February 01, 2006

The legal wrangling intensifies


NEW HAVEN, Conn., Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Connecticut's NAACP sides with the Bush administration in efforts to throw out the state's challenge of No Child Left Behind funding, a report said Tuesday. The civil rights organization and three students filed a motion Monday to intervene in the case in which the state argues the Department of Education has not sent Connecticut enough money to comply with the federal law.

"It's a rather unusual alignment," NAACP lawyer John Brittain told The New York Times. "It certainly creates some different alliances in civil rights." The NAACP motion argues the suit is a waste of money that could be better used to reduce gaps between poor and wealthy and minority and white students.

CivilRights.Org has more:

The NAACP and the group of minority schoolchildren want to block the state from creating a legal defense that allows them to avoid the obligations of No Child Left Behind on the grounds that the requirements are an "unfunded mandate." Such a claim, if supported, could threaten the enforcement of many civil rights statutes.

Under the rules of federal procedure, the NAACP must join the lawsuit as a defendant in intervention on the side of the U.S. Department of Education. This unusual alignment for the civil rights organization, however, does not represent full support of the No Child Left Behind Act. The group's position questions the reasoning behind the proposed suit, calling it an excuse to not meet the needs of Connecticut's children of color. Specifically, the NAACP feels that rather than filing a frivolous lawsuit against the federal government, the richest state in the nation should be working to help the poorest children have the maximum capacity to succeed with qualified teachers and other resources.

Connecticut currently has the worst gap in achievement between poor and non-poor children, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

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January 31, 2006

Rising demand, falling supply

One of the more apt headlines I've seen in a while: "Testing industry overwhelmed under NCLB."

The standardized testing industry is "buckling under the weight" of President Bush's education reform plan, with the law's rapidly expanding testing mandates threatening to undermine its high ideals, says a new report out Tuesday from Education Sector, an independent Washington think tank. Only about $20 of the average $8,000-per-pupil spent on education nationally goes to develop tests under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the report finds. That's a small proportion, given the tests' importance, says Thomas Toch, the report's author. Enacted in 2002, NCLB seeks to narrow the gap in basic skills between middle-class and poor students. But the modest spending on testing could pull the rug out, with many states now forced to buy or create hastily developed, low-quality tests that measure only rudimentary skills, Toch says.

Why hastily-developed and low-quality? Because the number of psychometricians available for jobs hasn't even come close to keeping up with the number of jobs, and the demand for testing, out there. They cite a statistic in the article: "52% [of 23 state testing offices] reported that they had had difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified staff for testing-related jobs."

My immediate response was, "Only 52%?" For state testing jobs? Offhand, I don't know of any organization, be it penny-pinching state testing group or high-paying,high-profile testing company, that doesn't have difficulties finding staff and staying staffed.

There is, of course, a plea for more money here, and money can certainly buy better tests, but all the money in the world can't improve the testing scene if there aren't enough psychometricians to go around.

Two years ago, pundits were claiming that we psychos were the equivalent of Arabic-speaking US soldiers - desperately needed, and in short supply. Time, March 2001: "...there is a severe shortage of psychometricians — specialists trained in educational measurement and test design." Civil Rights Project, 2004: "Indeed, nationwide there is a shortage of specialized personnel, especially psychometricians who can devise tests, monitor their validity, and develop the infrastructure needed to support extensive testing (Henriques, 2003; Jorgensen, 2002)."

My grapevine/anecdotal knowledge suggests that the shortage still exists. The National Center for Educational Statistics keeps track of such things. I noted before that, in the year 2000, there were only 13 PhDs awarded in quantitative psychology - out of 44808 total PhDs awarded in the US. How do things look now after a few years of NCLB?

Total PhDs 2002-2003: 46024.
Psychology PhDs: 4831
Quantitative Psychology PhDs: 6.

Oh, well, there's also the three with PhDs in Psychometrics, and this is just only 85% or so of the full sample, and the 2004 NORC Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that out of 4336 Education PhDs with job commitments, a maximum of 7.9% have job classifications that are likely to fall within the testing industry, but...still. The fact remains that I could easily invite all the psychometrics/quantitative psychology PhDs from 2004 over to my house for dinner (or up to my hotel room to raid the minibar during a conference, which I think has happened before).

The desperate shortage of psychometricians appears to be the one point on which NCLB supporters and detractors all agree, yet the situation doesn't appear to be getting any better.

