engine of the world because of all those drama and art majors we are turning out. The service industries thank you though. Waiters have to come from somewhere."

My dirty little secret is that many of the 11 percent of children who drop out are the products of sorry parenting – parents who send me children who are undisciplined, unwanted, unwashed, unloved; some strung out on drugs and alcohol; some abused and neglected; few who have ever been taken to a church, synagogue or mosque. The miracle is that my doors are open to all of them and many are reached – not by textbooks alone but by teachers who know there is more to a child’s life than rote learning. For thousands of kids, the only hug they ever get they get in school.

So, is the message we're supposed to take away that public school is like the Salvation Army - they take in the Great Unwashed and love them, and if they don't educate them, well, they're uneducable? And one would think that "rote learning" is one of the, well, lesser evils for a child who is abused and neglected, so it's odd to see it thrown into this litany of malignancies.

It is painful to be accused of failing African American children. That’s a calumny. Our greatest hurdle is that half of African American children are born to single moms, creating a whole new set of problems for the schools.

To be honest, a lot of conservative commentators say the same things, and it's not because they're racist. It's because they want activists to stop complaining about allegedly-unfair test scores and try to do something about the explosion of illegitimacy in our society at large - a phenemenon that has become entrenched in the African American community. And it's worse than described here; according to this report, 68.5% of African American children were born out of wedlock in 2002, and in that same year, almost 20% of the African American births were to mothers aged 19 and under.

However, these statistics don't mean that public schools aren't failing minority kids, and these numbers don't give schools a pass on educating these kids. In fact, the worse the home (in terms of academic enrichment), the more dependent a kid is on the quality of the school. Which makes this statement all the more sad:

Some say I should prepare more students for college, as though college is for everyone. We are the only education system that educates the student to the level of his or her ability – doctor, mechanic, engineer, nurse, computer manager, carpenter. America is third in the world in college graduation rates – nearly 25 percent with a four year degree or more.

No, college isn't for everyone. But it's up to a student to decide if he's college material, not his high school. As Reform K12 says, "Unfortunately, we're not telling you that we've already pre-decided that Johnny can't read or do math, so we won't push him very hard. 'Educating to the child's ability level' is edu-speak for a dumbed-down education for all."

Defaming public education in order to promote vouchers for religious schools is an egregious miscarriage of education’s mission. I am held accountable by my school board – every dollar spent. Vouchers require zero accountability.

Oh, is that what this is all about? Chris retorts: "If public schools are so damn great, why are they afraid of a little competition? It sounds to me that you'd have to be completely nuts to ever pull your child out of public school."

I am passionately committed to the belief that God gives children different gifts, and we alone address all children whatever their gifts.If your heart ever needs a lift, visit with a Downs Syndrome child happily employed thanks to public education.

Parents don't address children whatever their gifts? And the success of a Downs Syndrome adult who is employed (and therefore no longer a child) isn't due to any parental influence whatsoever?

Yes, my corridors have known random acts of violence, yet the FBI says a child is safer in my arms at school than in his or her own home.

That's odd, for in the last paragraph, the plea for money is accompanied by this statement:

You would use public school dollars to construct new forms of theocratic education, yet the U.S. General Accounting Office national survey showed that a third of my buildings are dangerous and unsafe – yet no help is forthcoming.

Are more than a third of their homes dangerous and unsafe as well?

Chris's summary:

Again, they are already taking the majority of property taxes in this country. They are not paying the teachers fairly, and they are not maintaining the infrastructure. What exactly do they do with all that money?

After reading this garbage I think I have the answer to that last question.

Undoubtedly, they are blowing the education budget on copious amounts of crack. It all makes sense now.

Posted by kswygert at 11:02 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

January 26, 2004

Muhammad Alley Kitty Kat

$1.5 million is at stake - over a catfight:

Jury selection is slated to begin today in a $1.5 million lawsuit a man with disabilities filed against the city of Escondido after a cat living in a city library attacked his assistance dog in 2000.

Richard Ramon "Rik" Espinosa, acting as his own attorney, is suing the city for damages over the Nov. 16, 2000, incident. Espinosa alleges in the lawsuit that he has several disabilities, including major depressive and panic disorders.

The issue to go before the jury is whether Espinosa had the same right to enter and use the library as anyone else, whether the city denied his right to have his assistance dog with him, and whether the city interfered with his admittance to and enjoyment of the library.

Espinosa is a former North County Times staff writer who had gone to the library on assignment the day the cat, named "L.C." for "Library Cat," is said to have attacked his dog Kimba.

The city does not dispute that Espinosa has disabilities, that his dog helps him with his disabilities or that the cat scratched the dog, Escondido City Attorney Steven Nelson said Monday.

"The key issue for us is we don't think that the cat scratching the dog is disability discrimination," Nelson said Monday. "The cat didn't prevent his access, it delayed his access."

That delay, the city attorney said, is akin to the type of delay one faces by going up a wheelchair ramp, instead of bounding up the stairs.

The actual damages ---- lost wages, trips to the vet and to Espinosa's doctor ---- tally up to about $325. Nelson said the city offered up two settlements, including one for $1,500, but Espinosa refused.

All I can say is, I'm gleeful at the chance to read the words, apparently said with a straight face, "The cat was a barrier to my access, and the city has circled the wagons around the cat." Espinosa claims intent and premeditation; the city supposedly knew the cat was vicious, and evil, and out to get him. Oh, and it sounds like the dog's mental state might become an issue as well, as Espinosa is alleged that everyone in Escondido has been talking about that "wuss dog that got beat up by a cat."

Must be a slow news year in Escondido. My guess is everyone's now going to be talking about the lawsuit:

Among the items that Espinosa wants the jury to see is a photograph of him with boxer Muhammad Ali. Nelson said the picture is not relevant to the case; Espinosa said the photo gives him credibility.

It also strengthens his argument, Espinosa said, since he believes the cat is like the famed pugilist: a tiger in the ring, a pussycat outside of it.

It's wrong to giggle at a disabled person, isn't it? Okay, I'll stop.

Posted by kswygert at 11:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Testing changes in Arizona

Arizona will be combining two standardized tests to give students more classroom time - but might also be lowering the standards on the eighth-grade math exam:

The Stanford 9, given every year to measure Arizona students against their counterparts across the country, and the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards will take just one week rather than the two it takes now. The tests are given in the spring.

Eliminating classroom time to prepare and take the Stanford 9 will allow students to do better without school officials' losing the ability to gauge their knowledge, supporters of the move said...

So what about that new standards on the math AIMS?

Also Monday, a new scoring system for the eighth-grade AIMS math test was proposed because state Education Department officials believe the test scores do not accurately reflect student achievement.

I find this statement confusing. A change in the standard - in this case, by dropping the required passing scaled score from a 78 to a 72 - means that more students will pass. I'd like to know why Arizona believes that more students passing is a more accurate reflection of achievement. If the standard is eventually changed, I hope it will be because the Education Department really believes that those student who score higher than 72 are in fact doing "good enough" on math. I hope the change isn't being made simply because the state simply has a feeling that more than 22% of students should pass.

Apollo Principal Conger supports the proposed change in the eighth-grade test. "They took the data and I think they want to make it more successful for more students," she said. "It's not lowering the standard or watering it down - it's probably being more realistic.

"We don't want to disenfranchise kids," she said.

Sigh. Look, if you lower the cutpoint, you lower the standard, period (assuming the item types and difficulties remain the same). Lowering the standard is not necessarily a bad thing - IF there's real data to suggest that the current standard is too high and disqualifies too many students who really do have the skills. Let's not start off this discussion, though, by denying that lowering the standard is in fact what Arizona wants to do.

As for the "disenfranchise" statement, well, my first reaction is, "If you don't want to disenfranchise kids, teach them math." Again, if the previous standard was really too high, in that students who made scores between 72 and 78 really did have the skills to go forward in math, then fine. Lower the standard. But don't talk about "disenfranchising" kids with test scores. It's not a low test score that is the stumbling block; it's the lack of skills being conveyed by that score. If kids who don't understand math well will nonethless be passed under this new, lower standard, the state isn't doing them any favors.

Posted by kswygert at 10:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

This is your brain, when you believe cheating is okay

Professor and writer Marianne Jennings describes the horrible experience of speaking at a local high school:

...54+ semesters of grades and 13 years of columns did not prepare me for my speech vis-à-vis cheating and ethics at a local high school...Suffice it to say that the school was in greater Phoenix and was not a victim of urban blight.

A week prior to my high school oratory, one of the administrators explained that I would speak to juniors and seniors while a motivational speaker spoke to freshman and sophomores. One group enhances its self-esteem by jumping around for a Tony Robbins wanna-be as rap music blares. Meanwhile, I explain that downloading music from the Internet is wrong.

They asked if I had a video they could show to the "kids" to get them excited because, "Our other speaker is very dynamic." How about a Sesame St. video brought to you by the letter "F" for "felony? Sadly, I had no infomercial for the cherubs.

Still, against my better judgment and backlash from a body of administrators who had built down student hopes, I went loaded for bear on academic debauchery. The students meandered into the auditorium. There was less noise and more order in "Braveheart" battles...I explained that 75% of high school students cheat. Most of the student body found that stat funny, with some in the crowd cheering "Yes!"...

There was growing insurrection as I outlined the consequences of cheating. They booed, and then they laughed hysterically. The infomercial administrator called in security to man the aisles. I had visions of pitch forks storming the stage. They soon stopped listening. A couple in the front row needed abstinence training, most particularly its importance in public auditoriums.

Yeesh. Ms. Jennings concludes that this boorish reception was due to the general perception that "ethics don't matter" - to either the students, or their caretakers:

Last year several students at this school cheated on a math final. When the instructor proposed a penalty, the parents protested mightily. No action was taken against the students.


Posted by kswygert at 10:43 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The politics of testing

The story of one high school junior who is competing for a spot as the student representative on the Maryland Board of Education:

Brian Williamson, 17, a junior at North Hagerstown High School, is one of five finalists for the position...On Saturday, at an annual association meeting in Queen Anne's County, Md., about 720 students representing schools from across the state will hear speeches by the five finalists and vote on a student member on the board, Williamson said last Wednesday.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich has the final say, choosing which of the two finalists with the most votes will serve, Williamson said...

Williamson said he is fascinated by politics and educational issues...

Each applicant was interviewed in December and had to make a presentation on an educational issue, Williamson said. His presentation was on the High School Assessments, a series of state standardized end-of-course exams given in government, algebra I, geometry, English 9 and biology.

He thinks students who feel comfortable in a particular area should be able to take the test before the course and, if they pass, opt out of having to take the class, he said.

If appointed, Williamson would not be able to speak for all students, but he can provide a student perspective, he said. For example, he has been directly affected by the numerous tests students must take to meet state requirements...He said he thinks the number of tests being administered is excessive.

Given that many teachers now have a love-hate relationship with these exams, I wonder how many of them would feel comfortable with the use of the High School Assessments to opt out of a class altogether? As a psychometrician, I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of a test that is meant to assess progress in a class being used as a means to avoid the class altogether. The validity of an exam is directly related to the purpose for which the exam was originally developed, and the exam won't necessarily be valid in other circumstances.

It's not that I know the exam would not be useful in that situation, but there's as yet no evidence to suggest that it would, and there are certainly plenty of other arguments to be made in support of taking a class rather than skipping it entirely.

Posted by kswygert at 10:08 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 25, 2004

The prickly nature of Auburn U's new president

The new interim president of Auburn University is a former K-12 superintendent with a controversial reputation:

[Ed] Richardson, prickly on his best days, comes to Auburn much as he came into the state superintendency in 1995 - as essentially an outsider bent on shaking things up. What he saw in 1995 was an establishment content with poorly performing schools and averse to holding schools accountable.

Now, 99 months later, Richardson leaves what he called his dream job with feelings of pride and frustration.

He is proud of many accomplishments - requiring students to take tougher courses, lowering class sizes and raising standardized test scores above the national average, reducing dropout rates to all-time lows, reinstituting a competency exam for college students training to be teachers, and holding school systems accountable for spending.

But he is frustrated over what he considers his greatest failure - persuading taxpayers to pay more for education. The overwhelming September 2003 vote rejecting Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2 billion tax and accountability plan left Richardson convinced his effectiveness as superintendent was over.

With those accomplishments, wonder why he was considered so controversial?

In 1998, Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Bruce Wright said Richardson was guided by a management style that followed the principle that "beatings will continue until morale improves."

Oh my.

Richardson was particularly tough on groups he saw as anti-public education. In late 1998, he charged that the Christian Right was fundamentally anti-public schools. He later gave a qualified apology but still sees the Christian Right as a foe of public schools...

Among his critics, Richardson's legacy is mixed at best.

Stephanie Bell of the state Board of Education said Richardson created tension among many groups who tried to move education forward. "We're not as far along as we should be because Ed too often wanted to pick a fight instead of solve a problem," Bell said...

Marie Harbison of Pinson, past president of the Alabama PTA, praised Richardson for raising public awareness of school problems. She also said his style and attitude got in the way of his effectiveness.

"He can come across like a bull in the china shop," she said. "I think sometimes people felt he did not really listen to their side.

Sounds like he was a blunt officiator who was less willing to "hear all the voices" than to make decisions and stand behind them.

For his part, Richardson offered one piece of advice to the K-12 establishment he leaves behind after 40-plus years in it.

"High quality standards, higher accountability in the public schools is obviously going to take longer than I had hoped," he said.

"But if we keep moving the bar up, my hope is voters will eventually respond in a way I could not convince them to."

Posted by kswygert at 09:51 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

A young principal fights the odds

In contrast to Tennessee's principals, with their fears of competition and honor rolls, this Delawarian principal not only runs a school with an honor roll, but he pens personal notes to each student on their report cards:

In November, when the first report cards of the school year went out to the 533 students at A.I. du Pont Middle School in Greenville, there was a handwritten message on each from the school's new principal, Ray Gravuer.

To eighth-grader Jasmine Badson, Gravuer wrote, "Good job for making honor roll."

"That was the only principal I ever had that did that," Jasmine said.

Maariyh Stevens, another eighth-grader, was equally impressed.

"That shows that he cares about his students and he's trying to help them," she said.

The caring is calculated. It has to be under No Child Left Behind, the federal school reform act that has made accountability the gold standard in education.

"Once you show them you care about them, they respond," said Gravuer, at 36 the youngest principal in the Red Clay Consolidated School District and heading a middle school that faces some of the biggest academic challenges of any in Delaware.

Holy cow. He's less than a year older than I am, and he's in charge of 533 kids. I'm impressed.

To shed the [academic watch] rating, Gravuer, who appears earnest and eager behind rimless spectacles, must coax better test scores from legions of students such as Maariyh. On her report card, he wrote, "Great attendance but need to work more on my academics," she said.

Mr. Gravuer has his work cut out for him - a lot of his students need to work on their academics:

A.I. Middle has the highest concentration, nearly 63 percent, of low-income students of any middle school in the state. Thirteen percent of the student body is in special education. Nearly a quarter are so new to the United States they must learn English.

Last year, 43 percent of the eighth-graders didn't meet the state standard in reading, 68 percent did not in math.

But improvements are being made. The percent of students on the honor roll has risen from 18 to 29%. The school has a one-on-one tutoring program for students who are at least two grade levels behind in reading, and some who enter this program exit on the honor roll. Principal Gravuer has learned, in this underfunded school, to sqeeze a quarter so hard that the eagle screams, and in between each class he's out in the hallways with his walkie-talkie. A new federal grant for preparing kids for college has come in, and the school has tripled the enrollment for honors algebra.

And everybody's on the testing bandwagon:

Everyone inside A.I. Middle focuses on helping students raise test scores, staff members said. Julia Keleher, the guidance counselor and a savvy numbers person, searched academic journals for studies that would tell her what she could do to help.

One study that she found said students who fail an important standardized test are more likely on the next to leave questions unanswered rather than risk error. Afterward, she culled the names of 25 students who missed passing their seventh-grade reading test by one or two points.

One by one, she called all of them to her office to impress upon them how much putting something down as an answer increased their odds of passing.

"You should have seen their little faces," Keleher said, recalling how far the attention went.

I would never have supposed that students who failed might be fearful of guessing, but there you go. Ms. Keleher's strategy is sound; on a test in which students can only help themselves by guessing, they should definitely be encouraged to guess.

Posted by kswygert at 08:45 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Does this mean all those bumper stickers are illegal?

We all knew this day was coming, didn't we?

The school honor roll, a time-honored system for rewarding A students, has become an apparent source of embarrassment for some underachievers. As a result, all Nashville schools have stopped posting honor rolls, and some are also considering a ban on hanging good work in the hallways -- on the advice of school lawyers.

As Lileks would say, Jeebus Chrysler. Doesn't it matter that the kids who do good work will now recieve less and less public admiration for it? Or are we not supposed to be concerned with their self-esteem?

After a few parents complained that their children might be ridiculed for not making the list, lawyers for the Nashville school system warned that state privacy laws forbid releasing any academic information, good or bad, without permission.

Whatever happened to teaching kids not to ridicule other kids about grades? Is the assumption that neither teachers nor parents are teaching kids how to behave? And what happened to teaching your kids snappy comebacks to snotty kids who brag about anything - grades, clothes, the number of Valentine's cards they received?

The change has upset many parents who want their children to be recognized for hard work.

"This is as backward as it gets," said Miriam Mimms, who has a son at Meigs Magnet School and helps run the parent-teacher association. "There has to be a way to come back from the rigidity."

Ms. Mimms is more understated than I would be in this situation. Substitue the words "asinine", "success-hating," and "condescending" for her "backward" comment, and you start to understand how I feel about this situation.

The problem appears unique to Tennessee...

Thank Goddess for that.

School officials are developing permission slips to give parents of the Nashville district's 69,000 students the option of having their children's work recognized. They hope to get clearance before the next grading cycle -- in about six weeks at some schools.

Wait. I thought the whole point of this was that parents of low-achievers didn't want the high-achievers to be publicly honored. If only the parents of high-achievers sign the slips, then we're back to the same situation.

Others think it might be a good idea to get rid of the honor roll altogether, as Principal Steven Baum did at Julia Green Elementary in Nashville.

"The rationale was, if there are some children that always make it and others that always don't make it, there is a very subtle message that was sent," he said.

I'd laugh, if this weren't so tragic for the kids involved. Principal Baum, the message sent with an honor roll is neither subtle nor problematic. Kids on the honor roll are being honored for their academic achievement. Kids not on the honor roll can find other ways to achieve. If you're assuming that removing the honor roll will remove the "subtle" inclination that kids have of assessing each other on multiple dimensions, you're wrong. The kids will still know who's smart and who's not, and they'll hopefully behave politely about it. Removing the honor roll seems to assume that kids on the roll are brutalizing the ones who aren't (or vice versa).

Why hasn't Principal Baum considered sending the "subtle" message that kids who do well in school deserve to be honored for it, but everyone has their special capabilities, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect?

Baum thinks spelling bees and other publicly graded events are leftovers from the days of ranking and sorting students. "I discourage competitive games at school," he said. "They just don't fit my worldview of what a school should be."

I really shouldn't have read that last sentence, not so soon after being sick with something that made my stomach hurt. Because hearing about Principal Baum's attempts to inflict his non-competitive "worldview" on his school REALLY makes my stomach hurt. I don't care if he personally is terrified of competition, but he has no right to "teach" his students that all such competition is bad and old-fashioned. This does nothing but foster the idea that kids cannot handle challenges at all.

Parents at most schools, though, have been close to outrage over the new rule.

"So far, what we've heard parents say is 'This is crazy. Spend your time doing other things" said Teresa Dennis, principal at Percy Priest Elementary School. "It does seem really silly."

My guess is Ms. Dennis edited the parental statements here. If Tennessee's parents have any gumption at all, their reactions should be comments that can't be published in a family newspaper. Joanne Jacobs was also appalled.

Posted by kswygert at 02:15 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

The science of reading

An interesting little article about the scientific basis for teaching reading, from the Hoover Institution:

Because learning in most subjects depends on reading skills, reading proficiency can be considered the most important goal in the early grades. Yet a National Assessment of Educational Progress survey shows that only 29 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading. Children who fall substantially behind in reading in the early grades are unlikely to catch up—meaning that the process of dropping out of high school often starts in the early years.

The problem is more acute for children who live in poverty. By age four, poor children are exposed to about thirteen million words used by their parents, mostly in simple sentences, whereas the affluent child is exposed to about forty-five million words, often in more complex sentences.

The proposed solution to this problem is apparently clear from the research:

Researchers have synthesized a great number of control-group studies that reveal scientific principles for effectively teaching reading. Preschoolers, for example, benefit greatly from talking with and receiving coaching from their parents, from whom they learn vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and a general knowledge of the world...

After mastering these elements, students need sufficient practice to gain fluency and meaningful oral reading...The more students read out loud and to themselves, the more they build their fluency as well as their vocabulary and the knowledge to understand new texts.

As readers progress, they learn "comprehension strategy"—the identification of questions or purposes—to guide their reading and measure their progress...

Wise teachers know the inefficiency of teaching students things they already know and things they are not yet able to learn...

Finally, students need to know how they are progressing. Conversations with teachers and parents, classroom discussions and quizzes, and formal examinations can provide useful information about students' mastery of texts and the strengths and weaknesses of their specific reading skills.

Emphasis mine (of course).

Posted by kswygert at 02:02 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Atlanta's educrats afraid of excellence

Joanne Jacobs and Sheila O'Malley uncovered this stunning rejection letter to a prospective teacher in the Atlanta school system:

I am a 22-year-old African-American male and recent graduate of a respectable liberal arts college in Kentucky. I acquired a 3.75 grade-point average with a double major in Social Studies Secondary Education and sociology. I was a Rhodes Scholar nominee, inducted into the Mensa society in May 2001, named to the National Dean's List for three consecutive years, successfully competed in intercollegiate forensics and served as student body president...

Over the summer, I came to realize that my true calling lay in inspiring, motivating, challenging and educating other young adults. After investigating, I assumed that Atlanta would perhaps be a viable market for teaching jobs. I applied to metro Atlanta counties including Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, plus the Atlanta public schools, all to no avail...

Recently, I interviewed with a school in one of the metro Atlanta counties, only to receive an e-mail from the principal stating, "Though your qualifications are quite impressive, I regret to inform you that we have selected another candidate. It was felt that your demeanor and therefore presence in the classroom would serve as an unrealistic expectation as to what high school students could strive to achieve or become. However, it is highly recommended that you seek employment at the collegiate level; there your intellectual comportment would be greatly appreciated. Good luck."

In other words, this teacher was rejected for the likelihood that he would have too high a standard for his students. Appalling. The writer, Mr. Marquis Harris, entitled this article, "Brains can hurt job applicants," which is as brutal a commentary on the teaching profession as I've ever seen.

Joanne's commenters have it exactly right. One says that it's not the kids who would feel threatened by Mr. Harris, and another provides this link that gives more information on this outstanding young man.

The Atlanta school officials should be ashamed. They've deprived their students of the chance to be exposed to a passionate and intelligent teacher who would have helped spur them on to greater achievement.

Posted by kswygert at 02:00 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Should college students take an "FCAT"?

More discussion on a graduation exam for college students in Florida:

The board is working on the testing provision, which will be voted on in March. But it approved six measures to evaluate the universities, including the number of minority students enrolled at each school and the amount of research dollars attracted.

The idea is to make Florida's 11 universities accountable in much the same way as Florida's public schools, which are punished or rewarded depending on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

If the testing component is approved, officials said, the state would become the first in the nation to implement a testing program in higher education...

The members said they want to make sure students are learning, not just graduating. "This issue is not going to go away," said board member Steve Uhlfelder. "It is difficult. But I believe learning assessments need to stay in the discussion."

I foresee just as much controversy over this as for high school exams, if not more. The exam itself does not sound rigorous:

...a test in writing and critical thinking would be given at the end of a student's second year and administered again at the end of the fourth year. In some cases, separate tests in a student's particular field of study, such as chemistry or history, would be given when a student enrolls and again in the fourth year.

However, the same arguments will appear about "teaching to the tests," different "styles of learning," and "multiple intelligences," with the added complication that now the testmakers are going up against college professors, who are known to be a bit more stubborn than their K-12 counterparts.

Oh, look. Already, there's an op-ed published about this, entitled, "Enough Already." You get three guesses as to how the writer feels about this proposed college test, and the first two don't count.

Posted by kswygert at 01:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Using music to bridge the achievement gap

In Lubbock, TX, officials worried about the grades and test scores of Hispanic students are trying everything to close the achievment gap, including giving more piano lessons:

Compared to other groups, Hispanic drop out rates are the highest among the three major ethnic groups and have not declined significantly since 1972. Hispanics also have lower SAT and other standardized test scores...

One of many programs in [Lubbock Independent School District] helping students stay interested in their education is Mrs. King's piano class at Cavazos Junior High. "When I started there were 15 pianos and we had many keyboards with nobody sitting at them. Now we've got 21 keyboards and we need to knock out another wall," says piano teacher, Linda King.

Mrs. King says her class is more than just learning how to play the piano. Music helps them learn how to concentrate, set goals and stay interested in their education. LISD board member Linda DeLeon says this class is just one way to give students hands on learning and it's already producing positive results. "Programs like fine arts programs really encourages them to stay in school because it's something they love to do," says DeLeon.

"Music is math. And music and math are very closely related and once people see there's a very big correlation you can see test scores go up," says Mrs. King.

Promoting the fine arts is just one way to narrow the achievement gap. LISD also hopes to provide additional training for teachers, make higher education courses more available and provide mentor support for families with struggling students.


Posted by kswygert at 01:47 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Character vs. good grades

Five students from the high-performing Saratoga High School are under investigation for cheating:

At least five Saratoga High School students have been suspended, three of them facing possible expulsion, for allegedly stealing English department tests, grades and curriculum and giving or selling them to other students. Three other students also are being investigated, one for allegedly trying to change a math grade and the others for taking hard copies of a test.

Principal Kevin Skelly has written a letter to parents about the issue and will hold a parent meeting Thursday evening in a plea to get people to emphasize character over grades at the highly competitive school, which regularly ranks among the top schools in the state on standardized test scores.

"We harp on kids so much to do good in school, but what we really want to be is decent people," Skelly said Friday as the allegations came to light.

Something about this doesn't sit right with me, but I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps it's the assumption here that parents are, in fact, emphasizing nothing except the need for good grades. Or perhaps it's the feeling I get that Skelly believes that harping on kids to do good in school, and harping on kids to be decent people, are mutually exclusive. Perhaps I've read too many articles about cheating kids where the onlookers blame the stakes, and not the kids, for the duplicitous behavior. I suppose I should just be happy that here the behavior is resulting in an appropriate punishment.

Posted by kswygert at 01:44 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Suing over the LSAT

Here's a short little blurb in the Denver Post about a student who is suing the Law School Admission Council, because she has not been granted extra time on the LSAT. The story contains very little detail, but I can provide some extra information. Not about this particular case, but I can give a good educated guess about what's going on.

The plaintiff, Abby Rothberg from Littleton, claims to have a learning disability, and wants extra time on the LSAT. LSAC has refused to grant her extra time, and thus she claims her presumably-low LSAT scores do not "accurately reflect her overall intellectual aptitude and abilities."

Here's the LSAC page on accommodated testing. There's quite a few links to read on applicants who have a cognitive disability. If you have Adobe Acrobat, you can read the Guidelines for Documentation of Cognitive Disabilities. It's very detailed, and readers are immediately made aware that an accommodation for a cognitive disability is not an easy or simple thing to get. Which is as it should be.

Those who wish to gain extra time on the LSAT due to a cognitive disability must:

* Be assessed by a qualified and licensed evaluator with comprehensive training and direct experience in working with adult populations, who is willing to provide academic credentials and qualifications.

* Show that the current nature of the disability is such that it will have an impact on timed testing, in the sense that someone has the capability to understand the material but cannot respond to it within the proscribed time limit (requests for extra time are the most common). Within the previous three years, tests must have been conducted to show the impact of the disability. Someone who is diagnosed with a learning disability at age 10 and then is never re-assessed will not be able to use that diagnosis alone to apply for an LSAT accommodation at age 21. Anyone older than 21 must have been tested and diagnosed within the previous five years.

* Provide results of a "neuropsychological and/or psychoeducational evaluation," with the expectation that "the assessment will be a comprehensive battery of tests administered by someone with clear credentials in the field (such as board certification by a recognized board)." In other words, a note from your family doctor won't do. Whatever testing is done must be comprehensive and provide a clear diagnosis. A psychoeducational evaluation is also required "without exception" and must be submitted on the letterhead of a qualified professional.

And dig the amount of detail each candidate must provide:

Domains included in each evaluation MUST include the following:

The report of assessment must include a comprehensive diagnostic interview that includes relevant background information to support the diagnosis. In addition to the candidate’s self-report, the report of assessment should include: a description of the presenting problem(s), including DSM-IV-TR symptoms; a developmental history; an academic history, including reports of classroom performance and grades, including high school transcript(s), especially in
classes related to LSAT performance; behavioral observations and notable trends; a family history, including primary language of the home and current fluency of English (where relevant); a psychosocial history; a medical history, including the presence or absence of a medical basis for the present symptoms; history of prior psychotherapy; a discussion of dual diagnosis, alternative
or coexisting mood, behavioral, neurological and/or personality disorders, along with any history of relevant medication and current use that may impact the individual’s learning; and exploration of possible alternatives that may mimic a cognitive disability when, in fact, one is not present.

All reports must also include, at a minimum, scores on previous standardized
admission tests, such as, but not limited to, the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, and LSAT, with scores broken down by areas (such as verbal, mathematics, reasoning, critical reading, etc.) and with both the standard scores and percentiles reported. In addition, if accommodations have been granted for any of these tests, the exact accommodations granted and used must also be
described. For example, if you were granted “unlimited time,” provide a report of the specific time used. This information will speed up the processing of your request considerably and will avoid delays due to requests for more information.

I would not be surprised to discover that this is the most stringent set of requirements to be satisfied in order to take a standardized, high-stakes admissions test. Again, there's a good reason for all of this. The LSAT is a difficult, timed test which requires test takers to read lengthy and dense reading passages, answer logical questions, and complete analytical problems (the "logic games"). Being able to do all of this under the set time limit is not unrelated to work in law school. The pool of test takers is competitive, ambitious, intelligent - and litiguous. LSAC has these crystal-clear guidelines in place under the assumption that anyone who does have a cognitive disability will be willing to provide this information, and anyone who is trying to cheat the system won't be able to produce this much proof.

So, back to our plaintiff. I'm guessing she either (a) did not provide sufficient information for LSAC to agree that she had a cognitive disability that warranted extra time, or (b) she had the information but didn't provide it in time to be processed. It's not unrealistic to expect wanna-be lawyers to understand the importance of providing sufficient documentation in a timely fashion, but it's also not surprising to see that a law school hopeful is willing to file a lawsuit. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Posted by kswygert at 01:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 22, 2004


Welcome to all my visitors from Instapundit and Joanne Jacobs, as well as my regular Devoted Readers (you know who you are). I'd love to stay and chat with you, but my sneezing, wheezing, sore throat and fever have come on so intensely (and suddenly) that I'm worried I could infect you right through the blog. Mucus is a pretty dastardly thing.

I'm going to bed. Blogging will resume when I'm able to stop sneezing long enough to type properly.


Posted by kswygert at 04:19 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 21, 2004

The roundup of Reform-K12 postings

Reform K-12 has been blogging up a storm lately. Go forth and visit, if you haven't already. What follows are three postings of his that I've shamelessly cut and pasted for your enjoyment.

In my "inside scoop" on Harcourt Assessment, I pointed out that the four Harcourt summer fellows from 2003 all had Asian names. RK-12 dug up an essay by the legendary Fred on Everything entitled, "Johnny Can't Add--But Suresh Venktasubramanian Can". Fred, who's not known for subtlety, said the following about the ever-growing list of foreign researchers in the US:

Why are members of these very small groups doing so much of the important research for the United States? That's easy. They're smart, they go into the sciences, and they work hard. Potatoes are more mysterious. It's not affirmative action. They produce. The qualifications of these students can easily be checked. They have them. The question is not whether these groups perform, or why, but why the rest of us no longer do. What has happened? It is not an easy question, but a lot of it, I think, is the deliberate enstupidation of American education...

It appears that a few groups are keeping their standards up and the rest of us are drowning our children in self-indulgent social engineering, political correctness, and feel-good substitutes for learning.

I particularly like this comment:

It's not them. It's us. I've heard the phrase, "the Asian challenge to the West." I don't think so. When Sally Chen gets a doctorate in biochemistry, she's not challenging America. She's getting a doctorate in biochemistry. Those who study have no reason to apologize to those who don't.

This has resonance to me because I've heard that part of the problem with minority education in the US is due to the fact that those minority kids who are smart, and who work hard, are often ostracized and accused of "acting white." Although this is not a universally-accepted phenomenon, some researchers have concluded that minority students who do well are often taunted about "acting white", and even when it doesn't slow them down, it's still a crying shame. No kid should ever have to apologize for studying hard.

RK-12's conclusion is very concise, and apropos:

Kimberly Swygert says "America is a mecca for would-be psychometricians from around the world (the Netherlands is a close second)."

We'd opine that America is a mecca for any technical specialty. Legions of students cross the oceans to study at our universities, then either return home or stay here. Either way, someone in the world's rolling up their sleeves in the primary and secondary grades.

Let's roll up ours.

RK-12 also neatly skewers the ultra-liberal Amherst Regional High School, which voted down a student production of West Side Story, for fear of offending any Hispanic viewers, but which gave the thumbs up to a student production of The Vagina Monologues, which is sexually explicit by any definition. Guess the feelings of those of us who are offended by celebrations of statuatory rape don't matter.

Oh, and I love this RK-12 posting on "invented spelling," which is apparently edu-speak for "incorrect spellings."

In the United Kingdom, only 75% of 11-year olds passed the spelling, reading, and writing tests, and folks are becoming concerned. One area of interest is the fairly new national literacy strategy instituted recently, which reminds us of any number of top-down reforms here in the U.S. But should teachers toe the line?

From the BBC article:

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I think that, rather than concentrating on whether schools are actually slavishly following the literacy strategy, we want to make sure that teachers are doing what they were traditionally doing before the literacy strategy was ever invented - namely, making sure their children can spell properly before they leave primary school.

(Emphasis ours.) Here in America, we have the "traditionalists"--who teach explicit phonics and actually correct students' spelling mistakes to ensure they become better spellers--and the Whole Language proponents, who say that phonics and spelling harm children in ways not fully understood (but they're working on it).

Thus was born "invented spelling," an enabling term for not correcting children's attempts at written language. When we say enabling, we mean the negative connotation, as in "Josh's coworkers covered for him at work, enabling him not to have to deal with his drinking problem."

Invented Spelling enables children not to deal with their spelling problems.

Posted by kswygert at 09:15 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Ackerman vs. the school board

San Francisco Schools Chief Arlene Ackerman sounds like one stubborn individual - but she's got the test scores to back up her methods:

Five months ago, San Francisco schools chief Arlene Ackerman had one foot out the door...Now, Ackerman happily boasts a new contract extension through 2007 and a goal to stay on the job until she retires...

Though Ackerman's outlook has changed, her core values have remained firm since becoming the San Francisco Unified School District's first African American and first female superintendent in 2000. She is a nuts-and bolts educator who believes in teaching the basics -- reading, writing and arithmetic -- and using testing to measure student achievement and teacher effectiveness...

...during her "State of the Schools" address at Marina Middle School, she'll announce her "Dream Schools" initiative, intended to bring rigorous academics to neighborhoods that haven't traditionally had them, starting with Bayview this fall. Three schools will be remade to include longer schedules, college prep course work, student uniforms and contracts signed by parents pledging cooperation.

Sounds great! Of course, she has her detractors:

Lori Moreen, a fifth-grade teacher at Bret Harte in Bayview, says she appreciates Ackerman's vision of improving the lowest-performing schools, but the pressure takes its toll. Bret Harte saw a 50 percent turnover among teachers last year, Moreen said.

Okay. That's not necessarily a cause for concern, not if the teachers who left were not doing their job well.

District-wide...Ackerman can point to year-to-year improvement in standardized test scores since she took over as proof she's getting results.

Mark Sanchez, one of three school board critics of Ackerman, says she doesn't understand that the superintendent works for the elected board and not the other way around.

He says Ackerman fails to respond to resolutions passed even on 7-0 votes. In the past year, he says, she has ignored board mandates to examine alternatives to standardized testing; to renegotiate a memorandum of understanding with the Police Department regarding cops on campus; and to compute the dollars spent at some schools in the district versus others.

Interesting. Given that she supports testing, I'm not surprised she's not interested in finding alternatives to testing. Why is the board passing resolutions that are so at odds with the methods of the Schools Chief?

"Guess what? Nothing's happened," Sanchez said. "It kind of begs the question what is a school board for if we're spending a lot of time and energy and thought to try to come up with the ideas to serve our kids best, and the superintendent just says, 'Well, I'm not going to do it.' "

Yes, it does beg the question of what good the school board is, when it's the superintendent's vision that seems to be having a positive impact on the children under her commend

Ackerman says the board makes too many demands and concentrates too much on ideology instead of education. "It's like a gnat - you just want to be, 'Go away!' '' she said of the social justice theme of many board discussions. "They're right, I'm not interested in it."

Heh. Here's an interview with Ackerman from last year:

What do you see as the job of the superintendent?

I think the primary job of the superintendent is to clear all of the obstacles so that those who are closest to the students — teachers and principals — can focus on teaching and learning. So my job is to be a champion for them, to get the resources, to make sure there are no barriers.

Let me guess - she considers that pesky school board to be one of those "barriers."

Posted by kswygert at 08:26 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Hemingway vs. the sea turtles

Devoted Reader Mike Z. emailed his reaction to a CyberGuide to Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea, thoughtfully provided by the San Diego County Office of Education. The online information is in italics, while Mike's comments are in bold:

I found this while looking for "OM&tS" links: http://www.sdcoe.k12.ca.us/score/oldman/oldmantg.html
(The San Diego County Office of Education)

This supplemental CyberGuide to The Old Man and The Sea was developed as part of the Schools of California Online Resources for Educators (SCORE) Project, funded by the California Technology Assistance Project (CTAP) and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA).

OK, so far, so good. [The Old Man and The Sea is] a good story, not too long, not too complicated, with a memorable protagonist, and good themes that a class can get to talking about. And there's even a movie.

The story takes place in the early 1950s before sea turtles were recognized as an endangered species. Santiago, the old fisherman in The Old Man and The Sea, loved the green sea turtles and the hawks bill turtles. He thought of them as friends on the ocean and felt a kinship with them..

When Santiago was young, he worked on the boats that caught and sold turtles for profit. He also ate turtle eggs for strength, as did many of the other fishermen. Today, destruction of nesting beaches and marine pollution are the primary reasons all eight species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction.

Awww, geee. The first three activities relate to sea turtle conservation. Activities 4 and 5 are about Joe DiMaggio, Santiago's hero. As the students do these activities, they focus on the following questions:

* Why is it a true statement that adult sea turtles face only two enemies, sharks and man?
* What is my personal stance on the issue of endangered animals?
* What can still be done to preserve endangered species?
* Why is it important to have heroes and role models in my life?
* Why did Santiago admire Joe DiMaggio?

Aww, geee. If you can stand more of the same, check the rest of the page.

Student Activity 4: Research a Famous Person and Create a Joe Dimaggio Graphic Organizer. Students create a cluster of facts about Joe DiMaggio's life and career that could be used to write a nominating speech for his induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Aww, geee. Curriculum designer's Activity 1: Write a 25-page paper explaining in detail what this has to do with Hemingway's story. Include footnotes and a bibliography.

It's actually worse than Mike let on. The other three suggested Student Activities related to this book - remember the book? - are:

* Research Information and create a Sea Turtle Graphic Organizer. Students become aware of the problems facing sea turtles today and record information on a graphic organizer.

* Making a Persuasive Conservation Poster. Students use information from Activity 1 to create a conservation poster.

* Writing a Persuasive E-Mail Letter. Students write an e-mail letter expressing support for increased protection of sea turtles. Note: you may prefer students not send e-mail. In that case, students can write the letter and hand it in.

Unless I miss my guess, none of these activities require the student to actually read the book. None of them have anything to do with the novel's structure, plot, characterization, and so forth. Is the only message students are supposed to learn is that they should care much more deeply about sea turtles than about Hemingway's novels?

I examined a few other novels listed on the webpage, and some of the other suggested activities look quite challenging and, more to the point, have something to do with the actual books being read. There's nothing wrong with researching oceanography when reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example. But it does seem to be a bit silly that the only additional projects suggested for the Hemingway book revolve around a conservation agenda.

Posted by kswygert at 08:11 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Which way does the gender gap really go?

King of Fools has a phenomenal post up about the "stealth gender gap," which references an Atlantic Monthly article, "The Other Gender Gap."

From the Atlantic:

From kindergarten on, the education system rewards self-control, obedience, and concentration-qualities that, any teacher can tell you, are much more common among girls than boys, particularly at young ages. Boys fidget, fool around, fight, and worse. Thirty years ago teachers may have accommodated and managed this behavior, in part by devoting more attention to boys than to girls. But as girls have come to attract equal attention, as an inability to sit still has been medicalized, and as the options for curbing student misbehavior have been ever more curtailed, boys may have suffered. Boys make up three quarters of all children categorized as learning disabled today, and they are put in special education at a much higher rate (special education is often misused as a place to stick "problem kids," and children seldom switch from there to the college track). Shorter recess times, less physical education, and more time spent on rote learning (in order to meet testing standards) may have exacerbated the problems that boys tend to experience in the classroom.

Which would seem to contradict the ever-present mantra in education that standardized tests are unfair to women. This seems to be primarily due to the gender gap that appears on the SAT, but on other tests, girls outperform boys on language arts sections and equal them on math. The most recent NAEP reports show 4th- and 8th-grade girls neck-and-neck with boys on math, while the advantage that girls have over boys at similar reading levels is much larger. Anyone who examined the NAEP results closely would conclude that, especially when it comes to reading (and writing), it's boys who are being short-changed.

King of Fools comments:

One key factor which is not mentioned is the continued lack of male teachers. For many decades, teaching was primarily a male profession, but now non-female teachers are rare, especially at the elementary level...

I do believe that female teachers are doing a good job. However, also believe that interaction with adult males is vital for young children, especially young boys. The need for men to serve as character examples for young people has never been more necessary, with the number of children growing up without a father in their home. I also believe that a male teacher is more understanding of the behavior and psychology of his male students. He is also (usually) better suited toward maintaining discipline in the classroom - especially with the boys.

I agree.

Posted by kswygert at 04:56 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

January 20, 2004

Those pesky, free-thinking students

Students from two different schools - Omaha, NE's Westside High School, and the University of Colorado - are in trouble for not following the party line. Students being rebellious? Imagine that! (Both links found through Best of the Web.)

The kids in Omaha are in trouble because of their response to a contest for the school's "Distinguished African American Student Award." It seems that some students put up flyers nominating a South African student - who happens to be pretty pale of skin - for the award. Other students circulated petitions that criticized the singling out of black African Americans for the award. This was all done on - you guessed it - Martin Luther King Day. And everyone involved has been suspended, including the South African kid:

Karen Richards said her son, Trevor, who was pictured on the posters, was suspended for two days for hanging the posters. Two of his friends also were disciplined for hanging the posters. A fourth student, she said, was punished for circulating a petition Tuesday morning in support of the boys. The petition criticized the practice of recognizing only black student achievement with the award...

Karen Richards said her son and his friends were not trying to hurt anyone.

"My son is not a racist," she said. "He has black friends, friends from Bangladesh and Egypt. Color has never been an issue in our home."

"It was a very innocent thing," she said. Richards said her family moved to Omaha from Johannesburg six years ago. Trevor, she said, "is as African as anyone."

I'm fairly sure the suspended kids understood the spirit as well as the letter of the law, but it's a judgment call whether mere "offensiveness" justifies this sort of punishment.

Next up, the College Republicans of the University of Colorado have begun a website where students can report incidences of liberal bias in the classroom. And it doesn't sound like the teachers at UC like that one bit:

Most faculty and many Democrats deny liberal indoctrination exists on campuses.

"I'm shocked the students would resort to this,'' said Barbara Bintliff, a CU law school professor and chairwoman of the Boulder Faculty Assembly. "I'm concerned they may wind up with a blacklist."

To which I can only reply - get real. She's shocked that students created a website to help other students who might be victims of discrimination? Are students not allowed to decide what classes and what professors they prefer? Are they not allowed to ever mention that political ideologies can affect grades in college? Doesn't a law professor understand the difference between a "blacklist" that is created by someone in a position of power, vs. a website where students can trade war stories about classes where the teacher's politics are on display?

And would this professor make the same hysterical statement about blacklists if a group of minority students created a website to protect other minority students from professorial bias?

Update: The Volokh Conspiracy has more to say about the Omaha case:

Under Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. School Dist. (1969), speech may be restricted if it's disruptive -- but not because it's "inappropriate and insensitive," something that many students no doubt thought about the anti-Vietnam-War black armbands that Tinker held to be protected speech.

Of course, if a school has content-neutral rules prohibiting students from putting up posters on doors or lockers, the school may evenhandedly enforce this policy; the doors and lockers are its property, and it may bar students from using them as their own billboards. But if it's punishing students for the views that their posters are expressing -- for instance, if posters are generally allowed, either officially or de facto, but these were the only ones that were punished -- then that seems like a violation of the Tinker doctrine. Likewise for the school's punishing the student who circulated a petition "criticiz[ing] the practice of recognizing only black student achievement with the award."

Volokh claims this is a legitimate First Amendment issue. Wonder if the school administrators stopped to think about that?

Posted by kswygert at 09:03 PM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

The important facts for new Americans

Here are thoughts on a new citizenship test, from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

What does every new American need to know? A government agency is trying to decide. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held a conference in Washington last week to discuss changing the test that prospective citizens must pass to become naturalized Americans. They hope to have a new version by next year.

Oh boy, now the standardized testing debate gets combined with the immigration/assimilation debate. That's going to get interesting.

The current test, which dates from the 1980s, aims at demonstrating a basic understanding of English and of "the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States." It's not a standardized test but usually consists of about 10 civics questions picked from a study guide of 100. Some of the questions include listing the colors of the flag, identifying the original 13 states and naming the writer of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Critics say the test focuses on unrelated random facts instead of principles and the meaning of citizenship. They say that it is more important to know the significance of the words "give me liberty or give me death" than to name the person who said it.

Sounds good, but who gets to decide what the true "significance" of those words is? What interpretation do we use? What IS the meaning of citizenship? The reason that "unrelated random facts" get used on these types of test is because those facts are easily learned and fairly objective. I agree that testing the understanding of our nation's history is important, but it's also a much trickier thing to measure than whether or not someone knows when the Civil War began.

President Bush, who announced plans to revamp the test earlier this month, said the United States should set "high expectations for what new citizens should know. Every citizen of America has an obligation to learn the values that make us one nation."

No one can argue with that, although we might hope the new test does not include correctly identifying President Bush as the person who has said "there ought to be limits to freedom," or, "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." Presumably, he will not be writing the new test.

See what I mean? Already, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has injected political ideology into the discussion, and although the President himself will not author the test, the fact that it's being revamped underneath his command means that it might be more likely to reflect a Republican bent than a Democratic one. And there's no way on earth that the Bush-haters will agree with anything that the Republicans say correctly reflects "the values that make us one nation." Whose values? Who decides? And what about all those textbooks that are constantly re-interpreting history and reviling the "dead white males?" Do they guide the citizenship test? If not, why not? Why should native-born Americans learn one thing in high school while immigrants learn another thing in citizenship class?

And so, we're back to using the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence as a test item. It's so much simpler.

But what should citizens know?...I knew a woman in college who refused to believe that someone named Hoover had ever been president. She identified Hoover with the FBI and the vacuum cleaner. Her major was education, and she did just fine.

I'm not even going to touch that one.

Maybe a civics test for the 21st century needs to go beyond traditional facts and history to deal with matters of real significance in American society. Here are a few suggested sample questions that might help:

Explain the concepts "right of way," "right on red" and "yield."

What is a co-pay?

Arrange in order, smallest to largest: jumbo, giant, extra large.

Who was the Great Emancipator?

Who was the Great Unindicted Co-conspirator?

What is it that Pete Rose doesn't get?

Ruben or Clay?

Should you buy the extended warranty?

Under what circumstances do you agree with the BCS, the designated hitter and instant replay?

If professional wrestling is fixed, how come they can still get hurt?

Sounds like as good a test as any.

Posted by kswygert at 08:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The unbearable pressure of the ISEE

Here's an obsequiously sympathetic article about the students facing the hurdle of the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE):

For students aspiring to the nation's elite private schools, January means one thing: admissions tests, most notably the Independent School Entrance Examination, or ISEE. Think of it as the SAT for middle-schoolers, and for many kids, it comes with all the pressure and anxiety associated with the college boards.

With competitive schools such as Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas and The Hockaday School receiving applications from nearly twice as many students as they will admit, parents and kids say the key to getting in is a great ISEE score. The pressure is enough to make them pop a vein.

"Four years of your life depends on it," said Maria Garnett, a sophomore at Ursuline Academy of Dallas who took the ISEE two years ago. "There's a lot riding on your scores."