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January 08, 2006

Education and despair in suburbia

California is not only standing firm on the state standardized exam, but beginning to crack the whip on local elementary schools:

Antelope Valley High School and Wilsona Elementary School are among the first six schools in California to face more serious sanctions because their standardized test scores failed to improve consistently. The two schools each will be visited by a state Department of Education team this month to help state officials decide among four possible sanctions to be imposed, the most draconian of which is closure...

State law requires the state schools superintendent to do at least one of the following:

Require that the school district ensure that 100 percent of the teachers at the school are highly qualified.

Require the school to contract with an outside organization to provide supplemental instruction to high-priority pupils and assign to the school a management team, trustee, or SAIT team with demonstrated success at other state-monitored schools.

Allow parents to apply to the state Board of Education to establish a charter school.

Close the school.

It sounds like everyone involved is still negotiating to avoid sanctions, however.

The Antelope Valley, by the way, was the California suburban wasteland profiled by William Finnegan in his bleak 1998 book, Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country. One book reviewer summarizes the unfriendly educational landscape of the Antelope Valley as seen by Finnegan:

The final section of the book describes the Antelope Valley in Southern California, which underwent a sudden transformation from desert to modern suburbia in the 1980s. By far the largest employer in the area was the Lockheed plant in Palmdale. At that time, a skilled aerospace worker (even without a college degree) could make $60,000 to $80,000 a year.

Then in the 1990s the Southern California economy entered a deep recession because of cutbacks in the aerospace and defense industries. Los Angeles County alone lost more than half a million jobs and USA Today called Palmdale "the foreclosure capital of California." As property values plunged, more blacks and Latinos could afford to buy or rent a house in the valley, and there was a lot of racial friction between the old and newer residents.

Finnegan described the area: "Navigating the teen world of the Antelope Valley felt, at times, like wading through the sucking bogs of my own generation's crash site. Everyone close to my age seemed to have been divorced twice, had their mortgage foreclosed, maxed out their credit cards, lost custody of their kids, or been addicted to drugs or alcohol or gambling or sex or born-again religion."

Here he finds youth involved in neo-Nazi skinhead gangs..

Each area Finnegan visited is very different from the other, but alike in many ways--wracked by structural unemployment and undereducation in public schools...

The primary theme of Finnegan's book was the downward mobility faced by today's teenagers, and the apathetic (except about race) and immature AV teenagers he interviewed were headed pretty quickly towards the bottom rungs. Very few of those that he interviewed cared the least bit about education; those who did were often forced to to walk a gauntlet of gangs and racist thugs in order to stay alive and unharassed at school. Granted, I was sheltered in my rural SC public school, but I don't remember emergency drills such as the “Active Shooter Response Training Scenarios,” mandatory anti-drug classes, and trained gang investigators at my school.

Sounds like things have gotten more frightening since Frank Zappa was a student there. One wonders what an honest solution would be.

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December 14, 2005

Flexing the rules

Schools have been awaiting the newly-flexible guidelines on testing disabled students:

The Department of Education this week plans to release proposed regulations on testing flexibility for certain students with disabilities, which will guide states in the lengthy process of developing new assessments. In April, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that 2 percent of students in special education who have “persistent academic disabilities” could be tested with alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards. Since then, states were given the opportunity to use some short-term measures to adjust their test scores for students with disabilities for the 2004-05 school year.

The goal of the flexibility policy is to accommodate students who can work toward grade-level standards, but cannot do so at the same speed as their peers, even with the best instruction. And the result of the flexibility, for some states, is that more of their students who are in special education will be deemed proficient under the No Child Left Behind law’s standards.

From Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling's speech at Guilford Elementary School today:

As you know, No Child Left Behind already allows students with the most significant cognitive disabilities—about 1 percent of all students—to take alternate assessments. Further research suggests that an additional 2 percent of students should be assessed with modified standards. These are students who can achieve high standards but may not reach grade level in the same time frame as their peers, even with the best instruction.

Last spring, I announced the Department would work with states to help them establish more appropriate assessments for these students...Today, we are taking the next step forward by releasing proposed regulations on how states can implement this new policy long term. These regulations provide guidance on how states can identify these students and modify grade-level standards for them. We have published the proposed regulations in the Federal Register, and I want to invite you all to comment on them. We want your input.

Those amended regulations are here. States may now be able to "define modified achievement standards for some students with disabilities," in acknowledgment of the fact that "while all children can learn challenging content, certain students, because of their disability, may not be able to achieve grade-level proficiency within the same time-frame as other students, even after receiving the best-designed instructional interventions..."

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November 29, 2005

NCLB lawsuit thrown out in Michigan

Well, this is big news:

A federal judge in Michigan on Wednesday dismissed a major challenge to the Bush administration's signature education program, No Child Left Behind, saying the federal government had the right to require states to spend their own money to comply with the law.

The action came in the first lawsuit that tried to block the education law on the ground that it imposed requirements on states and school districts that were not paid for by the federal government. A handful of states have complained that the law forces them to spend millions of dollars they do not have, and one, Connecticut, has sued the Department of Education in a separate federal action.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, not surprisingly, is happy with these results. She's also got big plans for NCLB:

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced Friday that states will be able to apply to switch from the current model that examines successive classes to a newly proposed growth model.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, an organization that conducts nationwide studies on NCLB, said he favors experimenting with the growth model.

“What we’ve heard consistently is that a value-added system would be a much better way to measure student progress,” he said. Current NCLB guidelines track progress from one year’s class to the next. The growth model will modify this system, allowing states to track the progress of individual students from year to year. “It’s a fairer system. You’re judging what a school adds to a child’s education, not the fluctuation between one third grade class and another third grade class,” Jennings said.

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October 12, 2005

An educational twister

Kansas wants out:

Chairman Steve Abrams wants the State Board of Education to consider opting Kansas out of the federal law that led to an additional 19 Kansas schools being labeled as failing to meet education standards last year. Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, said he doesn't know how far he wants to take the discussion, but added Tuesday, "I'm trying to get to the bottom line to see what's required, to see if there's a benefit"...

Abrams acknowledged that opting out of the law could cost Kansas federal education dollars, but he said the state also spends money trying to comply with No Child Left Behind. Meanwhile, newly appointed Education Commissioner Bob Corkins noted that state test scores showed that the achievement gap generally was narrowing between minority and white students, as well as between students who are learning English as a second language and native English speakers.

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September 30, 2005

Bad news in California

Not a good sign:

Nearly 100,000 California 12th graders — or about 20% of this year's senior class — have failed the state's graduation exam, potentially jeopardizing their chances of earning diplomas, according to the most definitive report on the mandatory test released today.

Students in the class of 2006, the first group to face the graduation requirement, must pass both sections of the English and math test by next June.

The exit exam, which has come under criticism by some educators, legislators and civil rights advocates, is geared to an 8th grade level in math and to ninth- and 10th grade levels in English.

I like the fact that the article lists the critical complaints and the low standards in the same sentence. It certainly lets readers draw their own conclusions.

Teachers, according to the report, said that that many students arrive unprepared and unmotivated for their high school courses and that their grades often reflect poor attendance and low parental involvement.

Point being? That the test isn't necessary? That it's impossible to teach them? Or is this the only politically-correct way to make a reference to what might be driving the achievement gap between ethnic groups?

Opponents of the exam said that it penalizes minority students and those in low-income communities whose overcrowded schools often lack experienced teachers and other necessary resources.

"It's unfair to give this test because of the unequal school system we have," said Edgar Sanchez, who teachers U.S. history at Washington Preparatory check tol High School in South Los Angeles. "Every day I see students go through conditions of overcrowding. Sometimes students don't have a desk to sit at."

If the system is this unequal, then the tests are absolutely necessary; otherwise, how will schools know what students need help? And without some sort of corrective measures, how can the state ensure that schools focus on those students?

The critics, as always, are calling for alternative assessments such as portfolios, which can be graded so squishily that no kid will ever be denied a diploma, no matter how poor their attitude or performance. I support the tests, but California's Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell faces an uphill battle against parents, students, and an educational community who believe that every student who wants a diploma must be awarded one.

Posted by kswygert at 09:23 PM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

September 22, 2005

Taking the test

Well, I suppose it's a good thing, politically, that Florida Education Commissioner John Winn and Governor Bush both did well on the FCAT:

Most questions from last spring's 10th-grade math and reading Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were made public for the first time. Education Commissioner John Winn was one of the first to take the exam Wednesday.

''I made a perfect score on the reading,'' he said. "And I missed two on the math.'' Both he and Gov. Jeb Bush said they received a Level 5 score, the highest possible.

Bush said the main goal in releasing the FCAT to the public was to rebuff criticism of the test, which is used to set annual school grades that determine whether schools should be sanctioned or rewarded.