Parents hire tutors with the hopes of boosting their kids' scores. Private elementary schools bring in test prep coaches to help give their students an edge over those from competing schools. All the while, admissions officers say too many families wrongly view the ISEE (pronounced "icy") as the first step toward an Ivy League university and a prosperous career.

On Jan. 10, Elena Doskey, a sophomore at Ursuline, escorted prospective students at her school, where about 175 kids took the ISEE. At times, she said, the students' anxiety was palpable. She tried to soothe their fears with banter and encouragement.

"One dad was there right up in his daughter's face, drilling her, telling her to focus," Elena said. "I felt so bad for her. How is it possible to handle that kind of pressure?"

Do we know for sure that the dad was harming his kid, rather than, you know, helping her to focus? If he was screaming, that's not good, but there's nothing wrong with helping kids prepare for exams. And "palpable anxiety" pretty much describes my entire high school experience, including tests, dances, and having to change into skimpy gym shorts every day (I wore mine over a pair of sweatpants). The fact that this test produces anxiety doesn't mean the test is necessarily a bad thing, if that's what we're supposed to conclude from this article.

Several Ursuline students described parents who were so nervous over the ISEE that they cried on test day. Others said they know of parents who danced around the mailbox when the scores arrived.

School officials say that reflects parents who don't really understand how admissions decisions are made. School officials play down the ISEE, calling it just one piece of the admissions puzzle. Just as important, they say, are good teacher recommendations, the interview and solid transcripts.

"The myth that the ISEE makes or breaks your application isn't true," said Jesuit admissions director Tim Host, who called parent fever over the ISEE "madness." Yet he conceded that "when it comes down to those final 10 spots and we have nothing else to differentiate kids with, then yes, a bad ISEE score could break them."

Yes, when all else is equal, the ISEE could be important. Some parents will cry, and some will dance. Sounds a lot like life to me.

The ISEE is a three-hour, multiple-choice test with a short essay, similar in format to the SAT. It covers verbal and quantitative reasoning that measures a child's capacity for learning. The reading comprehension and math portions of the test are designed to pinpoint a student's weaknesses in those subjects. And because the test is generally taken by high-achieving students, kids who ace other standardized tests are often surprised to see how they stack up against other bright kids.

"It is expected that children generally will score lower on the ISEE than other nationally normed tests," said Elizabeth Mangas, executive director of the ISEE.

That's one argument in favor of providing at least some test prep for your kid for the ISEE, even if it's just multiple pep talks that focus on the fact that this isn't an easy exam. It's meant to differentiate amongst the brighter kids, so it might seem intimidating.

The private school officials downplay the importance of test prep along with the importance of the ISEE, and that's not surprising. They're aware that testing fears are what generate $100-an-hour fees for coaches, when it sounds like a good ISEE may not balance out an otherwise-unimpressive transcript.

Posted by kswygert at 08:28 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A "baleful" understanding of the SAT

I love the subtitle of this NRO article by Catherine Seipp: "Is the SAT biased or are college presidents nuts?" Are those our only two options?

Pitzer College alumni and donors may be wondering about the decision-making process of their president, Laura Skandera Trombley, after reading her Jan. 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece against the SAT. Because "we have a deep commitment to social responsibility," Trombley writes, Pitzer will no longer require applicants to submit SAT scores if they have at least a 3.5 grade-point average and are in the top-ten percent of their high-school class.

Well, that LA Times article explains the title of this article. In her article, Ms. Trombley asks, "Which Is an Exercise in Futility: the SAT, 'Survivor' or All of the Above?" Ms. Trombley's article, by the way, is an exercise in "educational equivalence," because she believes that context is everything, and some SAT references may be relevant to people like Ms. Trombley, but not to others, and we just can't expect intelligent students to be familiar with a core group of educational facts.

What's worse, Ms. Trombley's entire argument seems to be based on her reading of one SAT item:

Here, for example, is an actual SAT question:

"Aware of the baleful weather predicted by forecasters, we decided the ---- would be the best place for our company picnic.

(A) roof

(B) cafeteria

(C) beach

(D) park

(E) lake

Now, if I had grown up on the East Coast, my immediate choice would be "cafeteria," as my assumption would be that "baleful weather" would indicate rain or maybe even snow. But in fact, I lived for many years on the western side of the Pacific Coast Highway, so "baleful weather" could indicate high waves — meaning that my company picnic would be best, and more pleasantly, relocated to a lake.

On the other hand, if I had lived in Iowa (and I did for five years), baleful weather might indicate flooding. Obviously my company picnic would be best held on the roof. What to do? What to choose?

Context: the framework within which we make sense of the world.

Obviously, Ms. Trombley's "framework" does not consider the possibility that flooding follows heavy rains, and thus an outdoor picnic - even on on high grounds - would not be too smart. Also, what Ms. Trombley is hoping to slip by the casual reader is the idea that the College Board deliberately includes test items that are familiar to smart kids from one part of the country and utterly foreign to smart kids from another region. The idea that the College Board just might try to include items that are as generalizable as possible is one that she doesn't want readers to think about.

Ms. Seipp, on the other hand, concludes that this item would be easy, even for a 10-year-old, because the correct option is the only one that represents an indoor location. Thus, even if one was not sure of what exactly "baleful" meant in this context (stormy? windy? rainy?), the one option that stands out so from the others gives you a clue.

But Ms. Trombley's inanities don't stop there. For some reason, she considers this 80-year-old, retired item to be further support for her arguments:

Another reason the SAT is an inadequate measure of student aptitude is that its questions have little to do with our day-to-day lives or with what we need to know. Here's a question from the original 1920s version of the SAT — but it could just as easily be on the test today:

"Pick out the antonyms from among these four words: Obdurate spurious ductile recondite."

Emphasis mine. If this item was on the test in the 1920's, then it was considered relevant in the 1920's. If it's not on the test today - which it isn't - then someone at the College Board rejected it in favor of items that were more relevant to current times. The argument that an ancient (by testing standards) and obsolete item proves that the current exam is inappropriate is ridiculous, but people keep making it.

Anyway, let's continue on with the Ms. Seipp and her opinion of Ms. Trombley's argument:

So no more SATs at Pitzer. "We felt that requiring the SAT — a test on which white students score 206 points higher then average than nonwhites, according to Psychology Today — was inconsistent with our values," Trombley explains.

Oh my. This is the Psychology Today article they're referring to, and regular readers of this blog will recall that my opinion of that article was that it was shallow, one-sided, and muddled. If PT is the only source Ms. Trombley has for SAT information, I can see why she believes that removing the SAT actually removes the achievement gap between blacks and whites. She's confused the message with the messenger, and it apparently makes her feel good about herself, and her school, to do something that does absolutely nothing for the state of minorities in public education.

But I digress:

For those unfamiliar with its values, Pitzer — a member of the Claremont Colleges in southern California — is a small liberal-arts college dedicated to diversity and social responsibility and is the lead Claremont College for its black-studies program. The website features a picture of "President Trombley's electric vehicle" and a quote from her about how much she likes it: "Driving along at a top speed of 25 miles per hour, with the wind in our hair, we love hearing the birds instead of an engine."

I don't think she's affecting the royal "we" here, by the way; Trombley looks in the picture like a pleasant, unpretentious woman. Apparently she just never drives even an electric car except when carpooling. She's that socially responsible.

Tee hee. Ms. Trombley actually deserves more ridicule than Ms. Seipp provides here. I mean, look at her "argument" that relates the SAT to reality TV:

The SAT was born of 1920s intelligence testing. Its creator was Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton psychology professor and, according to Nicholas Leman, author of "The Big Test," an enthusiastic eugenicist.

Looking back on its history, the institutionalization of the SAT strikes me as an utterly American invention, one promising inclusive equality while simultaneously guaranteeing exclusion. We Americans desperately want to be reassured that we are the best when it comes to equalizing opportunity and rewarding merit, and the SAT affords us the chance to indulge our appetite for seemingly objective measurement. But at the underside of our meritocracy is a car-crash culture, filled with such wrecks along the self-esteem highway as television programs like "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "American Idol" and "Extreme Makeover."

And that's where you'll find the real message of the SAT: If you are the last one standing, having beaten your competitors by any means necessary, you are the winner. Everyone else is a loser.

Whaa? First she natters on about how the SAT was developed in the 1920's - I suppose we're supposed to assume that it's still a product of those old, bad, racist days, despite the fact that eugenic science has been discredited for fifty years - then she claims that the SAT is the same thing as reality TV, which is an ugly by-product of the 2000's. What's more, if I read this right, she's against all competition whatsover, because competition produces winners and losers.

But then we read this:

Our research has shown that a student's high-school grade point average — not his or her SAT scores — is the greatest predictor of success in college. We want students who are diverse and talented, with interests and achievements in and out of the classroom.

Emphasis mine. By this standard, then, couldn't students with low high school GPA's be considered "losers" in the race for college admissions? Couldn't valedictorians be the same as those triumphant "Survivor" competitors? How is a college admissions policy that admits only those students with a 3.5 GPA or a top 10% standing in high school not a meritocratic policy? How dare Ms. Trombley demand that students show evidence of "talent"?

Oh, sure, Ms. Trombley natters on about how if students have low GPAs and no SAT scores, there are other criteria they must meet, but aren't all required criteria proof that, in some way, merit matters for college admissions?

If high school grades outperform the SAT in predicting grades at Pitzer College, then by all means, the college should stop using the SAT. That's well within their bailiwick. But Pitzer's representatives shouldn't insult our intelligence by gullibly repeating the overinflated claims of test prep companies, naively insisting that a switch from SAT to grades nullifies the dreaded "meritocracy," and idiotically claiming that removing the SAT requirement somehow equalizes the educational achievements of minority and non-minority students.

Posted by kswygert at 07:55 PM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Toiling under the "looming" FCAT

The FCAT "looms" over Florida's students, according to the TCPalm website:

Although the 15 students [in the room] are not taking practice Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, in some ways the state's standardized test is always in the room. The children are together for two hours each day because they scored at the lowest of five levels on the FCAT reading section. They are not alone.

Only 5 percent of St. Lucie County third-graders reached the top reading achievement level.

FCAT scores and increasing proficiency are constant concerns for administrators and teachers. That brings stress, but most agree: The material on the test is material students need to know...

Many teachers who support the test are quoted as saying that they don't teach to the test, but instead teach "a deep, rich curriculum [with] good instruction." But at one high school, most of the freshmen and sophomores have had to give up an elective to take an FCAT-focused research class. I can understand why this doesn't sit well with most teachers, but it's hard to understand why the basic FCAT skills aren't being conveyed in other classes.

Posted by kswygert at 02:47 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

New McSnake entree is a big hit

Today's "snake tale" courtesy of Eagen, MN, and a McDonalds:

Joanne Borgerding was sitting in a packed Eagan McDonald's at lunchtime, eating a chicken sandwich and reading a book when something moved beneath her booth. Dancing in the air by her legs were "little movable eyes" that were attached to a dark, 2-foot-long snake.

"I looked face to face at it," Borgerding said. "I know people in the drive-up heard me — I screamed that loud."

Borgerding also flew out of her booth and in the process injured her foot so badly that she says she has permanent nerve damage. She asked McDonald's insurance company to pay her medical bills, but the company denied her claims, she said. Now she is seeking in excess of $50,000 in a personal injury complaint that she expects to file in Dakota County next month.

Actually, the incident happened in 2002, and Borgerding's main complaint seems to be that no McDonald's employees assisted her at the time. McDonald's also seems understandably reluctant to take responsibility for the presence of a critter that wasn't on their menu:

Kay Butler, who owns the McDonald's along with her husband, Thomas, had no comment Monday. Fred Keller, a McDonald's spokesman, said he didn't know if a snake was in the restaurant that day, but it is investigating.

"We don't feel that this (snake) could have come from our restaurant; in fact, we think it's highly unlikely. … We work hard to have a safe restaurant. We caution in drawing a conclusion," Keller said. "We just feel this could have been an unfortunate practical joke. … I know the cleanliness practice of the restaurants. I ask myself, 'How could this happen? Maybe somebody brought it in?' It could have been a fake plastic one."

A cheap shot; the local animal control is on record as saying that the animal was probably a live garter snake, although it's worth noting that the snake had been caught and released by the time animal control arrived. Borgerding wants money for her pain and suffering, and an apology. The McDonald's attitude seems to be, "Why blame us? We didn't put the snake under your booth."

*Sigh* And here I have to go purchase snakes, while people like Borgerding get them for free...

Posted by kswygert at 01:11 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The inside scoop of Harcourt Assessment

Here's an article in My San Antonio online that does a great job of describing how tests get produced and scored at the Harcourt Assessment organization:

In the second [HA] building behind the main lobby, certain corridors are off limits, and visitors are flanked by helpful, cautious guides. In there is the massive warehouse where millions of pieces of paper are tracked and sorted by radio frequency, with two sets of loading dock doors to segregate incoming from outgoing.

Next to it is the room where multiple-choice answer sheets full of pencil-darkened bubbles are run through grading machines. The humidity in that room is carefully controlled so that the answer pages won't expand or shrink from the exact proportions the computers have been programmed to read.

Upstairs is a great gray room filled with rows of long tables lined with computer monitors. During the winter months, only a handful of people sit there. But as the days grow warmer, students across the nation will apply their No. 2 pencils to millions of late-spring standardized tests. That's when Harcourt fills the long tables with hundreds of part-timers and temporary employees hired to read thousands of answers to essay questions...

Despite the extra thought that's supposed to be tapped by essay questions, the job of grading the answers is tedious and often boring, Pete Loxsom, a former Harcourt employee, said..It didn't help that Loxsom has a low opinion of standardized tests and identified with the more sour notes some test-takers struck.

"In some of my essay questions, I would see 'If you're reading this stuff, it must suck to be you.'" Loxsom said. "I thought, 'You kind of nailed it there, kid.'"

Despite the anti-testing backlash, Harcourt is growing rapidly:

The San Antonio-based company, now a subsidiary of Dutch company Reed Elsevier after almost a century of name changes, mergers and acquisitions, basically doubles its staff of almost 1,300 during the peak scoring season.

The company also added 367 employees last year and plans to keep growing if it can find enough statisticians and psychometricians, who are specialists in the measurement of academic achievement. It wouldn't release figures on what it pays or what it earns but called 2003 "a successful year."

That "if" above is crucial. The number of tests required each year keeps growing, but that's not being met by an increasing number of psychometricians. Even the executive director of FairTest, who's never met a test he liked, is quoted as saying that one of the main causes of scoring errors is the understaffing of psychometricians at companies that are pressured to turn scores around quickly.

Harcourt has apparently started a fellowship program to "woo" more students into the field of psychometrics. ETS, LSAC, and ACT already have similar programs in place (full disclosure: my last two years of graduate school work were supported by an ETS fellowship). Here's a press release advertising the fellowship.

Note the names of the four doctoral fellows who spent the summer at Harcourt in 2003, learning the ropes. America is a mecca for would-be psychometricians from around the world (the Netherlands is a close second).

Posted by kswygert at 12:51 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Are you an "Other"?

Test-takers in Illinois can now check multiple boxes for ethnic group membership, thanks to a reversal of a more restrictive policy (free registration required):

Illinois Supt. of Education Robert Schiller announced the change to the policy--which some mixed-race students and their parents had found offensive--in a bulletin sent to all school districts across the state. In addition the academic progress of these students will now get tracked and that information will be presented on the Illinois School Report Card--something that was not done before in this state.

The decision followed a Tribune report that the Illinois State Board of Education would be eliminating the racial category of "other" on standardized tests, including the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests and Prairie State Achievement Exam.

Students are asked to identify their race so that school districts can be held accountable for the academic progress of different racial groups.

Although this reversal seems like a popular compromise, some parents would have preferred to have the "Other" option for their kids.

Posted by kswygert at 12:39 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 19, 2004

Math items could use a little "nudity"

Joanne Jacob's roundup of education news is up at the Jewish World Review site.

I had missed the story on "naked math" that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (payment required for access). No, it's not what you think. The math items on the latest state exam are allegedly "dumbed down" by being stripped of their word-problem formats. Some math educators are horrified:

"The message they will send out to teachers is ..., 'Pay attention to this because this is what you're going to be tested on,'" said Philip Wagreich, director of the Institute for Mathematics and Science Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's not uniformly horrible, but the main thrust is back- to-basics--multiple-choice questions emphasizing routine tasks, rote memorization and computational skills."

And this is a problem why? If kids haven't mastered these skills, how can they master the more sophisticated math concepts? Say what you will about a return to basic skills in, say, reading or writing, but mastery of math is extremely dependent on mastery of rote memorization and computation skills.

Illinois is under the gun to revamp its testing by the 2005-06 school year because of federal reforms that require all states to test every child, every year, in grades 3 to 8 in reading and math. The state's current exam for elementary pupils, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, measures reading and math skills only in grades 3, 5 and 8...

Depending on which company the state selects, the new test would be an adaptation of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Tests or the TerraNova tests.

It is this change that is drawing the ire of math educators, who rallied in meetings and on Internet message boards after the state released its proposed design for new tests in math, reading, writing, social science and science. The proposed tests for the other subjects have not drawn the same controversy, state officials said.

In one letter to State Supt. of Education Robert Schiller, signed by 40 professors and teachers, educators argued that the new test design represents a "radical departure" from the current state math standards and an abandonment of the reasoning and problem-solving skills that have been emphasized in classrooms over the last decade.

Do these educators really believe that the emphasis on "problem-solving" skills at the expense of basic knowledge has produced a generation of math-savvy kids?

For example, 20 percent of the test questions will be "naked math"--number problems that have become a dirty word for math educators who believe the subject is meaningful to students only when it is taught and tested in the context of real-world situations.

Horse puckey. A kid who needs context to understand a computational issue doesn't really understand the issue, and it goes against the entire point of education to claim that kids can't be expected to understand any concepts that aren't tailored to them. Students should be able to understand how to compute (per the example in the article) 7 percent of 350 without having the context of figuring 7% sales tax on a $350 DVD player. There's nothing wrong with showing examples to explain when computation of percentages is useful in real life, but if a student really understands percentages, then he'll know when to use them.

"This [back-to-basics] document ignores the last 20 years of what people have been doing in mathematics instruction," said Zalman Usiskin, director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. "That's when we had students who could add and subtract, but they couldn't make change. They were never taught to tie the two together."

And what do we have now? I don't know about you, but I have yet to encounter a single cashier who could make change without the help of the cash register. I find it hard to believe that anyone who really has the mechanics of addition and subtraction down in their heads would be hard-pressed to make change.

The instructors fear that any change could reverse a steady improvement in math scores, especially in the younger grades. Last year, for example, 68 percent of 5th graders met or exceeded state standards in math, up from 61 percent in 2001.

Perhaps it would impede the improvement, perhaps not. It's hard to see how a back-to-basics approach to math can be harmful.

By the way, this is what they mean by "naked items" for third-graders:

What is the missing number in the following pattern?

94,__, 106, 112

A. 96

B. 98

C. 100

D. 102

This item requires the test-taker to examine the three numbers given in order to figure out the relationship among them. The nice thing about it is that is purely a measure of mathematical skills - relatively little is required in the way of reading skills. It's also very quick and cheap to develop and score.

Here's an open response item, which is what all those educators favor:

On Monday, Joe asked his mother if he could go with his friends to the movies on Friday. His mother gave him a list of chores and said he would have to earn the $5 to buy the movie ticket.

Babysitting his sister: 1 quarter an hour

Dusting: 1 nickel

Making his bed: 2 quarters

Washing dishes: 1 quarter

Cleaning his room: 1 quarter

Taking out the trash: 1 quarter

Sweeping the floor: 1 dime

Folding clothes: 1 dime

Make a plan for Joe to earn $5. List the chores he will need to do each day. Explain in words how you found your answer and why you did the plan the way you did.

Notice the reading load that accompanies this item; that's going to make things very difficult for ESL students and those who are already behind in reading. Notice that a written plan and list, plus an explanation, are required in order for the item to be answered correctly. This is an expensive item to develop and to score, not least because such a wide range of possible answers could be considered correct. Let's not forget that this type of item contains enough content that content balancing will probably be necessary; for every item about a Joe, there will have to be one about a Jill.

Can a test-taker say they hate washing dishes, so they'd plan for Joe to earn the money by doing other chores? Does Joe really have five days of bed-making available (doesn't that depend when on Monday his mom gives him this list)? If so, he can make $2.50 making his bed and then babysit his sister for 10 hours to make the other $2.50. But wouldn't 10 hours a week of babysitting seem like a lot to a kid?

(As Devoted Reader Doug S. points out in the comments: "When I first read the open response question, I thought the best answer was to take at least one nap per day and make the bed after each nap. I wonder how that would be scored? It violates one understanding of how the question should be read, but certainly seems to satisfy all of the stated rules.")

This isn't a bad item, but it is difficult, and it measures a lot of constructs other than pure math ability, and there's a lot of room for a kid to hang himself if he can't read well, can't write well, or comes up with a solution but can't really justify it. Therefore, it's not a given that this is a good item for a third-grade math test; it's not a given that it's a better item than one that simply measures whether a kid can combine 5's, 10's, and 25's to get a total of 500 (which is the actual math skill being measured).

If the point is to know whether a kid understands how to divide 500 by 5, 10, and 25, there are much simpler ways to go about it.

Posted by kswygert at 09:21 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Michigan residents respond to AA poll

Poll results from Michigan suggests that voters want to ban affirmative action:

When read language from a petition on the affirmative action issue, 64 percent of poll respondents said they favored the ban; 23 percent were opposed. The News’ survey of 400 registered voters was conducted Jan. 7-12 by Mitchell Research & Communications of East Lansing...

A poll breakdown shows support for the ballot initiative cuts across age groups, gender, religion and union and nonunion households. The proposal is supported by about two-thirds of voters in the suburbs and outstate, but is opposed 47 percent to 42 percent in Detroit.

Survey respondents were split along racial lines, with 67 percent of whites in favor and 19 percent opposed, while a small sample of black voters showed 47 percent opposed and 45 percent in favor...

Jennifer Gratz, executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, was encouraged by the poll results.

“Poll after poll tell us that people don’t want racial preferences, they want to be treated fairly and they want to be treated equally,” said Gratz, a 26-year-old University of Michigan graduate who was a plaintiff in the case against the school’s affirmative action policies decided last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court ruled that using race as a factor in the law school application process was a constitutional means of achieving diversity. But in a split decision, the court struck down the school’s undergraduate admission process that gave extra points to students of color.

Posted by kswygert at 08:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Racism in school and test scores

Discussions of test scores come up in an article about racism in the public schools of Erie, PA:

The first-grade students of Pickens' classroom at Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School, one of the most diverse in the city, sit side-by-side, a black girl's arm draped happily around a white boy's shoulder. Here, 67 percent of the student body are minority and poor, with 97 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

First-graders don't know what racism means, but they do know one thing: "You're supposed to be nice to everyone," piped 6-year-old Shauntaia Williams...

Despite the innocence of the first-graders, a new survey of Erie's racial climate reports that racism has crept into hallways and classrooms. In the "Erie Experiences Survey," commissioned by the Citizens Against Racism in Erie, minority parents reported having many fewer positive experiences with school officials than did white parents, though parents of both races visited their children's schools equally.

Parents of all races reported similar levels of discipline problems, but minority parents reported that their children received less academic recognition than their white classmates. Seventy percent of white parents said their children received academic recognition, compared with 56 percent of minority parents...

Talk to Erie schools Superintendent James Barker about racism, and he talks about inequality and the achievement gap between white students and those of other races. Standardized test scores released in November show disparities between minorities in the Erie School District. The number of black students at Pfeiffer-Burleigh scoring in the advanced or proficient range reading portions of the test averaged 30.4 percent, while 56.2 percent of white students scored in that range.

I'm not sure what we're supposed to conclude from those numbers. That racism inherent in the school system is holding minority kids back? That whatever the school is offering cannot overcome a deprived home life? That a parent's insistence that racism exists might be depriving their child of confidence when it comes to tests? All of the above?

All we know for sure is that black students in Erie are indeed performing less well, as a group, than white students. The survey results are useful, but I'm not sure if they provide the information needed to help close the achievement gap.

And then there's this odd quote from Gannon University President Antoine Garibaldi:

Garibaldi said diversity is constantly on the radar screens of people on an eight-person affirmative action committee at the university, where seven percent of undergraduates are minorities.

"Do we want everyone who will have a 4.0 and a near 1600 on the SAT, or do we want a class with some diversity, someone who has a 3.0 and a 1200 or a 1100 on the SAT but who is also talented and might be a person of color?" Garibaldi said. "Diversity makes for a better college experience."

Really? Why? I'm all for admitting someone with a 3.0 GPA and a 1200 SAT to college, but I don't follow the logic that someone who has lower grades than the 4.0 student, but has darker skin, will automatically be an improvement on the "college experience." Isn't that what Garibaldi is saying here? Why must we assume that the 4.0/1600 student cannot contribute anything to campus "diversity"? Won't they contribute something just by being so darn smart? And why must we consider the 3.0/1200 minority student to be useful solely due to their contribution to "diversity?" Why shouldn't the first consideration be what the college can do for that minority student, rather than what the minority student can do for the campus culture?

What's more, African American students in the college-bound class of 2002 had an average SAT score of 857, while the average scores for whites and Asian Americans weren't much higher (1060 and 1070, respectively). Any student with a 3.0 and a 1200 should have a shot at college, not because of their alleged contribution to "diversity" but because they're more qualified to contribute to the intellectual climate on campus than many of the college-bound seniors of today.

Posted by kswygert at 08:14 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Fighting stereotype threat

Fascinating article in the NYT about raising test scores by fighting the pressure of negative stereotypes:

Girls and low-income minority students are more likely to improve their scores on standardized tests when they are taught ways to overcome the pressures associated with negative stereotypes, according to a new study of seventh graders.

Despite decades of national attention, standardized test results continue to show gender and race gaps in achievement. Some educators say these disparities, including girls' lower math scores and the lower reading scores of minority and low-income students, are a result of anxiety-inducing stereotypes. A new study suggests that arming students with the means to overcome that anxiety may reduce those disparities...

In the study, college students acted as mentors for 138 seventh graders from Del Valle Independent School District near Austin, Tex., which serves a largely low-income population. The mentors encouraged the students to view intelligence as a faculty that can be developed or to attribute their academic difficulties to their new educational environment. At the end of the year, students took statewide standardized math and reading tests.

To test which method worked best, the researchers randomly assigned the seventh graders to one of four groups. The mentors taught one group of students about how the brain processes information. Another group was taught that all students faced academic difficulty in the transition to junior high school but that most overcame these challenges.

The mentors gave both messages to students in the third group. Then, the standardized test performance of these three groups was compared with the performance of a fourth group of students, who received information only about the dangers of drug use.

The girls who were taught that intelligence developed over time scored significantly higher on the standardized math test than girls in the fourth group. Similarly, the minority and low-income students who were told that they could overcome challenges and achieve academic success scored significantly higher on the standardized reading test than students in the fourth group, the researchers found.

Hoorah. Emphasis mine. These types of findings highlight what I find so noxious about the "all-tests-are-biased," anti-testing crowd. It does no good whatsoever to scare students into believing that test scores are arbitrary or that high test scores are out of reach for black or Hispanic students. Those who claim that all standardized tests are by nature "racist" or "sexist" are guilty to contributing to a lack of confidence on the part of minority and female test takers. They perpetuate these negative stereotypes, which then have to be overcome before students can perform up to their full potential.

Posted by kswygert at 07:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

How to get rich in education without really trying

From a Devoted Reader comes this tale of financial and educational hanky-panky in Chicago. It seems that a team of three teaching sisters, including one who never managed to pass the teacher certfication exam, were paid "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in order to produce schoolteacher manuals that were so error-riddled as to be completely unusable:

One of the sisters, Judith Branch-Boyd, turned a hallmark school reform effort into an overtime gravy train that helped boost her 2001-2002 pay to $164,400 -- the highest of any public school teacher in the state that year, records indicate.

At the time, Branch-Boyd also supervised her two sisters, Toni Branch and Brenda Hambright, in a highly touted math curriculum-writing project -- an arrangement that violated the system's ethics policy, according to a new report by Chicago Public Schools Inspector General James Sullivan.

Over nearly three years, through the summer of 2002, the three sisters also racked up overtime payments totaling more than $450,000 -- much of it for curriculum-writing work -- that is now under investigation, officials said.

My, what a nice scheme. Given that Toni Branch flunked the teacher's certification exam seven times, it's not surprising that the materials to which she contributed contained errors. Doesn't sound like the Branch sisters knew much about math at all, which is what makes this paragraph so delicious:

Even their overtime records submitted by Branch-Boyd on the sisters' behalf had arithmetic mistakes, Sullivan said. In some cases, his report indicated, the time sheets also showed at least two of the sisters in two different places at the same time.

Giggle. Their mathematical incompetence extended to their embezzlement attempts. I suppose I shouldn't laugh, though, because the effects of the sisters' larceny extend to other teachers who tried to use their useless manual:

The three Branch sisters and others produced math and reading materials used by hundreds of teachers systemwide during after-school and summer school classes, a cornerstone of Mayor Daley's efforts to reform the system.

Yet math curriculum writer Toni Branch had flunked the exam for an elementary teacher's certificate on at least seven occasions, officials said...Sullivan's report noted that some math manuals produced by Toni Branch, her two sisters and others contained "numerous errors, including basic computation errors and word problems where the solution given was the wrong answer.''

"It was likely that some of the ... manuals hindered, rather than helped, the teacher,'' Sullivan's report said. However, occasional textbook errors are not uncommon nationwide.

Posted by kswygert at 07:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Hi folks, I'm off work today and won't be blogging. If you're interested, a list of my goings-on for yesterday and today are included below. Really, I do have a life outside of blogging. I DO!

1. Listening to Robert Rich's Bestiary while I do housework. The album's music is described by its creator as "rhythmic, energetic, bizarre and very glurpy." Click here to download a snippet of the title track. The perfect background track for disposing of ancient kitty litter and organizing books.

2. Sitting on the couch with my boyfriend and watching the Eagles lose. Enduring triumphant phone calls from all four parents of mine, who reside in SC and were rooting for the Panthers. The opening sentences of this article from the Philly Daily News say it all.

3. Drinking lots of coffee with Kahlua and eating omelets made with eggs from my friend M's chickens. Mmm, fresh eggs.

4. Working on two cross-stitch projects - one dragon, and one Buddha.

5. Talking with four friends on the phone, two of whom have the flu. Something reeeealy nasty is going around this winter. Thankfully my company offered free flu shots, and that seems to be protecting me so far.

6. Re-reading Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Finishing up Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.

7. Watching some of the second season Simpsons DVD that I borrowed from a friend.

8. Braving the cold and poor driving conditions to go have some beers with a friend of mine who lives in Center City. Neither rain nor sleet, nor snow nor gloom of night can stay my from the completion of my appointed beer-drinking duty.

Oh, and I had my hair dyed platinum as a means of avoiding the January blahs. But that was Saturday.

Hope you're all warm and well; see you tomorrow!

Enjoy the Fox Trot for today:


Posted by kswygert at 10:19 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 16, 2004

Public school follies

Daryl Cobranchi's uncovered some ridiculous missteps from members of our educational community lately. First off, he posted about a NYC principal who read the names of failing students over the PA system at school. Principal Bobo - I'm not kidding, that's her name - has been reassigned, although the union is defending her actions and calling her removal a "political witch hunt" and "abuse of power." Why, Bobo "did nothing inappropriate," because she did not use "corporal punishment."

I remember in middle school, I once got "paddled" for some misbehavior. In private, one swing, more embarassing than painful. I think I would have been far more traumatized had my principal announced to the entire school that I was in danger of failing. But maybe that's just me - physically tough, psychologically a weenie.

Next up, we have a case of TUI - Teaching Under the Influence. This luckless Indiana seventh-grade teacher was "removed from the classroom" after he blew a .15 on a breathalyzer. (.08 is the legal limit for intoxication.) Other teachers became concerned after smelling alcohol and called the cops on him.

Finally, Daryl questions a decision made recently in Philadelphia's schools. In order to combat obesity, the schools will no longer make soft drinks available to kids. The school believes it is sending a "powerful" and "strong" message. But as Daryl notes, high-calorie juices will still be available, and teachers will still be able to drink soda. Thus, if the problem is that kids aren't watching their intake, they can still gain weight off juice (although they'll be healthier), and kids will be able to observe their teachers swilling soda as well.

Posted by kswygert at 06:09 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The tip jar is now available

Well I've finally gone over to "the dark side" and joined those bloggers who have an Amazon Tip Jar prominently displayed on their front page (just kidding, Joanne). Number 2 Pencil is now, and always will be, a labor of love, and the content will always be free of charge. But now that I am spending a bit more time and money keeping the site running, I figured it was time to give my readers the option to be generous with any spare cash that's lying around. Just click on the icon on the right-hand-side menu and give to your heart's content.

I know in the past I've appreciated being able to buy a book or donate some dough to a favorite blogger, so I've decide to offer you the same opportunity. And you readers should know how much I appreciate you; without you, Number 2 Pencil wouldn't be very interesting or relevant. Keep up the good work, guys.

Posted by kswygert at 11:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Figuring out ways to boost test scores

Big changes are afoot in Torrington, CT. The school plans to implement thirteen changes in order to boost test scores:

One way to improve learning, according to Director of Special Programs Romain Dallemand and Principal Veronica LeDuc, is by reorganizing the class schedule at the high school.

Beginning in school year 2004-05, students will begin a seven-credit system and a six- period school day. LeDuc said by students enrolling in one less course and shortening study hall periods, each academic class period will be lengthened by 1,000 minutes...

Officials also propose a reorganization of freshmen into academics that focus on developing "learner interests" and skill sets...

Counselors would be able to provide a more personalized, four-year support by being assigned by grade level, rather than alphabetically.Counselors would remain with each set of students as they progress through grade levels, and be reassigned to grade nine after each group graduates...

To remedy the current trend of transfer students typically scoring lower on standardized tests, a "discovery" transition week for THS newcomers will also be implemented next year...the program is a necessary support tool that will help such students as English as a Second Language or transfer students better familiarize themselves with teachers, students and their surroundings.

LeDuc also suggests that the BOE continue to require summer school for all students earning fewer than four credits annually, which she said has been very effective in the past.

Posted by kswygert at 10:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Avoiding the motivation of high test scores

And the articles insisting that testing is mutually exclusive from "real" education just keep on coming:

For instance, a new commission of the national government, business and education leaders wants to pay teachers based on how well their students do on standardized tests. That would mean that a teacher's pay would be partially based on student test-score gains. Another part of the pay formula would be based on well the entire school tests out with the remaining 50 percent based on evaluations of how well the teacher motivates students in the classroom....

Our problem isn't with paying teachers well; they play a major role in our society.

We tend to worry, however, that the importance of education is being given short shrift under this formula. Teaching children to do well on a standardized test isn't the same as turning kids on to the value of education and opening the doors of knowledge to them.

Why not? Why is there any reason to assume that students who do well on tests haven't been "turned on" to the "value of education"? Why does testing have to be inconsistent with this? Why can't teachers "open the doors of knowledge" in ways that will allow children to demonstrate their understanding on exams?

Standardized tests measure educational concepts, skills, and facts. Students who do poorly on these test have not learned these concepts, skills, and facts from their teachers. It's legitimate to argue whether a particular test is measuring an appropriate set of concepts; it's ludicrous to claim that all tests are by nature inconsistent with actual learning.

This author's statement isn't just insulting to test developers, but also to students who do well on tests, because by this writer's logic, we cannot assume that someone who makes a high score on a test has in fact learned anything. I wager most high scorers will beg to differ.

Some teachers point out to parents that lessons will be geared to state PSSA tests when the school year starts, and this creates a different kind of formula under which all apparently are under the gun to teach the same skills at the same time.

And this is a problem because?

We bring this up because of concerns that some ingenuity in teaching will disappear as the emphasis builds on teaching children specific skills to answer test questions on a timetable. This approach could make learning more disjointed and have less correlation to overall studies.

Say what? How is following a sensible timetable to teach a specific set of skills "disjointed"? And no one is telling teachers how to teach, only what to teach. A teacher who has "ingenious" ideas about whether kids need to learn to read or do long-division is not her students any favors.

Trust me - truly ingenious teachers produce kids who score well on tests because they thoroughly understand the material.

Forcing everyone into a set pattern of lessons may not be the best way to get to the objective of excellence. Teachers as well as students need motivation. Money is a motivator, but there has to be more than money to experience the greatest rewards of a profession.

I agree, but thanks to the negative barrage of anti-testing comments like these, teachers aren't taking advantage of an excellent non-monetary motivation - test scores. Articles like this one are an attempt to warn teachers away from monitoring their students' test scores. This article is basically telling teachers that they cannot help their students do well on tests and "genuinely" educate them at the same time. Don't you think that if teachers understood the link between test scores and achievement, and were not told that tests are unfair and inappropriate, they'd take more pride in their students who perform well?

Posted by kswygert at 10:50 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 15, 2004

Your concern is touching

A "Very Concerned Student" has written to the Jupiter Courier about the FCAT requirements. I'll go easy on her - but I'm not letting her off the hook entirely:

Dear Governor Bush,

I know that much controversy exists over the benefits of the FCAT. I understand all the rules and regulations of the FCAT. Even if a student sustains a 4.0 grade-point average but fails the FCAT, he or she will only get a high school certificate of completion and, as a result, will not qualify to attend most colleges.

I am not the only person who can see that there is definitely something wrong here.

Yes, dear, there is, but it's not what you think. First, the FCAT measures 10th-grade skills, and students get multiple attempts. If a senior with a 4.0 can't pass it, why do you assume the test must be wrong? Wouldn't it be equally likely that rampant grade inflation and dumbed-down classes are to blame? Why shouldn't a straight-A senior be able to pass a sophomore's exam?

Let's extend the logic. Say the test shows that a 12th-grader with good grades is performing at 10th-grade level. You believe this student should get a real diploma, which will "qualify" them to attend college. But they won't really be qualified, because they're still only doing 10th-grade-level work. They have a piece of paper that says they ARE qualified, but that piece of paper in and of itself will not MAKE them qualified.

I strongly maintain that all students be treated as individuals and be given the best possible educational experience. Standardized tests fall short of this goal, especially when advancing to the next grade, or going on to higher education, is absolutely dependent on passing such exams.

I agree entirely with your first sentence. What you don't seem to know - because, in all likelihood, journalists and teachers have never mentioned it - is that students who receive "the best possible educational experience" will pass any exit exam in the country, and possibly the world. "Going on to higher education" is not "dependent on passing such exams," it is dependent on the student learning the material necessary to pass the exam. The exam is a proxy for learning. Student who know the material will pass. If the student does not know the material, then moving on to college may not do them much good.

Of course, tests are not 100% reliable, and we don't know, without examining the situation further, how valid the FCAT is in this situation. But when big whomping numbers of 12th-graders fail 10th-grade exams, something is indeed wrong, and it's just as likely to be wrong on the class end as on the exam end.

Additionally, I have read that thousands of third-graders were held back this year, not allowed to advance to the fourth grade because they did not pass the FCAT. How is this exam a benefit in this situation? The individual student is now stigmatized because he was "left back."

No, he's stigmatized because he can't read. Next year, he may very well have fallen even further behind. While there are issues with the policy of retaining such huge numbers of third-graders, the question we should be asking is not, "How is this exam a benefit in this situation?" but instead, "Why are thousands of little Floridians so far behind already?"

I believe the schools are spending a good portion of the year preparing and rehearsing for this test. It is so excessive, in fact, that not enough time is spent on subject teaching. The importance for the tests is so overstated that many children are too stressed out and anxious. I understand that some anxiety is beneficial for test taking. However, when there are children getting sick due to too much stress, then it becomes a problem.

Sing it with me, folks, if you know the words - What good does "subject teaching" do for kids who can't read? What good is 12th-grade History for a kid who failed a 10th-grade Reading exam? And if the kids are anxious, who helped make them that way? Perhaps the educators and naysayers who are always claiming the tests are unfair, biased, racist, etc?

You know, it would make me sick, too, if I constantly had to take tests for which my teacher failed to prepare me. One way to fix that is to change the teaching method. "Teaching to the test" is a good thing if it's a good test measuring necessary skills. Funny, but few people complain about those driving instructors who teach in alignment with the driver's license exam.

Even the media points out problems with this system.

That's too priceless; I can't even touch it.

You must appreciate that there are major issues resulting from this test. I have yet to learn that the FCAT has, in some way, any way, benefited a child's educational experience.

The FCAT in and of itself is not the change; it's a measure of the change. Those of you curious about the change that it's measuring can click here. More evidence of change will come down the road, with future NAEP scores, SAT scores, and dropout rates.

Update: The always-interesting Winston's Diary has the inside scoop on the syllabus for a community college composition class:

Yes, I taught a composition class in which I was required to begin with parts of speech, move on to writing basic and then complex sentences, move to the paragraph, and then finish--if possible--with a 3-5 paragraph essay. This was done in an 18 week semester, so I spent about three weeks on parts of speech, and several students failed quiz after quiz on things as simple as nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates. I actually resorted to Schoolhouse Rock cartoons to try and get them to memorize the songs and, hopefully, the content. A failed effort, though; by the fourth week of class, we had gone from 30 students to 14. Most of the students who dropped the course were performing in the 10th to the 40th percentile.

All of my students were high school graduates. I'm not saying they graduated with a 4.0, but they were in possession of diplomas. I know this because we discussed it. They were in no way prepared to attend college, so the college was forced to offer not only four semesters of remedial English but several semesters of remedial math. Many students were enrolled in both remedial English and math, and were going to be in junior college for at least an extra year trying to get themselves up to the junior college level.

Depressing, isn't it?

Posted by kswygert at 02:13 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Yes, Virginia, there is an exit exam

Yet another state creates toughens high school graduation requirements, then refuses to stand behind them:

The Virginia General Assembly is being asked to delay the state's tougher, new graduation requirements indefinitely.

A bill sponsored by Del. Mitchell Van Yahres, D-Charlottesville, would amend Virginia's Standards of Quality so that diplomas cannot be denied on the sole basis of any Standards of Learning assessments. If approved, that change would remain in effect until all public schools have achieved full accreditation.

To be fully accredited, at least 70 percent of a school's students must pass SOL tests in English, math, science and history. Based on last spring's tests, 1,414 of the state's 1,823 schools - 78 percent - are fully accredited.

In other words, 22% - almost one-fourth - of Virginia's schools are failing to educate at least 30% of their young charges.

Starting with this year's graduating seniors, students are required to earn six verified credits and 22 standard credits to receive a standard diploma. A verified credit is awarded when a student passes a course and the corresponding SOL test, or another state-approved standardized test.

So, only six courses require standardized exams (and I bet those exams are "minimum-competency level," too.

Van Yahres, a member of the House Education Committee, filed the bill Monday. He said it would correct a situation in which students are being penalized while the schools are not yet required to be fully accredited.

So, we can't expect kids to do well if it's clear their schools are failing them. So how do we impress upon schools that they have to start doing things right? I agree, it's unfair to kids in one sense, but if kids are allowed to graduate from poor schools, it's arguable whether they're better off than if they're held back while their school is forced to make changes.

Richmond School Board Chairman Larry A. Olanrewaju called the legislation "a bad idea."

"It's going back to making excuses for the children," he said. "I think we need to continue to focus on what we're doing and continue to offer local verified credits as state has already done. That will be more helpful than repealing the whole process because otherwise, we will go backwards."

Posted by kswygert at 01:51 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Bashing the tests, missing the point

This article in The Midweek News (DeKalb, IL) is an amalgamation of just about every bad testing-related education idea that exists, along with just about every bad testing-related journalistic approach possible. I'll list a few for your amusement; see if you can find more!

What a couple of decades ago was considered “teaching to the test” is now called “aligning the curriculum with state standards.”

Well, at least this bit of sophistry reveals the truth behind those educators who oppose "teaching to the test," which is that they don't want the material they teach to have to conform to any objective standards.

The carrot is continued federal funding. The stick is an escalating series of sanctions, including a cut-off of funds and possibly a closure or the imposition of private management on the school. According to critics, the only thing that counts is the number of students who score above the basic level.

Can those critics provide a reason why federal or state governments should not be concerned with the relatively large percentages of students who score at or below basic levels on many standardized exams? These critics seem to have confused "valuing all students" with "being complacent with 1/5th of all students performing below the most basic levels of core skills."

Sycamore School Superintendent Robert Hammon frequently comments to his Board of Education on the difficulties with NCLB, and he noted, for the first thing, the law is 1,000 pages long “and that doesn’t include the rules.”

He explained, “The original intent was admirable, but (the actual effect) is in the details and it obviously has created a whole new level of bureaucracy. Also, it certainly has removed control from local educators (and taken it) to the national level.

Would this have been necessary if the sentiment in Washington was that local educators were doing their jobs right? Obviously some of them were, but large numbers of them weren't.

“If we’re going to play the game and be judged by it, we will have to focus on nothing more than the tests,” he said. “The question will then become, ‘How is what I’m about to do going to improve the test scores?’” Hammon said.

Funny, many schools that have revolutionized their communities with "unteachable" kids rely a great deal on testing. And they ask themselves this very same question; unlike Hammon, they haven't already decided that all possible means of genuine education are unrelated to test scores.

Underscoring his point, the journal of the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy headlined, “The higher the stakes, the more teaching to the test.”

In other words, he's noticed the stunningly-obvious (to anyone else) concept that when schools claim skills A, B, and C are important, then teachers will focus on teaching A, B, and C. Those skills can be as meaningful and broadly-defined as possible, but if schools do not have to teach them, some schools will not teach them.

NAEP scores make this rather obvious. Take a look at recent Reading score reports, for example. Reading is the fundamental task that should be imparted within any type of educational system in the US, and yet look at the whopping percentages of fourth-graders who are already performing Below Basic in Reading. Sixty-nine percent of DC's fourth-graders are at this lowest level on NAEP.

If those sixty-nine percent were to spend one year with a teacher who was obsessed with nothing but "teaching to" a reading test, they'd be better off than they are now.

Hammon said other educational goals such as music and the fine arts, teaching students to be critical thinkers and to be good, solid citizens involved in community service will fall by the wayside.

These educational goals will never fall by the wayside. What's more, ensuring that all children have basic skills in reading, writing, and math will help ensure that these kids can make better use of their "critical thinking" skills. If they can't read, then what the heck are they "thinking critically" about now?

[One educator] posed a hypothetical situation. “You are helping a bilingual, special education student from a low-income family to raise his or her score, which is currently 50. The passing score is 200, and the child’s score increases from 50 to 199. A score of 199 is a failure.”

But that student is much better off than they were when they were at 50. And would they have tried hard enough to reach 199 if the goal of 200 was not there?

So, what journalists cliches are in evidence? Quotes from testing critics, but none from testing supporters, developers, or psychometricians. Brief mention of the heavy support that NCLB receives from its penultimate consumers - parents - without any discussion of why educators are so in opposition to something that parents favor. Unsupported claims of how "learning" can't be represented by tests are presented as though they are uncontested facts. Horror stories about how gifted student funding is shrinking while barely literate kids get more time and attention, but no discussion of why there are so many barely literate kids in schools these days. And so on.

My favorite graf?

Assessment specialist Fames Popham predicted, “We will witness a growing clamor from citizens who just don’t believe their local schools are rotten....As soon as more than half the schools nationwide are labeled ineffective, then the requirements will be modified.” He recommended a public information campaign to educate citizens as to the problems with NCLB.

Got news for you, Popham, the numbers of parents who DO think schools are rotten is growing much faster than those who are complacent about it. Hence the rise in charter schools and homeschooling. What's more, parents are too smart to believe that most anti-testing educators are basing their opposition on anything other than a desire to save their own hides.

That much said, there are problems with NCLB, testing is not the same thing as education reform, and having to meet 100% of the goals is unrealistic. I've never denied that. But what the educational community doesn't seem to understand is that desperate measures tend to follow desperate times, and many, many parents of schoolchildren have, over the last 20 years, considered the state of public education to be about as desperate as it can get. Any educator who doesn't acknowledge this is not going to be taken seriously when bashing the NCLB Act.

Don't like the NCLB? Come up with something parents like better, or get the heck out of the way.

Posted by kswygert at 01:23 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Iraqi parents love standardized testing"

The Wall Street Journal has an article online (free for seven days to non-subscribers) by education maven Bill Evers. Topic: Helping revive the Iraqi educational system.

...You're a senior adviser on education for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), recruited by the White House and the office of the secretary of defense and approved by Ambassador Paul Bremer. Your five-month mission is to help revive teaching and learning in a country on the mend from a fascist despotism. What's it like?

• It's gratifying. The Iraqi children and grown-ups smile, always say "Welcome" and wave. The teachers and administrators are friendly and dedicated to academic success...Iraqi parents love standardized testing and were fervently concerned not to let either the war in March and April, or the subsequent guerrilla skirmishes, interfere with the nationwide testing program.

Emphasis mine. Wow.

• It's not Afghanistan. I saw girls in school all over Iraq. In primary school, 45% of students are girls; in secondary school, 40%...Iraq has a tradition of valuing education and a reputation for having produced, in the pre-Saddam era, some of the best architects, doctors and engineers in the Arab Middle East...