The Herald is still thinking like dead-tree media and didn't provide the link; you can go here to see what's required of Florida's 10th-graders. Note that on the math section, they get tons of formulas AND a handy-dandy explanation of how to use the standard calculator.

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September 19, 2005

There's no escaping the tests

Katrina evacuee tasks: Find shelter, eat a decent meal, put on dry pair of pants, sharpen Number 2 Pencil, take the TAKS:

Louisiana students who fled their homes after Hurricane Katrina and are enrolled in Texas schools will be required to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and, like Texas students, will be required to meet passing standards...

Student victims of Katrina also must pass all tests at the third-, fifth- and eighth-grade level to be promoted and must pass exit exams to graduate. TAKS testing begins as early as February for some grade levels.

Testing standards between Texas and Louisiana are different, said Scott Elliff, who heads the Corpus Christi Independent School District's Curriculum and Instruction Department. But evacuees will be treated the same as any new student coming into the district.

Potential federal standards changes won't be known until the spring of 2006.

Michael, who's guest-blogging at Joanne Jacob's site, had this to say about Michigan's decision to exempt Katrina evacuees from state tests:

I know some people are going to think I'm hard-hearted, but really there's no reason that a kid who's ready to go back to school can't sit down and take a test.

It's. Just. A. Test.

You sit down, and you take it. All this fretting about students' being in the "right frame of mind" for standardized testing is a waste of time, energy, and only serves to reinforce the specious premise upon which it's based. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hype the test as something scary, something for which you need to be emotionally prepared... and it becomes more significant, it becomes scary.

Nothing would help those displaced kids more than being put back into the routine of life without grief counselors, without a bunch of fretting and worrying, and without special testing exemptions.

I've been saying for years that the critics who constantly insist that all tests are evil and scary and hard and biased against everyone except dead white right-handed men have no business yamming about test anxiety, because it's their hyperbolic comments that do much to increase that anxiety. If the students are truly traumatized, they should not be at school. But if their head is clear enough that they can show up and sit at a desk, give them the test. My guess is they now want to fit in with their new peers as much as possible, and having them all take the same exam is at least one thing they'll have in common.

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September 09, 2005

The only "disaster" here is this article

A non-psychometrician named Ted Rueter repeats a lot of the anti-testing myths in his CollegeNews.org article condemning NCLB:

What's wrong with testing, testing, testing? Plenty. First, annual high-stakes testing impedes learning. It produces rote memorization and a "drill and grill" curriculum...

Because, as we all know, an educational curriculum that requires students to master the basics and learn facts via memorization before moving on to higher-order thinking has never been shown to be effective.

Also, high-stakes testing encourages school dropouts. In Massachusetts in 2003, almost twenty percent of high school seniors did not pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment to receive their high school diplomas--including 44 percent of the state's black seniors and half its Hispanic seniors.

Nice to see that the test alone is getting blamed here for MA's dropouts, and that we're assuming causation from a simple relationship. Tell me, what was MA's graduation rate before NCLB was implemented? Good luck finding a straightforward answer to that question, but this article notes that Massachusetts had a 73% graduation rate in 2000. If 80% of Massachusett's seniors are now passing the exit exam, doesn't that suggest that the test isn't what's holding everyone back?

The difference in graduation rates between whites and minorities is still a crime, of course, but it's disgusting to see that blamed on tests, as though no such difference existed before NCLB, and as if the test scores alone - and not the lack of knowledge behind them - are what is holding back minority students today.

The No Child Left Behind Act also restricts the curriculum. It produces a narrow focus on math and reading test scores. Schools desperate to improve their test scores are eliminating courses in art, music, speech, debate, home economics, industrial arts, history, social studies, and physical education--as well as recess.

Raise your hand if you think a school should focus on industrial arts when it can't teach students how to read, write, and do simple arithmatic.

In addition, the Act narrows the range of performance-based accountability. Who says that a standardized test is the only way to measure student achievement? What about portfolios, exhibitions, essays, student-initiated projects, and teacher evaluations?

You know, it's touching the way that the uninformed place such great faith in those mystical "performance evaluations." I pontificated at length on this a couple of years back, and my comments still stand (and are still rarely addressed by standardized-testing critics):

One example of the schism between those who dream and those who produce in the world of educational reform is the the current fad for performance assessments (or portfolios). Those who tout these exams as an educational cure-all often have a mystical and unrealistic concept of them. They envision these exams as non-standardized, low-test-anxiety, touchy-feely, unbiased, multi-dimensional measures of "higher-level thinking" that don't require a lot of time to grade, yet are also perfectly reliable, perfectly valid, and inexpensive. These dreamers don't want to hear us when we tell them that these assessments require a great deal of funding to develop, lengthy amounts of time to administer and grade, and many controls in place to avoid rater bias.