We...tried to create conditions for normal schoolwork by children and teachers. When American or international agencies wanted to impose progressive education (learn-through-play) in Iraqi schools, we reminded representatives of these agencies that Iraqis had to decide what they wanted to be taught in the schools and how it would be taught...

Religion is taught in Iraqi schools as a subject now and was taught under Saddam. If you are a Muslim, you take classes in Islam. If you are a Christian, you are excused from taking Islamic classes. If there are enough Christians in a school, a Christian teacher teaches them classes in Christianity...

Obviously, education under Saddam leaned more towards indoctrination:

Under Saddam, propaganda was in all the textbooks, even those for physics and foreign- language instruction in English. The most egregious propaganda was in history and civics books. A history book published under Saddam would say, for example, that the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was merely an instance of the warlike nature of the Persians and their eternal hostility toward the Arabs...

...we helped remove totalitarian teachings from the classrooms, helped the schools and ministry resume operations, and kept our advisory office small. Now Iraqis themselves are restructuring the ministry organization, considering decentralization plans, and holding forums on curriculum reform and the future of Iraq's school system...

...Iraqis themselves are now charting the future course of education in their country.

Yowza. Do they need psychometricians? I'm tempted to see if I can go! Rare are the opportunities for a psychometrician to make such a difference in the world.

Posted by kswygert at 01:06 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Please Don't Step on the -----

I don't get the point of this:

Zachary Tutin, a 14-year-old from north Manchester, has been made the subject of an anti-social behaviour order which prohibits him from using the word "grass", after he repeatedly abused his neighbours, claiming that they were police informers.

The order bans him from saying grass at any time in England and Wales until 2010.

A Manchester councillor, Basil Curley, said: "Tutin has acted in a thoroughly nasty and dangerous manner. This order is intended to prohibit his terrible behaviour and to protect defenceless people, especially women, against his foul-mouthed attacks.

"If he breaches this order he can be arrested and brought to court, where he could be sent to detention."

Um, okay. What does saying "grass" have to do with his anti-social behavior? How can his speech be monitored that closely? What makes the courts believe that Tutin can't use other words to harass people? This sounds like one of those goofy parlor games where people see how long they can go without saying the word "No" while everyone tries to get everyone else to say it.

Honestly, it's hard for me to understand what the first half of the article - the anti-grass rule - has to do with the conclusion:

The youth, of Blackley, was said to have waged a two-and-a-half year campaign of terror against his local community. He picked on his neighbours, swearing at them and insulting them, carrying knives and baseball bats, and stealing and damaging their property. He used other offensive words such as "slag".

He has convictions for theft and assault and has previously served a custodial sentence. He also used racist language towards an Asian shopkeeper.

With no offense towards Asians (or slags), such language should not be made illegal; among other things, such "hate speech" laws can't be fairly enforced, and they don't impact dangerous behavior anyway. Direct threats, waving weapons around, thefts, and assaults ARE illegal and actions can be taken. I won't bore you with my pro-NRA beliefs here, but it seems sad that Tutin's neighbors have no means of protection than to hope for the boy's words to be made illegal.

But "grass"? I'm mystified. Even if, as some Fark commenters claim, "grass" is slang for "police informer," the little punk can continue to terrorize his neighbors with a whole host of other words.

Posted by kswygert at 11:31 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

January 14, 2004

Malevolent Mondays

Something was in the air this past Monday; schools in Louisiana and NYC are still feeling the repercussions of it.

Two Louisiana students were arrested on counts of "terrorizing," and were allegedly planning a Columbine "anniversary" crime spree. Did the police really prevent another school shooting, or was this an over-reaction?

Poems by the pair about being bullied and numerous writings in which Levins, a senior, and Sinclair, a sophomore, refer to themselves as "The Trenchcoat Mafia" were also found, authorities said...

"We found one drawing that had the student blowing the brains out of a particular teacher," Wiley said. Another depicted Levins and Sinclair on a school roof celebrating around dead bodies hanging out of windows, officers said.

"Apparently, they were planning to wake up at 4:20 a.m. on April 20 of this year to do this," Maj. Tony Bacala said.

Authorities said said no weapons were found, although detectives did find evidence that Levins and Sinclair had obtained information on buying shotguns and rifles.

And in New York, in the wake of Mayor Bloomberg's "crackdown on classroom mayhem," there were 17 arrests in and around local schools:

In Brooklyn, an all-out brawl erupted in a high school cafeteria.

In the Bronx, a 15-year-old boy allegedly sent three safety officers to the hospital.

In Chelsea, two teenage girls were charged with assaulting a teacher. And in Harlem, gunfire erupted outside a grammar school just before classes began, sending kids, parents and teachers scurrying for cover.

Authorities were probing a fifth possible incident, as an Education Department spokeswoman said only that officials were still working "to make our schools safer."

Sounds like they've got their work cut out for them.

Posted by kswygert at 05:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

High-stakes testing and high crimes

Apparently, there's a new movie out this weekend that is probably hoping to be this decade's version of The Breakfast Club. Only this time, the Force of Evil that is banding our little group of misfits together is not an insane principal, but the SAT.

Yep, our newest teen dramedy, The Perfect Score:

A group of seven high school seniors, made up of two girls (Johansson and Christensen) and five boys (Evans, Nam and three others), decide to break into the Princeton Testing Center, so they can steal the answers to their upcoming SAT tests and all get perfect scores. Each in the group has their own set of circumstances that lead them to the conclusion that the only way to truly decide their own fate is to cheat the system. The unofficial leader of the group is Kyle, an aspiring architect who dreams of attending an Ivy League school but repeatedly scores below what is required for acceptance. He develops the plan with his best friend Matty, whose low SAT scores result in a rejection letter from Maryland, the university that his girlfriend attends. Anna, who desires to meet her parents' standard of excellence but is badly in need of some excitement, joins in and brings Desmond into the fold, the star basketball player who at the urging of his mother decides to forgo the NBA for college and needs to pass the SAT to get in. Providing the access inside the local educational testing headquarters is Fransesca, an anti-establishment girl who joins in the scheme for kicks. Completing the group is Roy, a loner who wants in on the action after accidentally overhearing the plan. Although the kids seemingly share nothing in common, they join together and while getting to know each other, discover themselves in the process.

Aw, they band together through cheating! Isn't that sweet? No, not really. It's hard to believe that, maligned though testing is, the filmmakers thought teens would flock to see a movie about misfits dealing with the SAT in this fashion. Even with cheating and larceny thrown into the picture, the SAT just isn't that exciting a topic for a movie. Stand and Deliver was the first, and probably the last, exciting movie that revolved around a standardized test, and it was a genuinely moving film (although its depiction of the ETS proctors as evil men in black was as hysterical as it was incorrect).

I particularly like this part of the description: "Each in the group has their own set of circumstances that lead them to the conclusion that the only way to truly decide their own fate is to cheat the system." Moral equivalence at its best, folks. I mean, c'mon. If you're going to break the rules, kids, do it to save someone's life, or at least do it for some reason other than give yourself a break that you don't deserve. I admit I don't have a lot of respect for teens who try to protest the exams, or downplay their utility, but I have more respect for protestors than for these inane "Fight the system" cheaters.

The standard line about cheaters is, "If they put half as much effort into studying for the exams as they do into figuring out a way to beat the exam, they'd pass it." And it's true. The SAT is not like a casino, where the deck is always stacked in favor of the house, and dumb luck is the only difference between being poor and being a millionaire. That's just what testing critics want us to believe.

That much said, I'll probably have to go see it, because I've attended many an ETS workshop on catching cheaters over the years. It'll be fun to see if the screenwriters came up with a plan that the cheaters haven't. If you ever wondered what passes for psychometric small talk at cocktail parties, cheating techniques is definitely one of the more popular topics.

Posted by kswygert at 03:52 PM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Focusing on homeschoolers and missing the problem

Michelle Malkin is in stratospheric dudgeon today, and I can't say I blame her:

New Jersey's child welfare system, like most state child welfare systems, is a corrupt and deadly mess. Children are lost in the shuffle, shipped to abusive foster homes, returned to rapists and child molesters, and left to die in closets while paperwork piles up. So who does the government decide to punish for the bureaucracy's abysmal failure to protect these innocents?


And what does the government think will solve its ills?

More power and paperwork.

Last week, a Democratic assemblywoman introduced a bill that would impose annual academic testing and annual medical exams on home-schooled students in the Garden State. Never mind a federal law that prohibits states from requiring that homeschoolers take the state assessment designed for public school students. And never mind the fact that no public or private school students are subject to such health regulations. The State Board of Education would be given unprecedented regulatory authority over homeschoolers.

I'm not aware of the federal law to which Michelle refers, but she's right about the medical exam (Update: As Daryl tactfully points out, Michelle means the NCLB Act. Doh!). And it's appalling for NJ Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg to claim that the heinous cases of foster child abuse are the rationale behind this focus on homeschoolers.

When it comes to the travesty that is NJ's foster care system, Michelle has data to back up her flaming comments:

While New Jersey politicians attempts to punish law-abiding homeschoolers for the sins of DYFS and the Jacksons, one of every 14 children in foster care in the state is placed in a home operated by someone with a criminal conviction or documented as having mistreated a child.

Moreover, according to a study released last summer by the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, one in 10 were abused or neglected by the agency caregiver and one in five didn't receive needed medical care. "The DYFS picture is not just bleak; it is one of chaos and tragedy," the report concluded. "From the reading of the disorganized and incomplete case files, to the statistical analysis of the status of children in the 'care' of DYFS, institutional abuse, neglect and ineptitude are the dominant themes."

Earth to New Jersey: "institutional abuse, neglect and ineptitude" are not the dominant themes of your state's homeschooling familes. But they are the themes of the homes in which your foster children live. Targeting homeschoolers with forced medical exams will do nothing to fix this problem.

Posted by kswygert at 02:58 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The confusing policy of tying grades to achievement

This WTOP News article intrigued me:

Montgomery County educators have approved a plan that will ease parents, teachers and administrators into a new grading system over the next five years.
According to The Washington Post, the schedule will include several checkpoints along the way.

Next year, for instance, grades will reflect only academic achievement. The following year, teachers will be asked to grade students based on how well they accomplished specific academic goals set by the county.

Under the previous policy, teachers had more liberty to set grades according to their own standards.

My first thought is - you mean grades weren't previously tied to academic achievement? What on earth could they have been tied to? Sure, I can understand a teacher wanting to give a few extra points to someone with perfect attendance and good class participation, but was subjective grading so out of hand that the county had to develop a written policy stating that grades must be based on academic achievement? Something smells fishy here.

The article ends with:

Montgomery County's Board of Education voted last March to revamp the school system's grading system, and expected to have the new system up and running within five months.

Instead, many parents, teachers and students were confused, and the policy was put on hold.

What's could be confusing about a policy stating that grades are determined solely by academic achievement? What's to confuse?

Onwards to the Washington Post:

In the 2004-05 school year, grades will reflect only academic achievement, although study skills will be noted on the report card. No bonus points for handing in a permission slip, or C's nudged up to B's just because the student tried hard. The next year, teachers will be asked to grade students based on how well they accomplished the specific academic goals the county sets for that course or grade level.

Under previous policy, teachers had more latitude to set grades according to their own standards. Under the new policy, they'll receive examples of what looks like "A" work, "B" work, and so on, said Betsy Brown, director of curriculum development.

Interesting. Did the teachers originally oppose this plan because those examples were not previously offered? Or are they not happy with the county telling them what a "A" is?

One of the fiercest criticisms of the policy as passed last year was that it did not make clear what to do about students receiving services in special education or English as a second language. Theoretically, a fifth-grader who started a term reading at the second-grade level and made great leaps to the fourth-grade level would receive a poor mark, since grades would be assigned based on fifth-grade objectives.

And there's an argument to be made for giving him that poor grade, although I admit it's not a compassionate argument. A high grade for fifth-grade work would suggest that this particular student is ready for sixth-grade work, when he may not be. Also, a policy of giving him grades for progress and effort, rather than grades reflecting achievement of a criterion-referenced standard, might move him along, but even if he continues to do well, eventually he could be receiving high marks in the 12th grade for doing 10th-grade work.

Why should he receive a high 12th-grade mark when (a) colleges are going to interpret the grade as indicating that this student can do 12th-grade work, and (b) other students might be performing 12th-grade work in a mediocre fashion, and receive lower grades? Try as I might to be understanding, I simply can't understand why two fifth-grade students, one who is reading at the fifth-grade level, and one who is reading at the fourth-grade level, should both receive passing marks.

It sounds to me like the board was trying to get everyone to agree that an A grade in fifth-grade reading means the student did A work in fifth-grade reading. Otherwise, there's no telling what it means. Apparently, though, the board has backed off from this attempt at objectivity:

Yesterday, the board accepted the committee's recommendation that such students be graded on standards set for them individually, with their report card also noting the level of achievement the student is being measured against.

The same will hold true for gifted and talented students. "If I'm a second-grader and a team has determined I should be working on the fourth-grade level on math, I can earn an A, B, C, D or E based on fourth-grade standards," Brown said.

Emphasis mine. Well, I suppose that's a compromise, and I suppose it's good that students can be held to higher standards as well as lower ones. But would this show up on a transcript? Would a 12th-grader who receives high grades for performing 9th-grade level work (because that his personal standard) be able to apply to colleges with all A's, and no information about how that student compared to other students?

And just curious - who gets to be valedictorian? The student with the highest GPA? The student with the highest GPA who was also expected to do 12th-grade work? Some very thorny issues seem involved with this setting of standards individually for students.

Posted by kswygert at 11:51 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 12, 2004

Time to call in an educational "plumber"

If there's one thing I've consistently stated here on N2P, it's that affirmative action at the college level is not only unfair, but ineffective. When AA policies are in place for college admissions, failing public high schools are off the hook for allowing students to pass through 12 years of schooling without gaining the skills needed for college.

Now, Jay Greene and Greg Forster say the same thing, only at length, and much more elegantly:

Think of the K-12 educational system as a pipeline: Students enter the pipe in preschool and, if all goes well, flow all the way through and out the other end into college. But some students "leak" out of the pipeline by dropping out of school or failing to acquire college-ready skills. And when it comes to minority students, the pipe is currently so leaky that only a trickle of those students flow into college. Expanding affirmative action policies and financial assistance is like opening the spigot at the end of the pipe wider: It's beside the point if the pipe is leaking badly. We can beef up affirmative action all we like and it won't increase the flow of minority students into college, because the K-12 system just doesn't produce enough college-ready high school graduates.

For students to be able to attend virtually any four-year college, they need to graduate from high school, have a set of required courses on their high school transcripts and demonstrate basic literacy. The shocking reality is that fewer than one in five minority students has passed these three hurdles and is thus "college ready."

According to Green and Forster's numbers (taken from the US Census), there were approximately 218,000 minority students in 2000 who (a) graduated from high school, (b) passed a literacy exam, and (c) took college preparatory courses. But in that same year, 244,000 minority students were admitted to four-year colleges. The numbers refute the claim (made by affirmative action supporters) that AA remains a necessity for some hypothetical large body of qualified-yet-overlooked minority candidates. If anything, the numbers suggest that all qualified minority students, and some who are not qualified, are admitted to college (my guess is there are plenty of "non-minority" admittees who are underprepared as well).

The only strategy that can meaningfully improve minority representation in higher education is to improve the quality of the K-12 education system so that it produces more college-ready minority students. We might disagree about how the K-12 system can best be improved, but we should stop wasting our energies on heated debates over affirmative action and focus them on the source of the problem. Unless we fix the leaks in the K-12 education pipeline, no higher education policy can possibly improve minority opportunities to attend college.

Posted by kswygert at 09:16 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The faces of the future

Completely off-topic - I couldn't help but notice this stunning photo of Sabine Herold, French libertarian activist and all-around brainy beauty, on Instapundit today. Glenn also linked to a page on Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose courage and debating skills are matched only by her brilliant smile.

These two photos reminded me of a paragraph from an old essay by satirist and uber-Libertarian P.J. O'Rourke. The paragraph comes from Parliament of Whores; O'Rourke had attended a "Housing Now!" rally in which the primary cry of the attendees seemed to be, "Give us money now!" O'Rourke's friend posited an interesting theory about the relationship of feminine beauty and the cultural zeitgeist:

"Best of all, there were hardly any beautiful women at the [Housing Now!] rally. I saw a journalist friend of mine in the Mall, and he and I purused this line of inquiry as assiduously as our happy private lives allow. Practically every female at the march was a bowser. "We're not being sexist here," my friend insisted. "It's not that looks matter per se. It's just that beautiful women are always on the cutting edge of social trends. Remember how many beautiful women were in the anti-war movement twenty years ago? In the yoga classes fifteen years ago? At the discos ten years ago? On Wall Street five years ago? Where the beautiful women are is where the country is headed," said my friend. "And this," he looked around him, "isn't it."

Sabine and Ayaan are, I hope, the future of France and Holland. Contrast their intelligence and courage in dealing with difficult realities with the boneheaded approach of these ladies, who seem to believe that peeling off their clothes is all it takes to free the victims of oppression worldwide. Don't miss the comments.

Posted by kswygert at 04:18 PM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

The benefits of bullying

And speaking of bogus self-esteem, one reason that bullying is so entrenched in the school system might be that bullies derive a bogus, but gratifying, sense of power and popularity from it:

"Bullying Among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak and the Troubled" was published in the December issue of the magazine Pediatrics.

Dr Juvonen's research found that bullies were admired by their peers, and thus felt good about themselves. Bullies are popular because their dominance earns them respect among the general student population who tend not to sympathise with the victims, the study found.

"They don't show any signs whatsoever of depression, loneliness or anxiety," Dr Juvonen said. "They look even healthier than the socially adjusted kids who are not involved in the bullying"...

The study defines bullying as "starting fights and pushing other kids around", "putting down and making fun of others" and "spreading nasty rumours about others".

Most anti-bullying programs in schools were based on the belief that bullies picked on others because they had low self-esteem, Dr Juvonen said. Attention should focus on how to discourage support for bullying behaviour by other students, she said.

In other words, let's help shore up the kids who aren't bullies, instead of focusing our attention on "helping" the kids who are.

Posted by kswygert at 04:03 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the cult of "self-esteem"

Blockbuster article in the Winter 2004 edition of City Journal: "Self-Reliance vs. Self-Esteem," by Michael Knoz Beran. It's hard to summarize, given the length and complexity of the article, but I'll quote a few key paragraphs:

In its emphasis on self-knowledge gained through the study of poetry and heroes, Emerson’s idea of self-reliance is poles apart from the modern notion of self-esteem. He believed, as most Americans do, that there is in every man a restless desire to better himself, along with an innate desire to transcend unworthy impulses. The modern school of self-esteem, however, sees no need to transcend, no reason to make what Emerson called an “effort at the perfect”—to find out the best and strongest places in one’s soul. The modern proponents of self-esteem argue that the undeveloped self, however callow, should be praised as it is. In contrast to Emerson’s work, the primitivist ethic of the self-esteem movement promotes not the discovery but the abdication of the self...

Once the Deweyesque seed—which Paul Goodman described in 1960 as...“permissiveness in all animal behavior and interpersonal expression”—was planted in the home-economics classroom, the idea of public education as a process of helping young minds discover the best that is within them through exposure to the best that has been thought, said, and done came to an end. The older model of education gave way to a therapeutic approach, which culminated in the establishment, in California, of a legislative task force to promote self-esteem by, among other things, weaving it into the state’s “total education program.” Despite unremitting ridicule, other states adopted the California model for their own schools, and before long, conservative columnist John Leo was describing self-esteem pedagogy as “the dominant educational theory in the country.” By now it has pervaded every corner of educational theory; a recent search of the education-journal literature turned up over 5,000 articles that focused on self-esteem...

The notion that if you feel good about yourself you will be able to achieve something worthwhile, though it contains a grain of truth, puts the cart before the horse. The soundest foundation of self-esteem is genuine achievement, and numerous studies have shown no measurable benefit from the self-esteem movement in the schools. Even so, under the banner of self-esteem, schools have dumbed down their curricula, ended gifted-and-talented programs, stopped tracking kids, emphasized Dewey-style group projects and groupthink rather than individual achievement, and done away with valedictorians—because rewarding success might make some kids feel bad. Yet if the pupil is continually made to feel good about his unformed self—in all its narrowness of horizon and aspiration—what becomes of the quintessential American faith that a boy can be born in a log cabin, learn his sums by the light of the fireplace, and grow up to be president—or be born in a Harlem tenement, and grow up to be secretary of state?

True, Emerson did use the word “self-esteem” (so did Milton in Paradise Lost). But how fallen and changed is the educrats’ version of the concept! Emerson argued that such esteem is justified only where a person has done the hard work of developing a self worthy to be esteemed: such esteem must, in Milton’s words, be “grounded on just and right / Well manag’d. . . .” By contrast, the modern philosophers of self-esteem encourage a complacent adoration of the unperfected self.

Posted by kswygert at 02:56 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Spammers blocked (I hope)

Changes have been made the comment functionality. MT-Blacklist has been installed. If any of you non-spammers try to post a comment and can't do so, please email me at kimberly-at-kimberlyswygert-dot-com and let know.

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From bad standards to a worse test

Both the Catholic School Blogger and ReformK12 recount the "horror story" of changes to the Algebra I curriculum, as described by a student at Montgomery Blair high school in Maryland.

Bottom line: The Maryland State Dept. of Education wrote a new set of standards that "take the algebra out of algebra," according to one critic. The statewide test (the High School Assessment, or HSA) was then re-written to match the new standards. Schools such as Montgomery Blair re-wrote the curriculum to match the tests. And the response of teacher at the Blair school (which, if the online newspaper is any indication, is a top-notch school) is overwhelmingly negative:

Concerned about her students’ performance, Pre-Calculus teacher Julie Greenberg asked her colleagues via email about the competency of their current students. Forty teachers responded, 29 of whom indicated that their students were "less competent" than those of their earliest teaching experience. The majority of those 29 cited basic algebra skills as the root of their students’ deficiencies...

One of the main complaints about the new MCPS algebra curriculum is the emphasis on data analysis, a topic that was not included in Algebra I until the introduction of the HSA. Costello considers data analysis to be displacing some of the algebra topics that used to be covered. "The new Algebra I curriculum consists of 45 percent data analysis," said Costello. Fourteen of the teachers who responded to Greenberg "explicitly criticized" the algebra curriculum’s emphasis on data analysis.

Data analysis represents one of the seven Algebra I units, and that unit takes less time than most of the other units, said MCPS Mathematics Instructional Specialist Lauren Duff. However, MCPS documentation for the Algebra I curriculum recommends spending six weeks on the "Data Analysis and Probability" unit, more time than on any of the remaining six units in the curriculum.

The battle lines in mathematics education appear to be drawn, with the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics (who guided the development of the new math standards) on one side, and those who believe in teaching fundamental skills on the other side.

Many believe that this problem is not only limited to Algebra I and other courses with HSA requirements, but that it is a symptom of a larger movement in math instruction that spans K-12.

According to [Montgomery County Gifted and Talented Association president]Hoven and [University of Maryland Associate Professor of Mathematics] Dancis, math curriculum and instruction have been factionalized into two sides of a "math war." One side is represented by the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), who, according to Hoven, "wants to emphasize geometry vocabulary and fake data analysis." The other side, according to Dancis, is represented by people like Hoven and Magnet calculus teacher Eric Walstein, who advocate for teaching methods that promote a deep understanding of material. According to Hoven, MCPS has "enthusiastically" embraced NCTM’s goals.

Walstein believes that this new instruction is preventing students from learning fundamental math concepts which are needed to understand higher level material. "The kids are not learning the foundations of the material. They’re just sitting and memorizing formulas, and they don’t have any idea what it means," said Walstein.

"It all relates to one word…intuition. The kids just memorize, and they can’t intuit anything," said Walstein. "The things that should come out of their heads automatically are just not there," agreed Costello.

Walstein cited the increased use of calculators in MCPS curriculum as an example of this problem. "If students can just punch things into a calculator, and it spits out the answer, that’s not math. They’re not learning anything," said Walstein. While Walstein believes that calculators should be used in certain circumstances, they are not a substitute for understanding the material.

Mathematically Correct has a good summary of a set of sound mathematical standards that go from kindergarten through Geometry. The website also provides a link to a scathing critique of the NCTM standards. Key comments (with respect to revisions to the NCTM standards in 2000):

The NCTM has toned down the constructivist language, but they still stress content-independent "process skills" and student-centered "discovery learning". Similar to the NCTM Standards, PSSM emphasizes manipulatives, calculator skills, student-invented methods, and simple-case methods.

Although PSSM contains five "Connections" sections, there continues to be no acknowledgement of the vertically-structured nature of mathematics. Mastery of math requires a step-by-step build up (in the brain) of specific content knowledge. PSSM omits this aspect of the "connections" within mathematics...

Each of the following skills serves as a preskill for acquiring all higher skills. To move up to the next skill level, the student must remember all preskills.

The ability to instantly recall basic multiplication facts
The ability to factor integers
The ability to reduce a fraction to lowest terms.

The NCTM says they want to maximize "understanding", but they still fail to recognize that specific math content must first be stored in the brain as a necessary precondition for understanding to occur. Although rarely the preferred method, intentional memorization is sometimes the most efficient approach. The first objective is to get it into the brain! Then newly remembered math knowledge can be connected to previously remembered math knowledge and understanding becomes possible. You have to "know math" before you can "understand math", "do math", or "solve math problems."

Also mentioned is an article by Berkeley Professor of Mathematics H. Wu about the "false dichotomy" in mathematics education:

Education seems to be plagued by false dichotomies. Until recently, when research and common sense gained the upper hand, the debate over how to teach beginning reading was characterized by many as "phonics vs. meaning." It turns out that, rather than a dichotomy, there is an inseparable connection between decoding—what one might call the skills part of reading—and comprehension. Fluent decoding, which for most children is best ensured by the direct and systematic teaching of phonics and lots of practice reading, is an indispensable condition of comprehension. -Wu, Page 1

"Facts vs. higher order thinking" is another example of a false choice that we often encounter these days, as if thinking of any sort—high or low—could exist outside of content knowledge. In mathematics education, this debate takes the form of “basic skills or conceptual understanding.” This bogus dichotomy would seem to arise from a common misconception of mathematics held by a segment of the public and the education community: that the demand for precision and fluency in the execution of basic skills in school mathematics runs counter to the acquisition of conceptual understanding. The truth is that in mathematics, skills and understanding are completely intertwined. In most cases, the precision and fluency in the execution of the skills are the requisite vehicles to convey the conceptual understanding. There is not 'conceptual understanding' and 'problem-solving skill' on the one hand and 'basic skills' on the other. Nor can one acquire the former without the latter. - Wu, Page 1

And speaking of "false dichotomies," there are, unsurprisingly, comments following the original SilverChips article that make the following assumption: On one side is genuine learning and a set of meaningful standards; on the other side are bad standards and all high-stakes tests.

Although the tests in this Maryland case are compounding the problem, the tests aren't at the heart of the problem. Yes, a test based on poor standards will not help education; in fact, it will probably make matters worse. But this is not evidence that high-stakes testing is necessarily flawed. The problem here is the set of standards, not the test.

Posted by kswygert at 02:08 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Something's working, but we're not sure what...

Two elementary schools in Athens, GA, have recently raised their standardized test scores, and I'm sure they'd be happy to let us in on the secrets of their success - if they could only agree on what those are:

Something seems to be working at Chase Street and Gaines elementary schools - even though educators can't be sure what it is yet. A comparison of standardized test scores at both schools - which are part of a community partnership with the University of Georgia - shows greater improvement in reading, math and language arts than the district average...

Between spring 2002 and 2003, the average math score for Chase Street fourth-graders climbed 12 points, while the average score at Gaines went up 15.5 points. During the same time period, the district average increased by about 5.5 points. In reading, the Chase average score increased almost 9 points and the Gaines average increased by almost 7 points, while the district average remained stable...

Chase Street is just completing a three-year program focusing on math, while Gaines has had reading and literacy grants in recent years.

''We have concentrated on language arts,'' Gaines Principal Phyllis Stewart said. ''We're doing a lot of assessment and adjusting our instruction based on those assessments. It really makes a difference, because we're able to see the gaps and focus in with appropriate instruction.''

All Gaines classes are required to write every day, allowing them to combine reading with other skills such as revision and proofreading. The emphasis is on a whole method of instruction coming together, not fragmented pieces, Stewart said.

At Chase, teachers have a half-day each of professional training in math and reading instruction every month - one of the ways the school has tried to boost achievement, Principal Robert Bluett said.

Emphasis mine, above. Although any cause-and-effect relationship could have been more easily assessed if teaching changes had been made one at a time, I can understand why they didn't do that. It's probably not yet time to celebrate, either - but these results do look pretty good.

Posted by kswygert at 01:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Heavyweight readers come out swinging

There's a real Clash of the Titans going on right now, and no, I don't mean the battle for the NFC title. I mean the battle for the title of "Reading Capital of the World."

In one corner, we have the heavyweight champion, Tifton, Georgia. In the other corner, the up-and-coming contender, Akron, Ohio.

Let the battle begin!

If Akron wants to proclaim itself the "Reading Capital of the World,'' we've got a tough little opponent. That title belongs to Tifton, Ga., population 15,060...

Akron intends to plant a flag of its own beginning Wednesday, when residents will pause from 11 to 11:30 a.m. to read. The event will launch a wide-ranging campaign to improve literacy at every level, to make reading a bedrock of our civic culture.

There are some who believe that 30 minutes alone will be enough for us Yankees to snatch the slogan. There are some who do not.

When news of Akron's challenge reached Terri Nalls, a school librarian known around Tifton as the "Reading Angel,'' she paused, and the sweetness in her voice took a decided edge.

"How big are y'all?'' she asked.

Part of Tifton's reputation hangs on a November 2000 event at the town's football stadium, when 7,500 people read together for one minute. Akron should be able to handle that number easily. But let's talk percentages. The number of readers in that stadium represented half the city's population. For Akron to make a similar claim, we'd need more than 108,000. And even that won't be enough to convince the Reading Angel.

Tifton's reading effort began in 1996. The Tift County Foundation for Educational Excellence, an organization of relatively modest means (the current budget is $95,000), made a grant to the primary school where Nalls worked as a library media specialist.

The money was used to buy tests for a program called Accelerated Reader, in which schoolchildren read books, then take computer reading-comprehension tests. For each test they pass, they're awarded points. The simplest books start at half a point; War and Peace is worth 130 points.

Nalls hoped the students in her school might pass 1,000 tests in the first year.

"They passed 1,000 tests the first month,'' she said.

There was something about the immediate feedback of the test and the sense of self-challenge that took hold. Children began coming to school early to read. They took extra books home. A first-grader who'd had behavior problems got hooked on Accelerated Reader. After his sixth test in one day, he turned to Nalls, smiled and said, "I thought I couldn't read.''

Rock on (oh yes, the emphasis on the pro-testing statement above is mine). I consider this a great rebuttal to all those "educators" and agitators who believe that kids wilt like souffles under any sort of challenge or standard, or who believe that testing is mutually exclusive from a solid education in reading skills.

Tifton's response? Higher standards, and more tests. Heh.

After the early success of Accelerated Reader, the foundation began granting money to expand the program to Tift County's 11 public schools and one private school.

But even that wasn't enough. The popularity of the tests spread beyond the school walls. Adults joined in, and Tifton residents began talking about the rising collective point total, and the number of books being read to achieve it...

Brumby decided to set a bar for success...Tifton would try to score 1 million Accelerated Reader points. Two other specific goals were set: to increase library circulation by 50 percent and to increase Iowa Basic reading test scores by 25 percent. The deadline was the end of 2000....

And the goals were met.

Library circulation is up 130%. The one longitudinal test score comparison that was possible showed an increase of 14.3% in reading scores across all grade levels. On November 15th, 2000, 7500 people filled a stadium in order to participate in a synchronized reading (of The Cat in The Hat, in case you were wondering). Supporters of the program claim that it is now the "in-thing" for parents to read to their kids at home.

Akron, I hope you're ready. The citizens of Tifton obviously relish the idea of a challenge.

Posted by kswygert at 11:24 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Light bloggage today

Not sure how much I'll be able to post today. Not only is work piled up, but I might have to head home soon to meet a plumber. It seems there's a leak underneath my dishwasher - probably caused by the cold weather - that's dripping down through the basement ceiling, and now there's a skating rink in my garage. Gah. As though it wasn't bad enough that the below-zero temps have created negative humidity in my house. I've been slathering myself with body lotion, yet my skin is still so dry and pebbly that the mere sight of me is enough to cause lizards to become sexually aroused.

And speaking of reptiles, don't try to save money by doing this, okay? Snakes have a way of effecting instant karma.

Now THIS, on the other hand, is a smart way to save money.

Posted by kswygert at 10:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 09, 2004

How to keep kids motivated - and incompetent

I'd say more about this McLean's article that bemoans the return of letter grades in Canadian schools, but there's no need to. Joanne Jacobs summed up neatly, with one perfect analogy, the reality that eludes the head-in-the-sand educators who believe that grades are harmful for kids:

Grades aren't measures of intelligence or potential; they're sign posts on a journey. If the sign says you're 100 miles from Chicago, that's where you are right now. You have to decide whether you want to go to Chicago or Peoria or somewhere else. You can take down the sign. But you're not in Chicago.

Okay, I lied - not about Joanne's analogy, which is perfect, but about my avowal to not say more about this article, which contains quotes and conclusions that are breathtaking in their wrong-headedness:

The [new] program test-drives an innovative approach to student assessment, one that dispenses with grades. Instead, it focuses on the developmental stages in learning, measuring student progress in terms of how well kids apply what they've learned...Kristine Daigle, whose daughter is in Grade 1 at nearby St. Lambert Elementary School, says the new system gives parents "too much information."

As though that were possible.

The evaluations are "supposed to encourage the student and not give them negative feedback," she says, "but I don't know where my kid stands." At first [fellow parent] Gaudreault shared that feeling. "I missed the marks -- we grew up on that, and every parent wants to know where their child lies in the classroom," she says. "But how important is that, really?"

I take it this means Ms. Gaudrealt wouldn't want to know if her kids were doing vastly worse - or better - than the other kids? If so, why not? Is any sort of ranking system "elitist" by default?

Grades, it seems, can be highly deceptive. But they also have amazing cachet -- especially in today's achievement-oriented education system. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, when many teachers embraced a "child-centred learning" approach, letter grades often gave way to descriptive comments about a student's progress. But the culture has since shifted, and now educational "outcomes" are what drive the system. This means that, in the past two decades, teachers have become increasingly beholden to a battery of provincial and national standardized tests that are all about raising -- and ranking -- the performance of kids, schools and provinces. And parents have been clamouring for clear, concise information about where their kids stand.

Gee, you think the fact that parents want clear information about how their kids are doing in school, as opposed to edu-school psychobabble about progress, could account for that new "cachet"?

...if [instead of giving a grade] a teacher emphasizes what the child does well -- writing "elefant" isn't necessarily evidence of failure but of successfully sounding out a word -- the child knows she's on the right track.

Does it really matter if the kid is on the right track if she still doesn't know how to spell the word? She's still hampered in her ability to communicate until the teacher corrects her. And how does one tell the kid that she's spelling the word wrong without in some way pointing out that she "failed" to spell it right?

Gah. Once I got to the point where Alfie Kohn is quoted as a "award-winning author" and one parent insists that her child's all-C report card proves that he isn't "an approval junkie," I couldn't take it any more. Those of you with the stomach to read the whole thing are welcome to do so (as for my stomach, it's very glad that the GI specialist I frequent was in fact an "approval junkie" in med school).

At its most basic level, the article seems to be about nothing other than justifying the wacky ideas of adults who are convinced that kids cannot cope with being told they did something incorrectly. Given that childhood is pretty much one big experiment of what works and what doesn't in the real world, it seems rotten not to tell kids when they've done something that didn't work. And all this blather about making sure a kid who can't spell knows she's "on the right track" won't do anything to fix that unless the teacher is willing to point out that the kid still has the wrong answer.

Posted by kswygert at 05:22 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Hey! Has she ever taken a networking class?

Best of the Web isn't letting up on the story of Carl Grimmer vs. pompous computer "teacher" Beverly Sweeney. First up, quotes from an email the BOtW received from reader and comp sci teacher T.J. Miller:

In the interest of brevity, what kind of incompetence dictates that a school computer science class leave its workstations so wide open to the school network? As a basic standard, I have my classroom network tightly controlled with both proxy and firewall servers (old Linux-based computers, so they cost approximately $0) betwixt classroom and school network, so that any experiments gone awry (or any boneheaded actual hacking attempts) get stopped cold before even leaving the classroom.

Personally, and this is merely the humble opinion of a computer science teacher who has "real world" real-world experience as a systems administrator: if anyone is at fault here, it is either the school network admin, or the computer science teacher who was too ignorant of actual networking to prevent something so easily preventable.

And why would we assume Ms. Sweeney is ignorant of networking? Could it be, as her webpage points out, that none of her degrees are in computer science? Her certifications are listed as being in "Web Design, Digital Graphics, Desktop Publishing, Video Production, and Multimedia," which suggests that she knows how to use a lot of graphics software, but not that she knows anything about how computer programs and computer networks actually work.

BOtW just doesn't let up:

But here's something really chilling. Scroll down further, below the bio, and you find a shockingly violent image: a "cartoon" of a poorly dressed man smashing a computer terminal with a spiked club. Below it is the caption "Sometimes this is how we feel!!!"

In this post-Columbine age, it is appalling that an adult in a position of responsibility would encourage impressionable children to solve their problems with violence. Oh sure, maybe today they're just smashing computers, but who's to say they won't be beating the dog tomorrow or shooting up the school the day after? We certainly hope the Birdville School District will take swift disciplinary action against Ms. Sweeney for this shocking abuse of authority.

Posted by kswygert at 04:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

I left my heart in Ms. Smith's biology class

And speaking of overly-restrictive school policies, school board members in Fox Chapel, PA, may soon be scrambling to create one.

Then again, perhaps, "No cadavers or body parts can be brought to Show And Tell" isn't too limiting:

A parent brought the arm of a human cadaver to school Tuesday in Fox Chapel, then opened it up during a discussion about surgery. A fifth-grader fainted.

Dr. Michael Horowitz, a neurosurgeon who has a child in the school, performed the demonstration.

Some parents complained and officials in the district near Pittsburgh promised a review.

Horowitz, who showed students the location of nerves and other parts of the arm, said he was surprised by the complaints.

He's done similar lectures at the school with eyes, ears and a brain. And no one's ever complained before.

Perhaps because they were all out cold?

Posted by kswygert at 03:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Remarkably, he had nothing to declare

Here's one way to avoid those long lines at the security checkpoints in airports.

Love the little detail about him being cornered near a beignet shop. Perhaps police were able to grab him at that point because he was covered in confectioner's sugar?

Posted by kswygert at 03:01 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Finally, a little litigant I can support

Early last year, I wasn't blogging about any zero-tolerance scandals on N2P; hence, I missed this story about Alan Newsom, the 12-year-old sixth-grader at Jack Jouett Middle School, in Albermarle County, Virginia. Why blog about him now?

Well, Dave Kopel of National Review Online summarizes the events of last April:

Alan Newsom was a sixth-grader at Jack Jouett Middle School, in Albermarle County, Virginia. In April 2002, he was having lunch in the cafeteria, wearing a T-shirt bearing the words "NRA Shooting Sports Camp." The T-shirt showed three silhouettes of men aiming their firearms — one each for rifle, shotgun, and pistol, the three broad categories of the shooting sports.

An assistant principal noticed the shirt, and felt reminded of Columbine, since both the T-shirt and Columbine involved "sharpshooters"...

The assistant principal ordered Newsom to remove the T-shirt, or turn it inside out. She told him that the T-shirt was inappropriate because it had "pictures of men shooting guns." She threatened Newsom with suspension if he refused to comply.

Newsom's parents contacted the NRA, and NRA staff attorney Daniel Zavadil took their case at no charge.

And guess what? There was nothing in the dress code banning guns or other weapons on t-shirts - but the school quickly tried to fix that. Problem is, they "fixed" it by instituting a laughable ban on any images of weaponry, and their hasty manuevers didn't sit too well in court:

In the case of Newsom v. Albermarle County School Board the Fourth Circuit ruled 3-0 in favor of a public-school student's First Amendment right to wear a shirt from an NRA shooting-sports camp. The unanimous panel rejected the school's preposterous argument that banning the shirt was necessary for school safety...

The school soon discovered [after the threat of suspension was made] that Newsom's shirt was entirely legal under the school's existing dress code, which banned messages on clothing which related to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sex, or vulgarity, or which "reflected adversely" on a person's race or ethnicity. So the school added a dress-code amendment which banned "messages on clothing, jewelry, and personal belongings that relate to...weapons." The NRA filed suit on Newsom's behalf in September 2002, after the school refused to stop its unconstitutional suppression of student speech.

In December 2002, the federal district court for the western district of Virginia denied Newsom's motion for a preliminary injunction (an order for the school to respect his free speech rights, pending final resolution of the case). Newsom appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court, and on December 1, 2003, ruled 3-0 that Newsom was entitled to a preliminary injunction...

The school district essentially tried to turn the clock back to before the civil-rights era. It argued that the T-shirt was conduct, not speech, and therefore not entitled to any First Amendment protection. But several cases, including Tinker, have recognized that messages can be communicated through clothing; Tinker, after all, involved black arm bands with no words.

The school district alleged that the NRA shooting-sports camp T-shirt was disruptive, although there was no evidence to support the claim. Apparently the only person at the school who felt disturbed by seeing the T-shirt in April 2002 was the prejudiced assistant principal...

Supposedly, only the image (shown here) was the problem, but the school's reaction to an NRA offer belies that theory:

Actually, at the district-court level, the school's attorney had told the court that the only problem with the T-shirt was the picture, not the words. The NRA immediately offered to settle the case, if the school would certify that students could wear words-only NRA clothing that did not depict gun use. The school district refused. Clearly the school's aim was to prevent a student from even wearing a lapel pin with the words "National Rifle Association."

Pah. If Newsom's t-shirt was offensive or damaging to other students, then so is this. And a t-shirt with the State Seal of Virginia on it, or a photo of the mascot of the high school directly across the street from Jack Jouett Middle School, would be as well.

The Volokh Conspiracy is happy with the ruling, and quotes two paragraphs from the court ruling that reveal the school's hasty ban on weapon imagery for the waste of time that it is:

Turning to the language of the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code [which bans "messages on clothing, jewelry, and personal belongings that relate to . . . weapons"], when we examine the code in view of the fact that there was no evidence presented at the preliminary injunction stage of the case demonstrating that clothing worn by students at Jouett containing messages related to weapons, nonviolent, nonthreatening, or otherwise, ever substantially disrupted school operations or interfered with the rights of others, the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code can be understood as reaching lawful, nonviolent, and nonthreatening symbols of not only popular, but important organizations and ideals. For example, the State Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia depicts a woman standing with one foot on the chest of a vanquished tyrant, holding a spear. The symbol obviously depicts a woman holding a weapon. Thus, under the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code, a student may not wear or carry any items bearing the State Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Likewise, the symbol of the University of Virginia’s athletic mascot -- the Cavalier -- is two crossed sabers. This symbol also relates to weapons. According to the Virginia Attorney General, the symbol is used throughout Charlottesville to direct visitors to the university’s football stadium and other facilities and simply to promote the university’s athletics. Ironically, Albemarle County High School, which is located across the street from Jack Jouett Middle School, uses the image of a patriot armed with a musket as its own mascot. Various clothing depicting support for the University of Virginia and Albemarle County High School by way of the schools’ mascots would be banned under the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code.

Aside from these non-controversial symbols, the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code would apparently distinguish between a t-shirt bearing a peace sign and the message "No War" and one with a picture of an army tank in desert camouflage that urges support for our troops. Similarly, it would prevent a student from wearing a t-shirt bearing the insignia of many of the fighting units engaged in overseas operations in which parents or siblings may serve. Banning support for or affiliation with the myriad of organizations and institutions that include weapons (displayed in a nonviolent and nonthreatening manner) in their insignia can hardly be deemed reasonably related to the maintenance of a safe or distraction-free school. Finally, the quintessential political message the school here is trying to promote -- "Guns and School Don’t Mix" -- would, under a reasonable interpretation, be prohibited on clothing under the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code.

Bottom line? A black eye for the school, and a victory for the kid and the NRA. And, I hope, a lesson in constitutional law for that hapless assistant principal.

Posted by kswygert at 02:34 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Explaining school reform to the masses

The blog ReformK12 has the motto: "Because education reform is not rocket science!" I didn't know about this blog until my trackback indicators let me know it were linking to me. I particularly like this entry on "Urban Fatalism":

We've been teaching in the inner city for the better part of a decade, and we can tell you firsthand the "soft bigotry of low expectations" is alive and well.

As we've mentioned before in "Changing what we can change," part of the problem is the overwhelmingly common viewpoint that much of a child's success in public school depends on the efforts of the parents. We're not talking about choice, instead we mean motivation.

The attitude is: "If, for whatever reason, minority students in poor neighborhoods don't seem to have a lot of motivation to do well in school, well there's not much we can do about that, is there?" Along with "lack of motivation," a phrase that too many urban educations feel comfortable using is "they can't."

Just a few days ago in the hallways of an inner-city high school we had two separate conversations with educators. The first said, "There's only so much you can do, being that most parents just don't care." The second said (about students' paper-and-pencil computation skills), "They just can't compute without a calculator. They just can't."

We're not sure exactly from whence these low expectations come, but they are here in force.

A teacher saying that kids "just can't" compute numbers? I suppose it would be rude to point out to this "educator" that it's the function of the school system to teach student these skills. If students cannot learn, why are we paying teacher salaries?

The post then provides a wealth of links to the Cranky Professor and Joanne Jacobs, among others. And don't miss the success story of Marva Collins:

And there's the story of Marva Collins, who formed her own school, initially with students who were considered by others to be "uneducable." Years later, after stellar success with ever increasing numbers of students, critics accused her of being selective of the students she admitted into her school, implying "creaming." They were correct about one thing. She was selective--she picked the biggest challenges, the most "hard-luck" cases to come her way!

And she had amazing success.

I'll be adding ReformK12 to my daily-read bookmark list.

Posted by kswygert at 11:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

An end to social promotion in NYC

This New York Post headline, like all its headlines, is blaring and catchy: "No More Free 'Pass' For Students."

Mayor Bloomberg yesterday announced a new program to end "social promotion" starting with third-graders - and as many as 15,000 could be left back this year. "It's time to . . . recommit to our goal of a quality education for every student," Bloomberg said in his State of the City Address.

"And that's why, this year, for third-graders, we're putting an end to the discredited practice of social promotion," he vowed...
Bloomberg said that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will provide details of the plan next Thursday. But a spokesman for the Department of Education said yesterday that decisions about whether a third-grader will move to the next grade will be based on test performance.

Eight- and 9-year-olds now take standardized tests for the first time in third grade. Bloomberg's crackdown - which will affect third-graders in the current school year - could result in thousands of pupils being left back.

Officials estimate that at least 20 percent - or more than 15,000 pupils - would repeat in the first year of the plan. That's quadruple the current figure.

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten said the mayor's plan must be matched with extra resources. "You can't just do a do-over. It has to be a real lowering of class size, real extra supports and teachers who are skilled in how you really ramp things up," she said.

I agree completely that teachers can't be left out of the loop, either skills-wise or financially. But if 20% of NYC's third-graders are already so far behind that they need to repeat the grade, that's a problem that needs to be fixed.

The New York Times has more:

The plan is intended to make sure that even 8-year-olds are performing at an acceptable level before they move on to higher grades. It is another change undertaken by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in his effort to overhaul the city's public schools.

The city would rely on standardized reading and math tests that children would take for the first time in the third grade. Those who scored in Level 1, the lowest of four rankings, would automatically be held back starting in June, city officials said. The plan could affect about 15,000 of the current 74,000 third graders, officials said...

Currently, teachers decide whether to promote students based on grades, test scores and attendance, and principals approve those decisions. The new standards announced yesterday are focused on the third grade, which Mr. Bloomberg said is a critical year...

Even under the new criteria, pupils who score below grade level on the standardized tests can still be promoted provided they are not in Level 1. Of last year's nearly 79,000 third graders, more than 27,000 failed the citywide reading test and more than 17,000 failed the math test but might still have been promoted.

Not all educators agree that holding students back is beneficial. Forcing students to repeat grades is enormously expensive, and some education experts say that being left back among younger students can actually hinder a student's performance over the long term. Researchers say that students who repeat a grade are much more likely to drop out of school and that those who repeat more than one grade are almost certain to drop out.

Nonetheless, many school districts and even some states, including Florida, have toughened their standards for promotion in recent years, holding back students in a practice that education experts call "grade retention."...

Randi Weingarten, the president of the city teachers' union, said that teachers had long supported ending social promotion and that her union would help implement the plan. She also said that the effort would prove expensive because it demands smaller classes and more individual instruction.

So the teachers are on his side, eh? As long as they get more money, that is.

Posted by kswygert at 11:30 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Median madness

Education professor Fred Hess needs a new lesson in statistics. In this article on standardized testing and the NCLB, Dr. Hess rails about the misuse of testing in schools today:

"There are serious problems in the legislation, and that was recognized when Congress passed the bill," said Education Prof. Fred Hess, director of NU's Center for Urban School Policy. "But while it's inevitable that this legislation will be amended, I doubt it will go away...