Rater training is difficult work, and ratings must be done blind to avoid bias based on unrelated student qualities (such as race). Even with superb training, raters often disagree with one another or with the scoring rules, and the reliability of the scores is driven downward. The more qualified the rater, and the more training the rater receives, the more money they are paid.

Even if raters were perfect and cheap, developing a broad performance assessment is an extremely difficult task. If it's meant to measure something different from the multiple-choice exams, then what do we correlate the scores with to see what the test does measure? What type of items should be used? How do we quickly score open-ended items? How valid are short-answer items? What's the impact on certain subgroups if we suddenly switch item types? Do we move from one kind of test anxiety to another? And how are we supposed to combat test anxiety when certain activists keep insisting that our assessments are racially biased? Switching from an objective (multiple-choice) exam to a more subjective one increases the possibility of test bias. What if the test-score gap increases with these new assessments?

Back to Rueter's article, where we learn that firm parents are doing it all wrong:

Constant testing also increases pressure on young children. The Act calls for math and reading tests in third grade--when most students are eight years old. Putting pressure on young children runs counter to everything we know about the psychology of children and the psychology of learning...

The pressure to improve student test scores has also led to cheating.

So much for challenging children and filling up all those hungry, empty little heads with languages, manners, math, life skills, etc. I suppose we should wait until their synapses slow down before trying to put any educational pressure on them.

And as far as cheating goes, I can't improve on how I responded to similar blathering two years ago:

[The author] believes that high-stakes testing fails because the presence of high stakes encourages cheating. By that reasoning, all grades should be eliminated, because certainly students cheat in class, and all taxes should be eliminated, because taxpayers certainly like to cheat on their 1040s. Indeed, any strict set of rules which have ever been broken, or any set of standards circumvented, can be tossed out the window, by this logic.

Finally, we see that testing is just plain unhelpful:

Also, annual testing does nothing to improve schools and student performance. It focuses on punishment, negative labels, and threats.

The classic dodge - testing does nothing to improve education in and of itself, so we shouldn't use it, especially given that we slap the negative label of "failing" on those who, well, fail. The funny thing is that every psychometrician would agree that testing in and of itself doesn't fix matters - but good luck trying to determine whether a bad situation has gotten better without a pre- and post-assessment that is cheap, reliable, valid, easy to score, and easy to interpret.

We test schoolchildren, and schools, for the same reason that, no matter how much you practice learning to drive, you still have to take the driver's test to get a license. There has to be some way of assessing whether an educational method works.

This article isn't as hysterical as some, but for a nicely-spun and completely unsupported string of anti-testing statements, it's hard to beat. Wonder how many education majors will read this and take Ted Rueter's statements as gospel? One also wonders why, when there are other issues with NCLB that should be criticized, the critics keep focusing on the tests alone.

Posted by kswygert at 11:13 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

September 07, 2005

Local vs. Global action

A New York Times editorial praises NCLB - but notes that we should be thinking bigger:

The great achievement of No Child Left Behind is that it has forced the states to focus at last on educational inequality, the nation's most corrosive social problem. But it has been less successful at getting educators and politicians to see the education problem in a global context, and to understand that this country is rapidly losing ground to the nations we compete with for high-skilled jobs that require a strong basis in math and science.

The United States can still prosper in a world where its labor costs are higher than the competition's, but it cannot do that if the cheaper workers abroad are also better educated...the education community is in deep denial. American educators typically respond with yawns - and a series of myths. The most common is that Europeans educate only the elite, while this nation educates everybody. That hasn't been true since the early 20th century. Comparisons show that the rest of the developed world does a better job educating students of all economic backgrounds.

A second myth - that America's white elite children compare favorably with those abroad - is also false. In the most recent international data, comparing students in the top 5 percent in terms of achievement, the United States ranks 23rd out of 29. The third and most common myth - that the nations who do better than us are "homogenous" societies - is also not true. Immigration has transformed much of Europe, as it has the United States.

Posted by kswygert at 11:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 23, 2005

NCLB under fire

Connecticut has filed a federal lawsuit over NCLB:

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Hartford against federal Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, asks a judge to declare that state and local funds cannot be used to meet the goals of the law.