[In response to a comment about the extra funding that has been made available to schools] Hess said some of the act's problems go beyond funding. The tests being used are formulated so that 50 percent of the test-takers will fall below the median score -- in effect setting school districts up for failure no matter how much preparation students receive, he said.

Emphasis mine. I'd like to believe that the reporter printed this boneheaded statement in an effort to expose Dr. Hess's lack of understanding of statistics, but I doubt it.

Dr. Hess, and all reporters, listen up. The median is defined as the point at which 50% of the distribution falls below and 50% above. It is the midpoint of the data. It is impossible to design a test in which fewer than 50% of examinees score below the median.

Besides being defined inaccurately, the reference to the median here is a non-sequitur. Test scores will always fall in a distribution. A good school will produce a large number of students who score above a certain standard, or cutpoint, and a good school may produce students whose median test score is greater than the national median. But no school is judged a failure because 50% of its students score below the school median.

[Addendum: As two readers have already pointed out, fewer than 50% could score below the median if (a) everyone made the same score, or if (b) there were an odd number of scores with the middle score being the median. In the second case, though, the number of scores above and below the median would approach 50% as the total number of scores grew; regardless, I doubt Prof. Hess had either of these two situations in mind.]

Posted by kswygert at 11:27 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Indiana's debate over special ed students and testing

Indiana's Chronicle-Tribunes states that educators are "divided" over the treatment of special education students by the NCLB Act:

Special education students have for years avoided taking grade-level exams and, instead, have taken alternative exams that measure their progress toward individual academic goals.

But the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in January 2002, requires all students, even those with serious learning disabilities, to pass the same reading and math tests as other students their age.

The goal: to ensure that even disabled students become proficient in those subjects.

"There is no doubt that we have much work to do in the area of special education to make sure students are taught the very same curriculum that they are assessed on," said Lynn Gosser, director of the Grant County Special Education Cooperative...

Although the gaps are smaller in lower grades, by the 10th grade, they are in the double digits...Those numbers prompted Gosser to send a letter to the Indiana Department of Education last October requesting a change in the accountability system. It would mean a student's performance would be tracked not to the school the student attends, but to the one in which the student's legal residence falls.

All five superintendents in Grant County supported the letter. The state DOE has not yet rendered a decision.

Not everyone agrees the performance of special education students on standardized tests hinders a school's overall passage rate...

"I do feel that the learning disabled students do have that right to be included in the general population, and I don't feel that they pull the scores down any more than the general education students," said [Sue] Neff, who also is a learning disabilities teacher for Marion Community Schools and general education ISTEP remediation consultant for the middle and high schools. "We get cut down because we did not have this percentage pass. Let's take a look at where we started with this student. These kids have made progress."

Gosser said that just because a student is labeled as special education doesn't mean he or she cannot achieve at the same level as general education students...

I believe this is the first article I've read that framed this issue as a true debate among educators, rather than presenting the special education crowd as monolithically opposed to NCLB-required testing. Interesting.

Posted by kswygert at 11:18 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The state of special education in New Jersey

New Jersey has the second-highest percent of students aged 6-17 receiving special education services. Approximately 15% of NJ's students receive these services (in Rhode Island, it's over 17%). This article takes a look at one school in NJ where more than a quarter of the student require special education, and 40% of the school budget goes to pay for it:

Attention to special education has been growing - statewide and nationally - in the past two decades, as teachers and administrators began to focus on the special needs of students, ranging from the emotional kind to the physical kind, according to state and local education officials.

Some people have criticized the expansive special-education programs, saying that under the inclusive nature of the program almost any student could have a disability if you look hard enough.

When 25-year veteran of the school district Suzanne Stryker became director of special education at Pinelands Regional five years ago, she was responsible for a teaching staff of 26. Since then, the district has hired 41 additional special education teachers.

"You are mandated to have the personnel to educate the students, and it costs a lot of money in salaries and in time," she said.."

Stryker could not pinpoint why the district has a larger special education community than most, adding that socio-economic situations may play a role.

"When you look at other similar schools, with the same economic levels, we are just a few percentage points higher," she said.

NJ identifies special education students through the use of a standardized test. Students are classified as having single-learning disability, multiple disabilities, or emotional disturbance. The schools want to mainstream these students as much as possible, but that isn't always feasible:

The majority of these students, Stryker said, are discipline problems, who pose a threat to students and teachers and are a constant disruption.

They don't come cheap, either:

According to the state Department of Education, it costs the Pinelands Regional School District $9,087 to educate a general education student. Meanwhile, it costs as much as $24,693 to educate a student with special needs in the district...

"It is real hard to say how much it costs special education per student. The one thing that is clear is that it cots a lot less to keep the student in district," Vespucci said.

The main reason for the large amount of staff - and increased spending - is class size restrictions in special education classes. The state requires no more than nine students per teacher, unless there is a teacher's aide, which raises the restriction to 12.

Posted by kswygert at 11:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 08, 2004

Hey! What's the big idea?

Oh, my. Best of the Web has uncovered a truly ridiculous application of "zero-tolerance" ; a 13-year-old student who used a DOS function to send the message, "Hey!" to every computer in his school has been suspended for three days, despite the fact that there was no rule against this behavior:

Carl Grimmer's father taught him how to send messages through network computers as part of a tutorial on how DOS worked...I guess it's only natural that the next day, Carl went to school and in his eighth-grade computer class showed a friend how the messaging system worked. That's what learning and experimenting is all about. I think that's what school is about.

The result of his trick was that every computer in the school, approximately 80 of them, received his message of "Hey!"

At first, Principal Tommy Rollins didn't think much of it. "I saw it," he said. "It didn't say who it came from. I just deleted it."

Beverly Sweeney, a computer teacher and campus computer liaison with the district, entered Carl's computer class and quickly figured out where the message originated and who sent it.

According to Carl, Sweeney asked him, "Did you do this?"

"Yes," he replied.

"Do you know that this is serious?" she asked him, according to Carl.

"No," he replied.

Then she asked how he did it, and he showed her.

The matter worked its way up to the principal, who eventually suspended Carl for three days.

Rollins told me that students had been using campus computers in unacceptable ways, and he hoped to make an example of Carl. The Birdville school district does not have a written policy on what to do in this kind of situation, so the decision rested with the principal.

First off, what's the crime here, other than the fact that the school's own computer teacher was unfamiliar with DOS functionality? Apparently, no one other than this teacher complained, and it's hard to see how her reaction is anything other than a defensive reaction against a student who had learned some computer skills on his own time.

Columnist Dave Lieber has more, though - MUCH more:

Carl did not send out a dirty word. Carl received no warning. No written policy prohibits what he did. Missing three days of school for something so minor is overkill.

But what I find more offensive is the unsolicited explanation I received from campus computer liaison Sweeney after I made my initial telephone call to Birdville district spokesman Mark Thomas to inquire about Carl's suspension.

Because Sweeney wrote her e-mail using her taxpayer-funded district e-mail account, it is a public document, and therefore, I quote it in full so we can all share insight into the mind of one of the educators who busted Carl for writing "Hey!"

She wrote: "Mr. Lieber, I want to communicate to you my concerns about some of the 'reporting' done by [the] Star-Telegram and my concern about an article I have heard you might be writing. Too often, people who do not know the real world of public education feel that they are the 'experts' who have all the solutions and that their opinions are as valuable as those who live in this world daily.

"If you comment upon events that are reported to you by a parent and do not fully investigate those reports before you publish your article, then you are one of those people. I have not heard that you have attempted to contact those people who really know the situation.

"I am speaking about one incident in the Birdville School District in which a student was expelled [sic] for tampering with the district's computers. Having been a computer teacher in the real world of public education for many years, let me say that suspension of students who are guilty of such tampering sends a message to all students that is beneficial and necessary.

"Students should not be of the opinion that it is acceptable to abuse the privileges that are afforded them by the taxpayers. If they are allowed to experiment and do things on the computers that the teachers have not specifically given them permission to do, we would never get any computer education accomplished.

"Hacking into a system should be highest on the list of tampering violations. I believe the other students are now aware that the district takes this seriously and will not tolerate such misuse of our equipment.

"I invite you, parents, our state representatives, and anyone else that thinks they know how a teacher or a district should react to ANY situation to come live with us for a while -- be a substitute teacher for a few weeks and learn the real world of public education.

"Beverly Sweeney."

Dave is utterly appalled by this email, as am I.

The first problem here is that Sweeney, a computer teacher, apparently doesn't understand the term hacking. Hacking is not using a built-in command to send a message. Hacking is defined in two general ways: 1) use of a computer to break into someone else's computer system, and 2) the sophisticated techniques used by an adept computer programmer.

But more troubling is the notion that Sweeney does not believe that the rest of us have any right to question the decisions made by public educators.

Remember, we pay the salaries of the teachers and staff. We buy the computers. We pay for the buildings in which they are used. As long as public school is public, the Beverly Sweeneys of the world need to know that it is our right and duty to look over their shoulders and question what they do.

In this case, the punishment of Carl Grimmer was overkill, but the response of the school's computer liaison shows that public education really does demand greater oversight from us outsiders, certainly not less.

Amen. Ms. Sweeney's demand for Carl's suspension and her comparison of his behavior to hacking demonstrates a profound ignorance of computers and how children learn to use them. What's more, it's absolutely the case that the opinions of the parents (and journalists) who pay taxes to the public schools "are as valuable as those who live in this world daily." The display of ignorance and haughty condescension here is most unbecoming in an educator.

Best of the Web concludes:

The real question though, is whether all the grown-ups at Richland Middle School are as comically self-serious as Beverly Sweeney. If so, it's no wonder they have a discipline problem. Even 13-year-olds could not possibly respect anyone so ridiculous.

Posted by kswygert at 03:34 PM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

The King of Abdicating Responsibility

According to this Wisconsin man, his kids are "lazy channel surfers" - but it's not his fault. It's the cable company's fault:

Charter employees called police to the local office at 165 Knight’s Way the evening of Dec. 23 after [Timothy] Dumouchel showed up with a small claims complaint, reportedly intimidated an employee and made “low-level threats” to employees’ safety, according to a police report.

The report states Dumouchel gave an employee five minutes to get a supervisor to talk to him or their next contact would be “in the ocean with the sharks.”

According to the report, Dumouchel told Charter employees he plans to sue because his cable connection remained intact four years after he tried to get it canceled.

The result was that he and his family got free cable from August of 1999 to Dec. 23, 2003.

“I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years,” Dumouchel stated in a written complaint against the company, included in a Fond du Lac police report.

“But the reason I am suing Charter is they did not let me make a decision as to what was best for myself and my family and (they have been) keeping cable (coming) into my home for four years after I asked them to turn it off.”

I...see. What's amazing is that Dumouchel can, in the same breath, completely abdicate responsibility for his childrens' behavior (the wife's weight gain is her own issue), and claim that he would otherwise have tried to enforce behavior that was best for his family. Apparently he made a deal with his wife that allowed her to watch cable, and then did not enforce the spirit of the deal (as opposed to the letter) when the cable was not disconnected. But, um, where do the kids come into that deal? Was monitoring their TV-watching behavior not an option?

Sheesh. He's threatening to sue for $5000 or three computers and a lifetime of free internet service. Isn't the internet supposed to be addictive too? Can't heavy internet use also contribute to weight gain? And does Du plan to sue the web for internet pornography after his kids get hooked on that, too? I wouldn't put it past him, not if he blames the cable company for his desire to drink alcohol and smoke every day.

Posted by kswygert at 01:46 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Praxis debate in Virginia

Apparently, Virginia has the toughest passing standard on the Praxis I in the nation. Until now, Virginia's teachers had to meet that standard - but if these proposals currently before VA's Board of Education are accepted, that won't be the case any longer:

The state superintendent of public instruction is recommending that the board, which sets education policy for Virginia, accept college-entrance SAT scores in lieu of passing scores on the Praxis I, a timed, standardized, high-school-level test of basic reading, writing and math. Another recommendation is to establish an appeals process for teachers who narrowly miss passing the Praxis I.

The appeals process makes sense, especially if a teacher can present evidence showing that the reliability of the Praxis I is such that a teacher with the required ability can nonetheless sometimes fail by one point. Unless the test is perfectly reliable, this can happen.

The part about the SAT doesn't make sense. The SAT is a standardized test that measures whether students have the math and verbal skills necessary for college. The Praxis I is, as described in this article, a test of "high-school-level test of basic reading, writing and math." If, after two or four years in an education program, a teacher can't pass the Praxis I, what reason is there to suppose that their previous SAT scores would be stellar?

According to this report, while the average SAT scores for all candidates in 1997 were 505 on the verbal section and 511 on the math section, the average verbal and math scores for candidates seeking a degree in education were 485 and 479, respectively. It is doubtful that this trend has changed; thus, there's no reason to conclude that education majors are likely to be performing above average on the SAT.

The report also concludes:

The answer is essentially the same for both Praxis I and Praxis II: At the low passing score, passing rate gaps between ethnic groups drop, but so do the average SAT and ACT scores of the people who pass. High passing scores increase ethnic gaps, but significantly increase SAT and ACT scores as well. For example, at the low passing score for Praxis I, 67 percent of the African American candidates would pass, as opposed to just 17 percent at the high score threshold. The corresponding percentages are 95 percent and 52 percent for white candidates. These figures are especially worrisome given the current dearth of minority teachers.

However, if every state were to go with the high passing scores on Praxis I, prospective teachers' average math and verbal SAT scores would each climb more than 40 points higher than with the low passing scores. Policymakers thus face a vexing decision: They must weigh the relative merits of academic ability and teacher supply, particularly with respect to the supply of minority teaching candidates.

In other words, those teachers who can pass Virginia's Praxis I standards are likely to have higher SAT scores than average, but there's no reason to assume that those who can't pass the Praxis will have a high enough SAT or ACT score to assure the state of their competency. The one issue here might be that the Praxis is on computer while the SAT is not, but it's hard to believe that the mode of testing is so problematic that it causes high SAT scorers to do poorly on the Praxis.

If this proposal were accepted, what SAT score would be necessary for a prospective teacher to avoid the requirement for the Praxis I? The acceptable SAT scores in other states range from 1000 to 1100, or from average to slightly above average.

The Praxis I score scale, for those of you unfamiliar with the test, provides separate verbal, math, and writing scores. The current Virginia standard is a 178 on both math and verbal, and 176 on writing, for a combined scores of 532. The lowest standards for other states seem to be set around 170. According to this ETS report, the top score on Praxis varies from year to year, which makes this a bit hard to understand. The minimum combined total score is listed as 780, which I assume means 260 on each section. The only report I could find listing a Praxis national average was this, which reports the average as 172 for math and reading, and 171 for writing.

Thus, those teachers who fail to meet Virginia's standards by one or two points will still be above the national average on Praxis I, and thus may have an SAT score above the national average as well. However, their Praxis I scores would still be within an acceptable margin of error for the Praxis, and so that information, rather than their SAT scores, should be what gets them their teaching certificates.

The other possible criteria for appeals look more appealing than the SAT option:

* Prospective teachers pass two of the Praxis I subtests, and on the third score within a specified margin of error that would vary with each test. (This covers the reliability issue I mentioned above.)

* They have successfully taught in Virginia for at least one year. ("Success" would need to be well-defined.)

* They receive a recommendation from their division’s superintendent, or their private school director.

* They fail the test three times, with tutoring in between. (Does this just mean that three failures are required before one can appeal?)

Also suggested are examining classroom skills and student rapport, which would be helpful for a teacher on the brink but not one far away from the cutscore. "Rapport" should not be allowed to compensate for lack of a firm understanding of basic math and reading skills.

Posted by kswygert at 09:19 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

January 07, 2004

Being choosy homeschoolers

More information on homeschoolers - "A little less home, a lot more help"

After a decade spent organizing arts and science classes in her living room for her home-schooled children, Bambi Thompson last year founded a center for cooperative education in a church basement in this coastal city.

Now, more than 50 families from the surrounding area regularly bring their children to the Discovery Center for Arts and Sciences. They meet twice a week to explore everything from small machines and inventions to the workings of the solar system and pet telepathy.

Although it is the only center of its kind in the state, its success highlights the recent explosion in the number of home-schooled students and in activities and programs designed for them. There are as many as 2 million children nationwide being taught at home.

"Finding classes used to mean putting up little index cards in public libraries and grocery stores," said home-schooling parent and author Patrick Farenga of Medford. "Now home-schooling is a lot less about staying home and a lot more about going out."

The upside is that nontraditional students can participate in an ever-expanding array of classes. But home-schooling parents say the boom has created a new problem all its own: winnowing down the choices.

I bet those of you who are homeschooling never thought you'd see the day when you had that problem.

While the choices may seem overwhelming, the benefits are obvious, said [home-schooling parent and author Patrick] Farenga. His oldest daughter, Lauren, began taking classes at Middlesex Community College in Bradford when she was just 12. Instead of having to take courses prescribed by a high-school curriculum, she was able to pursue an interest in forensics spurred by the television show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"She went out and took criminal courses, including shadowing a police officer and doing an actual crime scene investigation with a team of classmates," Farenga said. "When it was all over, she decided she was really more interested in criminal psychology, which led to child psychology, which eventually led to general psychology. One thing just leads to another."

Posted by kswygert at 02:47 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

The Cookie Brigade is coming for you

For those of you whose New Year's Resolutions were to lose weight and eat heathier food - meet your enemies:

Cookie season is only a few weeks away and some Girl Scouts are being trained not to take no for an answer this year.

To prepare for the two-month season, which begins Jan. 17, a few dozen scouts gathered Sunday at a church in Plymouth for the second annual cookie-sale workshop.

It was a full day of marketing and sales advice for the young salespeople.

"You're going to hear a lot of 'no's,'" warned workshop lecturer Bre-Anna Petrowske. "I would just keep on truckin'."...

The scouts, mostly teenagers, learned about "the surly customer," the one who just won't say yes, and the best response to the customers who say they've already bought. Cookie sellers were coached to appeal to people's patriotism: You don't have to eat the cookies, you can donate them to troops overseas.

And they covered the easy ones, too, such as those who say they don't have enough money.

If you're near Minneapolis, watch out for Public Offender #1:

The top seller for the Minneapolis Girl Scout Council last year sold 2,050 boxes. That's more than $6,000 worth of cookies. The seller, identified only as Danielle, still found time to encourage others.

"She wrote a letter to the other girls to not give up hope," said Rosi Hewitt of Coon Rapids, whose daughter is a Girl Scout.

2,050 boxes...let's see. There are between 14 and 40 cookies per box, depending on the cookie type, meaning Danielle alone unleashed anywhere from 28,700 to 82,000 cookies on an already-struggling-with-their-weight public. At 40 to 75 calories per cookie, that's 82,000 to 153,750 calories, or between 23 and 44 extra pounds. Eeek.

If any of you Minneapolis residents see Danielle headed your way, run. Your thighs will thank you for it later (and besides, they need the exercise).

Posted by kswygert at 02:21 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

New blog! New blog!

A Schoolyard Blog is up and running (with multiple links to yours truly, of course). I especially like the crisp layout of the site and the personal nature of the postings. I also like the small images of suggested books for reading on the left-hand side. Anyone who recommends Eric Hoffer's The True Believer is a kindred soul of mine.

Go, now, and check her out.

Posted by kswygert at 10:32 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is the SAT dead?

Psychology Today ponders this question in their online magazine:

The SAT has long been a three-letter word for aspiring college students—an abbreviation that stands for fear. It has become the single most important arbiter of university admissions, the magic number that seems to predict the future for nervous teens. But the tide may be turning, at least among elite private schools. The latest nail in the coffin: Sarah Lawrence College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Bronxville, New York, recently announced that beginning with the high school graduating class of 2005, applicants will no longer be required to submit standardized test scores.

The decision was intended “to reflect our belief that standardized testing is not effective in evaluating a student’s ability to succeed in a writing-based curriculum such as ours,” the college’s dean of admissions said in a press release. The statement also fretted over the growing inequity between test-takers who can afford preparation courses (which can cost up to $900) and those who cannot.

Not a bad beginning, but I already have several comments:

(1) Is the SAT score really the "single most important" factor in the admissions decision-making process? Almost certainly not, especially for lower-tier schools, and not in this age of affirmative action and "comprehensive review."

(2) Is the decision by Sarah Lawrence really the sign of a trend against the SAT? After all, the college isn't opposing the SAT on principle; it's perfectly legitimate for a college to base grades on writing skills and then to decide that the SAT isn't a good predictor of those grades, for that college. There's no reason to suggest that this "trend" will catch on with colleges that place emphasis on other types of performance.

(3) Tuition at Sarah Lawrence College is over $28,000 a year. And we're supposed to believe that they're really worried about applicants who can't scratch up a measly grand for test prep? That sum isn't even necessary - a prospective student can prepare for the SAT using 10 practice exams for $19.95. Come on. Sarah Lawrence is more than entitled to decide that the SAT is not right for their students, but not on the grounds of expense.

Anyway, let us continue...

The SAT is the nation’s oldest and most widely used college admissions test. It is also big business: The College Board earns millions each year in revenue from the exams.

And your point is? Is the College Board supposed to give the test for free?

But its critics have gained momentum in recent years. They say that the SAT is a poor predictor of women’s, non-native English speakers and older students’ academic performance in college. Whites outscore African Americans on average by 206 points.

"They say"? Come on, PT, you have to do better than that. "They" can say anything; whether they back it up with data is a different story. What's more, the utility of the SAT can vary from school to school, and it's inaccurate to claim that, for example, the SAT does not predict well for women across the board. The mention of White scores vs. African American scores is a non-sequitur here, regardless of its accuracy. The score gap is related to differential impact, but not to bias; nor is the gap any indication of whether the scores for both groups are differentially useful.

When the article does get around to quoting someone, that person is, unsurprisingly, a spokesman for an anti-testing organization. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing hastens to mention that "700 colleges and universities" no longer require the SAT, but the reporter should have wondered how many of those were recent changes, and should have noted that those 700 comprise less than 17% of the 4182 private and public two- or four-year institutions in the US.

The only other person quoted is a Yale psychology professors who thinks the SAT isn't adequate for predicting college performance. Neither testing critic provides studies to back up his claims. And the conclusion is a load of anti-wealth and multiple intelligence blather:

Sternberg says that the SAT tests well for memory and analytical skills. “Clearly, these are important,” he says. “But in life, and in college, you need more than analytical skills.” The test is not so good at gauging creative skills and practical skills, which means that some kids may not be fairly ranked by the exam. “A kid from a challenging environment might have better-developed creative or practical skills, whereas a kid who grew up in Scarsdale [may have] had the luxury of developing analytical skills,” says Sternberg. His recommendation: Admissions officers should learn how to recognize a diverse set of skills or risk rejecting talented applicants.

Does Sternberg really believe that admissions officers don't already do this? No university in the US relies solely on SAT score for admissions, and College Board policy is that the SAT should not be used as the sole method of selecting students. What's more, the reference to "Scarsdale" is ridiculous. Depending on the university and the program, "creative skills" may well count for nothing when compared to the need for analytical skills. Sternberg might think that it is a "luxury" for a student to have had the opportunity to develop analytically (if true, that's an indictment of the K-12 public school system, not a criticism of the tests), but it's just plain silly to conclude from this statement alone that analytical skills should be downweighted in the college admission process.

C'mon, Psychology Today. You didn't even make a half-hearted stab at even-handedness. One measly quote from someone at the College Board - or from any psychometrician - would have gone far towards making this article something other than a one-sided essay about the potential unfairness of standardized tests. For example, I could have pointed out that the artificial restriction of range of the SAT scores of admitted students could be depressing the SAT-college grade correlation. Also, it's a crime to write an SAT article and not quote expert Wayne Camara, who has published research supporting, among other things, the usefulness of the SAT in predicting college grades for women. He also notes that the claims that huge numbers of colleges are dropping the tests may be greatly inflated, and says that between 92% and 96% percent of four-year institutions require an admissions test.

There ARE valid reasons for a university not to require the SAT, so I don't have a problem with the idea of pondering the utility of the SAT. It's just a shame to see an article waste the reader's time with the unsupported and one-sided arguments made here. What's more, I'm not even sure what conclusion the reader is supposed to draw from this article.

For example, if the SAT suddenly went out of favor for all universities, the College Board would simply develop another test more to the liking of the administrators (in fact, that's how the new SAT revisions came about). Five years from now, the College Board might pop up with a new writing exam that better predicts student performance at colleges like Sarah Lawrence. If the writer was hoping this article would make readers root for the bankruptcy of the College Board, she's got it all wrong.

Posted by kswygert at 09:58 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

January 06, 2004

The perils of parenting in the Bay Area

I've always had the notion that California's Bay Area is rather unfriendly to parents who support school choice, tougher standards, and charter schools. But if Oakland resident Jennifer Nelson's article is to be believed, Bay Area residents dislike parents - period:

...in the months and years that followed [the move to Oakland], I discovered an angry, unpleasant element to the Bay Area kookiness. My first real experience with the rude attitude prevalent in the area started when I found my way into Berkeley. A friend had recommended Berkeley Bowl as a great alternative to haunting farmer's markets.

Berkeley Bowl is a fabulous market. The parking lot and many of the patrons, however, are not. I have never seen such angry people as I saw on my first visit to Berkeley Bowl (and every visit thereafter)...After parking and shopping next to these folks for three years, I'm starting to think that a steady diet of edamame, veggie burgers, organic greens and soy milk makes people really, really angry.

Part of my problem, I've decided, is that I'm easily tagged as a "breeder" by the many folks in the Bay Area who believe in population control or who just dislike children... Probably the strangest experience I've had is being pregnant in the Bay Area. During my other pregnancies, I lived in Sacramento and was used to people smiling when they saw a pregnant woman. Here, no smiles -- mostly scowls...

After my [third] baby was born, the hostile looks and mutterings continued. While I was waiting in line for coffee one day with the kids in tow, one woman offered to me that she thought three children constituted a big family. When I told her it really isn't considered a large family in many other parts of the country, including the Midwest town I had recently moved from, she asked me with disdain, "Where was that, a religious community?" Then there was the woman who said to me as she pushed by my stroller, "Three? Don't you think you have enough?" It's not like I was asking her to contribute to their college fund! I was just taking my kids to the bathroom.

Hopefully, Mrs. Nelson is getting used to this sort of hostility while her kids are in strollers. It will give her the strong will she'll need to deal with naysayers should she decide to homeschool, or to push for school reforms in her district. Oh, wait, she's already started raising heck about that. Good for her!

Posted by kswygert at 04:37 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

One Shark's fight for charter schools

With all the posting I've been doing about homeschooling in Washington, I should mention SharkBlog's 2004 Resolution - to bring charter schools to his home state (Washington is one of 10 states in which such schools are still illegal). He's got a monster summary of the issues and the players up on his blog.

He's already attended one Seattle School Board meeting and made this statement in support of charter schools. SharkBlog really wants to see success stories like this one brought to Washington (if KIPP can make it "cool to be smart" in Oakland, they can do the same anywhere). Unfortunately, he says the board meeting was a "staged circus"; the board members had already made up their minds to defeat any proposed charter school legislation. This can't be unrelated to the rise in homeschooling in Washington; parents have little choice other than the public school system, and the teaching unions already feel threatened by the homeschooling numbers.

Be sure to check back in on his site and follow his battle against the board members. Go, Shark!

Posted by kswygert at 04:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The "full-time job" of homeschooling

More on homeschooling in Washington:

[Homeschooling family the Clines] work pretty much year-round, with the exception of July. That's not to say there aren't any breaks. The family does travel often together, a freedom afforded by home schooling. The curriculum they use is a 36-week plan, which equals 180 days of teaching, exactly what the state requires of public school students...

Cline, who is the product of a public-school education, said her perspective on home-schooling has changed dramatically since having children.

She is less receptive to what she called the idea of "conveyor-belt'' education, in which hundreds of students are put into a school and expected to learn someone else's agenda on someone else's schedule.

Instead, she puts her energy into helping her children focus and be passionate about their areas of interest while still taking time for the necessary nuts and bolts of computation and letters.

A second article documents the changes in homeschooling policies in Washington:

Prior to 1985, only people with a teaching certificate could teach at home. That provision excluded a lot of people from the practice, so many chose to home school their children underground, said Jon Wartes, who helped craft the state law that ultimately allowed parents to legally teach their children at home.

The first large-scale effort in Washington to change the law came in 1982, when parents began to lobby Olympia...However, different groups were supporting different bills and their divided efforts went nowhere...

Some people opposed the creation of a home-based education law not because they objected to home schooling, but because the existence of a law meant there was some governmental involvement in the decisions they made regarding their children...For them, teaching their children was a religious freedom and a parents' rights issue that required no governmental oversight, a stance that made them seem extremist and unwilling to compromise...

On the other side was the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Heh. In 1985, the law allowing parents to homeschool was passed, and the specifics are provided below:

There are three ways a parent can become qualified to teach at home. They must have either completed a course in home-based instruction at a post-secondary or vocational-technical institution, have 45 hours of college credit hours or be supervised by a certified teacher.

Parents must also sign a form with the school district that their child would have attended which exempts the district from responsibility of educating that child...

While the law does not require home-schooling parents to teach a certain number of hours a day or days in a year, it does require parents to plan and supervise instruction in the following areas: occupational education, science, math, language, social studies, history, health, reading, writing, spelling, and appreciation of art and music.

Parents are also required to give their child a standardized achievement test each year, although the results are only sent back to the parents, left unchecked by the state.

Posted by kswygert at 11:37 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Bring on the edu-speak

This Arkansas News Bureau article has ahelpful listing of popular edu-jargon terms, for those following school reform issues in that state:

Senate Bill 33 by Sen. Steve Bryles, D-Blythville, raises several terms of its own by taking up the issue of "accountability." Is a given school district doing a good job of teaching students what they need to know, or not? That's usually the subject when lawmakers talk about "accountability"...

A "criterion reference test," or "CRT" is a standardized test designed to see if students know each subject, according to supporters of testing bills such as SB 33. An example is the state's own Arkansas Comprehensive Testing and Assessment Program, or "ACTAP" test. A student either knows the subject at his grade level, or he doesn't, much like a regular school test.

"Norm-referenced" tests compare criterion reference test results to other students taking the same tests. For instance, a student whose criterion reference test score is in the middle of other scores is in the 50th percentile. Students at the top are in the 100th percentile.

Technically, students never receive percentile ranks of greater than 99, but we'll let this one slide.

"Horizontally scaled" tests mean that the standardized tests for next year's fourth-graders are just as difficult and are scored the same as the tests for this year's fourth-graders. For instance, any improvement in "horizontally scaled" tests comes from the student, not from the test being relatively easier or graded differently.

"Vertically scaled" tests mean that tests from one year to the next are comparable. For instance, if 4th grade tests were relatively easier for 4th graders than the 3rd grade test was for 3rd graders, any improvement could be attributed to the differences in the test. Another definition that came out during committee discussion was on making sure the tests are comparable from one year to the next. For instance, it would not be comparable for a student to take one test designed by one company one year, another test designed by another company several years later and still another test designed by a third testing company several years after that. If the tests are "vertically scaled," educators say, the results should be comparable from one year to the next.

Posted by kswygert at 11:32 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The effect of NCLB on teaching assistants

NCLB requires not only that teachers in Title I funding schools be highly qualified, but that teaching assistants meet this goal as well. Now schools wonder how they're going to keep teaching assistants in the classroom:

Under the federal law, by January 2006, assistants in schools that receive Title I money must be “highly qualified.” That means having an associate’s degree, or completing two years worth of college-level classes or passing a standardized test.

The tougher standards have pushed this usually stable group of employees to consider other careers, said Gail Pittman, the director of the Portsmouth Education Association.

As aides in day-care center or nursing homes, they may be able to make the same or more than the $10,000 to $15,000 they earn as teacher assistants, but without the hassle of taking the tests or going back to school.

No offense, but do you really want someone with only a high-school diploma who isn't up to the "hassle" of taking a single standardized test in the classroom with your child, even as an assistant? By these requirements, no college work is really required.

Some school districts are footing the bill for tutoring to pass the 90-item standardized test, while some districts go even further and give pay increases to those assistants who are "highly qualified". Some districts, on the other hand, are only giving out lapel pins to those who qualify, and I suppose we can't blame assistants who set out for greener pastures.

As for that exam? It's not named in the article (Bad reporter! No coffee!), but Virginia's Department of Education website is clear and well-structured, easy on the eyes and a delight to sift through (Alabama, please take notes). Did you know that substitute teachers in Virginia are required to possess "good moral character"? Neither did I.

As usable as the site is, I couldn't find anything on it relating to a teacher assistant exam. Teachers take PRAXIS, but while the ETS website has links to the PRAXIS requirements in each state, it doesn't have any information on an exam for teaching assistants. Google helped me find this set of standards required by NCLB, but it says only that state or local standards may be used to create a test for paraprofessionals.

Posted by kswygert at 11:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Setting state-level standards

Great article in the NYTimes on December 31st on the problems with assessing national student proficiency when state test difficulties vary so much (thanks, Devoted Reader Susan!):

The community around South Charlotte Middle School is one of the richest in North Carolina, and the school boasts the kind of test scores that seem to go hand in hand with wealth. Last year, more than 95 percent of its students passed both the state reading and mathematics tests.

A few miles away in a similarly wealthy community, the students at Fort Mill Middle School cannot make the same claim. More than half failed the state mathematics test, and three-quarters failed the reading test.

The difference? Fort Mill Middle School is in South Carolina.

And South Carolina has one of the harder fifth-grade exams; it's estimated that 75% of fifth-graders nationwide would fail it. Two recent studies reached the same conclusion: "Across the country, there is no agreement on how much students need to know to be considered proficient.":

The divergent standards also have ramifications under the federal education law, passed in 2001. Schools deemed failures eventually face stern consequences, including loss of students and reorganization. And in some states with high standards there could be lots of failing schools. In other states with low standards, schools with equally poor performance could be left alone.

States are given the freedom to set standards based on the needs of their children and their communities. The results are, not surprisingly, wildly divergent from state to state:

The Northwest Evaluation study was based on scores of students in 14 states who took both the state proficiency test and one of the organization's own tests. The group claims a high degree of reliability in its estimates, even though it may give its tests in just one school district, because they are based on scores of hundreds of students taking both tests.

Colorado's reading test was consistently the least demanding in most grades in which it was given, with a passing score that corresponded to a national ranking between the 9th and 18th percentile. South Carolina and Wyoming had passing scores in the 70th percentile and higher in most grades.

The study by Achieve, a nonprofit group that promotes high education standards, compared the number of students the states had declared proficient under their No Child Left Behind testing structure with the number at the "proficient" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given in all 50 states. It showed Louisiana, South Carolina and Wyoming setting some of the highest bars, with Texas, North Carolina and Mississippi setting some of the lowest.

In South Carolina, 75% of schools were listed as failing to make progress, compared to 3% in Alabama. Supposedly parents are aware of the difference in test difficulty and use that when judging schools, but it's hard to believe that some won't be swayed by the differences in the numbers. As long as states are allowed to set their own standard, I agree that a national clearinghouse or database is necessary so that parents have an idea of how their state's test compares to others.

So, why's that SC exam so challenging? Let's take a look. Here are the Grade 3 - 8 sample items for English Language Arts. For Grade 5, the 318-word passage concerns the possible extinction of manatees due to human interference. Leaving aside the enviro-ideology here, I'd say the item does indeed look challenging, but not confusing. Students have to draw a conclusion, figure out the meaning of a perhaps-unknown word, analyze text details, figure out what website they'd access to get more information, and write a summary - in complete sentences - relating to the claim that manatees may become extinct.

Nothing confusing about this, as I said, but nothing's a giveaway either. The standards for Grade 5 in English Language Arts are here.

Okay, so what's the difference between this and what Alabama's fifth-graders see, if only 3% of Alabama schools are listed as failing? Alabama's Department of Education page is rather confusing; I finally had to resort to Google to find any sample assessment items. This site has Grade 5 Writing items.

No reading passages are mentioned (but that doesn't mean there aren't any). Also, all the items are multiple-choice and seem staggeringly easy. There aren't any "answer in complete sentences" type items listed. If anyone out there has more information on Alabama's exam or standards, let me know.

Posted by kswygert at 10:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The problems of parental permissiveness

The pendulum of child-rearing techniques seem to be swinging back from the overly-permissive to the more sensible, as Parent magazine wonders, "Are You A Parent or a Pushover?" Betsy Hart of Jewish World Review thinks she knows the answer:

In the article "Are You a Parent or a Pushover?" in the January ('04) issue of Parents magazine, author Kellye Carter Crocker reported on a Parents survey that showed most mothers expressing "deep concern over today's discipline methods." For starters, 88 percent said parents "let children get away with too much."

Magazine surveys may be notoriously inaccurate, but still this reveals some level of angst over how kids are being raised.

As Crocker writes, parents may be "sensing what mounting evidence is starting to reveal: some of the discipline strategies that have been in vogue in recent years just aren't working. Elaborate systems that give kids multiple chances, prolonged discussions about the 'feelings' behind bad behavior, negotiations about consequences and so on are often ineffective."

Well, excuse me, but, um, "duh."

Hart links the Time magazine article on child violence with these overly-permissive techniques:

The authors largely blame violence in the media. Well, OK. But then why do many kids who see the same images not act this way, and how is it then that adult criminal activity has been on a significant downward spiral for years?

What the Time authors didn't do is give anything more than a glancing nod to parents and how they raise their kids.

Talk about a root cause.

As Ronald Simons, a sociologist at the University of Georgia in Athens, told Parents: "without structure, children become self-absorbed, selfish and unhappy _ and they make everyone around them miserable, too."

Oh, but Time made sure that the "root cause" of testing stress got mentioned, and as we all know, that's so much more indicative of violence than parental neglect or over-permissiveness.

As for those kids who are acting out violently, schools are now resorting to arrests rather than handling problems in-house:

In cities and suburbs around the country, schools are increasingly sending students into the juvenile justice system for the sort of adolescent misbehavior that used to be handled by school administrators. In Toledo and many other places, the juvenile detention center has become an extension of the principal's office.

School officials say they have little choice. "The goal is not to put kids out, but to maintain classrooms free of disruptions that make it impossible for teachers to teach and kids to learn," said Jane Bruss, the spokeswoman for the Toledo public schools. "Would we like more alternatives? Yes, but everything has a cost associated with it."

In some places, juvenile arrests are up three-fold:

According to an analysis of school arrest data by the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group in Washington, there were 2,345 juvenile arrests in 2001 in public schools in Miami-Dade County, Fla., nearly three times as many as in 1999. Sixty percent, the project said, were for "simple assaults" — fights that did not involve weapons —and "miscellaneous" charges, including disorderly conduct.

Many of the court cases around the country involve special-education students whose behavior is often related to their disabilities, Mr. Block and others say.

Part of the problem is, of course, inane zero-tolerance policies that punish kids who have no intention of causing violence, and not having the right mental health facilities in place for poor youngsters. But the parental influence isn't being denied:

What has also changed, Dr. Steinberg said, is that principals are less able to depend on parents to enforce the discipline schools mete out. "I think in the past the threat of getting in touch with a kid's parents was often enough to get a kid to start behaving," he said. "Now, kids feel parents will fight on their behalf."

Can you say, "overly-permissive?"

Posted by kswygert at 10:06 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 05, 2004

7-year-old disovers infallible method of winning stuffed toys

One enterprising kid becomes entertainment under glass at a Piggly Wiggly in Sheboygan, WI:

A 7-year-old boy had to be rescued with the help of a locksmith Saturday after crawling into a supermarket's stuffed animal game machine while his father talked on the telephone.

"He was sitting right in there with the stuffed animals," said Shift Commander Mark Zittel of the Sheboygan Fire Department.

He said the boy, whose name was not released because he is a minor, crawled through about an 8-inch-by-10-inch opening to get into the glass enclosure via a chute where the toys come out, but when he tried to get back out his way was blocked.

The picture is amusing. I figure the kid has a cracking good chance at a career as a cat burglar, if he can crawl through such a tiny space unnoticed (these games are usually at the very front of Piggly Wigglys, by the cash registers).

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One retired teacher leads the FCAT pack

A retired teacher's attitude towards the FCAT: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

James E. Feazell Sr. doesn't want to fight the FCAT. As long as the standardized test is required, he's not going to challenge the rationale behind it. He would rather help the kids who struggle to pass the exam... As his retirement approached this past July, he wondered how he could help black students he knew who had failed the FCAT.

It was just an idea - until he saw statistics showing that the achievement gap affects not only black students who are poor, but those who are middle-class or affluent. In Pinellas County, 76 percent of black students scored below grade level on the FCAT math test last year, compared to 36 percent of white students. Those who fail get certificates of attendance instead of diplomas...

Others accuse the state of discriminating against minority students, but Feazell felt that complaining wasn't going to change anything. His mission became to help improve their test scores.

Bravo. Feazell feels that he received a great amount of help his entire life, from the Good Lord on down, and so he wants to give something back to his community in turn.

Feazell formed a partnership with various Pinellas County schools to create the "Bridging the Achievement Gap" program. The schools sent letters to 229 parents whose children had failed the FCAT, telling them about free tutoring in their neighborhood. Four seniors and five juniors came for tutoring three times a week in September. After two and a half weeks of tutoring, they took the FCAT. Three of the four seniors and all five juniors passed.

Good grief, why did he attract only nine students out of 229? For free tutoring? Did the others feel they didn't need it? Or were they too busy complaining instead of studying?

Now, about 45 students from Largo, Seminole, Osceola and Pinellas Park high schools attend tutoring sessions at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and Young Life Center in Ridgecrest. With six Largo High School teachers and 10 student tutors, each group is capped at four students.

"I think this is going to be a model for other communities, other schools," said Largo High principal Barbara Thornton, who sits on the program's advisory board. "He's dedicating his life to it. When you create something like this, somebody has to drive it. It has to be somebody with this vision - and he has it."

Again, bravo.

Posted by kswygert at 11:39 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

A new way to assess teacher effectiveness

Dr. Louise Darnell is critical of NCLB, but her critique is evenhanded and useful to read:

The initial flurry of data is having at least one positive effect: The social engineers have to face reality. In the case of No Child, the grand plan is for more than 70 percent of American students to meet proficient levels on their state tests by 2014. Researchers from UCLA reviewed reading test scores over five years in the 1990s and found that only three out of 33 states met a standard of a 1 percent annual increase. This is far below the annual 5 to 6 percent increase that would be required to meet No Child’s goals...

All these problems are real, but to me, the biggest problem lies in how educators are going to translate the mounting pile of data into something that improves teaching and learning in a school. The number crunchers and the teachers do not speak the same language.

In my work, I regularly interview teachers and observe them at their craft. As a parent, I’ve spent a fair amount of time at PTA meetings and school site teams chatting with teachers, and the subject of standardized tests comes up frequently. I have yet to meet one teacher who says she or he uses standardized test results to improve teaching...

Unless the budget for the war in Iraq is suddenly channeled into the Department of Education, I doubt that anyone is ever going analyze the No Child data so teachers and parents can use it...as the data points pile up, we should not lose sight of what makes learning happen: A teacher who inspires students to realize their potential.

Here’s my "off the shelf" education accountability test: I know people who display photographs of special teachers on their shelves well into adulthood. To date, there’s no accountability test on any shelf that is sensitive enough to measure that kind of connection. Not to worry. This is not something that requires a validated test, lots of money, or an act of Congress. Just talk to your kids. Do they love their teacher? Do they suddenly seem to be excited about science or math or reading or history in a whole new way? Are they asking you intellectual questions you cannot answer? That’s all the data you need to know whether your local school is working or not.

Great suggestion. In fact, many homeschoolers list their child's responses to such questions as the basis for their decision to homeschool. Listening to the child's "report" on the teacher might thus be as informative as test scores, and more informative than the teacher's subjective reports on the child.

And speaking of homeschooling, the reporters in Washington state have woken up to smell the Starbucks - Homeschooling goes mainstream:

More than ever before, parents are choosing to teach their children at home. Since the state started keeping track of the number of home-schoolers in 1987, two years after it became legal in Washington, the number of registered home-schoolers has more than quadrupled. In the 1987-88 school year, 4,045 students were officially being schooled at home. Last year, more than 19,500 students were home-schooled...

Religious concerns, better development of their kids' character and morality, a poor learning environment in public school and the simple belief that they can provide a better education for their kids at home are among the reasons more parents are turning to home schooling, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Too bad the practice is still "controversial," at least for those who lose jobs when parents homeschool:

Although more families are home-schooling their children nationwide, it remains controversial. The National PTA, National Education Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals oppose it. The Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, takes no stance on home-schooling, said spokesman Rich Wood.

My advice to parents: Ignore the PTA. You know what's best for your child.

Posted by kswygert at 11:29 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Loving that Latin

Great. Almost 20 years after I was a hard-core Latin fanatic, with top grades, a Junior Classical League membership, and a silver medal on the statewide Latin Exam, Latin has finally become cool:

Pop culture and a link to standardized test score improvements have resurrected the tongue of Roman emperors and philosophers in Delaware high schools and across the country. Thanks to fictional wizard Harry Potter, a handful of toga-wearing movie stars and adolescents' love of retro, all things classical are also cool.

Latin classes became passé in the late 1960s and vanished from most public school schedules by the 1980s, foreign language educators said...

Interesting. At my rural, public high school in South Carolina, one could take four years of Latin in 1986. However, there was only one Latin teacher and I don't know if she has retired unreplaced.

Now, with the growing nationwide emphasis on improving standardized test scores, Latin is making a comeback. Several studies, some dating to the late 1970s, have shown students who take Latin tend to have higher verbal scores, according to the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages.

Surely, no one is surprised. More than half of all English words have Latin roots. Learning Latin may have educational benefits not conferred by other langauges, too:

In 2003, students who took Latin to fulfill their foreign language requirements had a mean score of 559 on the verbal component of the SATs. French students scored 524 and Spanish students 501.The mean national verbal SAT score was 507.

Does taking Latin make one smarter, or do the smart kids take Latin, I wonder? Some teachers believe Latin is the cause; higher test scores are the effect:

"Students occasionally come in and say they've raised their verbal scores. I have one this year who went up 100 points after two years of Latin - she was thrilled," said Allison Richards, a Latin teacher at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden and president of the Delaware Classical Association. "There's also an advantage in higher-order thinking skills that any foreign language will develop. But Latin helps in particular because Latin is a very logical language."

Probably why I loved both Latin and geometry.

My experiences with Latin were 100% positive, thanks in no small part to my teacher, Mrs. Easterling. I remember we all had to write, on the first day, a little blurb about why we were taking the course. Everyone else wrote, "Because I want to go to med school" or "Because my parents are making me." I wrote that I had read in fantasy books that if one wanted to raise a demon, one had to use an ancient language like Latin or Greek. Hence, Latin seemed so much more practical to me than Spanish or French.

Not only did Mrs. Easterling not call the school counselor, she took me under her wing (I was very shy at the time) and made me feel like her favorite student. I have a feeling Latin teachers are themselves not cut from the same mold as everyone else, and their quirky love of this "dead" language is a delight to behold.

Latin, sic itur ad astra.

Posted by kswygert at 11:23 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Contesting school grades in Michigan

Over one-fourth of Michigan's public schools appealed the grades they received from the state this year:

Superintendents in districts from Jackson to Springport have filed formal appeals with the Michigan Department of Education over the preliminary results of the Education YES school accountability report, citing misinformation and a fledgling reporting system as culprits of the confusion.

The state received more than 1,200 appeals from the 4,000 schools in Michigan.
School leaders say the paperwork used to calculate the report cards was time consuming and frustrating...

The Education YES report cards will grade schools based on areas including how students performed on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, the quality of education and learning opportunities at the school.

Each school, graded A through D or unaccredited, will receive six individual grades and an overall mark.

The new benchmark is aimed at giving parents an idea of their school's quality and options for getting out of a troubled school. The report cards will compliment the nationwide system already in place to track each school's adequate yearly progress using standardized test scores such as the MEAP.

Some schools say the grades are too "simplistic," and in at least one case the state has already been shown to have made a mistake. It's hard to believe that 1,200 mistakes were made, though.

Posted by kswygert at 11:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Setting classroom standards

UNC professor Mike Adams starts the new year off right with a new set of rules for rude students:

As most of you know, I take a different approach to these problems. First, I shut the door at the beginning of each class period. Then, if a student walks in late, he (it usually is a male, no offense to tardy feminists) gets three points deducted from his final average. If his cell-phone rings (no offense to co-dependent feminists), I deduct three points from his final average per ring. And if she (sorry guys, it is usually a female) actually answers the call, she fails the course...

In light of the on-going problems with tardiness and cell phones, I am going to modify my class policies this semester...The specifics of my new policy follow:

If your cell phone goes off in class, or if you are late to class, you must write a 2500-word paper (minimum) entitled “The Death of Civility at the Postmodern University.” In this paper, you will be asked to write about the decline of civility in our public universities in recent decades. Please note that if you are late more than once, or if your cell phone goes off on more than one occasion, your paper must be a minimum of 5000 words. If you have three separate transgressions, you automatically fail the course. Finally, the paper must be of “A” quality in order for you to stay in the course. You will receive no other credit for completing this project, except, of course, for its positive impact upon your character.


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