"We in Connecticut do a lot of testing already, far more than most other states. Our taxpayers are sagging under the crushing costs of local education," said Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. "What we don't need is a new laundry list of things to do _ with no new money to do them."

The lawsuit raises the stakes in a fight between states and the Bush administration over the law, and experts say legislatures across the country will be watching the case carefully. Experts expect that states could vote to join the lawsuit or file their own.

The suit's chief claim focuses on a clause in the 2001 law that says states and districts will not have to spend their own money to meet its requirements.

This isn't the first place this is happening:

The state is not the first entity to sue in response to No Child Left Behind. The National Education Association, a national teacher's union, filed a lawsuit last spring on behalf of local districts and 10 state union chapters, including Connecticut...

In Utah, the state legislature passed a measure defying the federal law, and it was signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman on May 2. The law gives state educational standards priority over the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

One local Republican paper notes that, "According to a recent report, every state except Alabama, Delaware and New York is fighting the law in some way."

Update:Blogs for Bush, on the right, say they've debunked Connecticut's claims before. And Folkbum, on the left, asks some good questions.

Update #2: Whoa, just found out that the Connecticut Department of Education linked N2P. That's kinda cool.

Posted by kswygert at 06:32 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 16, 2005

Here's some information about that (rotten) NCLB

I wonder, is it because of the heat that even neutral, informative articles about NCLB are getting negative spin?

Is something rotten with No Child Left Behind?

EAST BAY - Most have probably heard of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but when it comes to understanding what it all means, many of us feel like we're the ones who've been "left behind." The actual law is around 1000 pages (There's no need for that kind of torture). We've broken it down to the bare bones.

The No Child Left Behind Act is designed to guarantee that all students are being educated. With this act, it's not enough for children to "skate by." All children are expected to be proficient by 2014. NCLB marks a major increase in the level of accountability required of schools. NCLB itself is new, as of 2001, but the idea isn't. The history goes back to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education when the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools were unconstitutional. NCLB builds on this concept of equal education by breaking children into subgroups based on ethnicity and socioeconomic factors. This makes it almost impossible for any group to fall through the cracks just because a school's overall score is high. NCLB is actually part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. When it was time to look at ESEA again in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act was added.

Here are the basics goals...

Etc, etc. There are parental guidelines, links, some pros and very mild cons, and a quote from one delightfully clueless parent. But one question is left unanswered - what the heck is the deal with that headline?

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Making the best of an underfunded situation

I get the feeling, when I read this article, that its author really, really wants us to conclude that NCLB has ruined education. Try as I might, I just don't see it that way.

...[The students' energy and spirit is] what has helped make Rail Road Flat Elementary, despite its size, poverty, and social isolation, a state nominee last year for “national model of excellence” status, based on the school’s recent history of high standardized test scores.

But as becomes apparent in a lapse like the previous week’s, it’s only strong discipline that keeps that energy channeled. Discipline and the kind of teach-to-the-test learning that’s become endemic in the era of No Child Left Behind. Such rote learning often gets frowned upon in the schools of better-educated, more affluent communities. Here, though, in a 549-person town named for a type of mule-drawn rail-and-mining-cart arrangement that’s been obsolete for a hundred years, “whatever works” is clearly working.

I wonder why the author sounds so surprised.

By the time the 8 a.m. bell rings, all of Youngblood’s students have filed into his middle-trailer classroom—the one with a homemade plastic label on the door admonishing THINK THINK THINK. Inside, they’re already hard at work checking their algebra homework answers. Then it’s on to in-class problems, which Youngblood runs through with the drive of a drill instructor, and tonight’s homework: percentages, rates of speed, calculating the surface area of a cube, and the algebraic order of operations. After that, it’s language hour, with assignments in spelling and vocabulary. Next come exercises on compound sentences and similes, followed hard by a spelling test.

Even at recess, students can occasionally be seen sitting cross-legged by themselves, hitting the books in a quiet corner of the blacktop. From the beginning of the school year until the end, it’s a relentless, hard-hitting rhythm that doesn’t perceptibly slacken, even after the California Standards Tests are over. Don’t look here, in other words, for strategies to engage students—the students had better be engaged, or there are consequences ready and waiting. “There’s nothing entertaining about it,” Youngblood says. “It’s a grind, really. We come in, and we work all day.” His modus operandi and his theory of teaching are identical: “Just plow ahead.”

Why is it assumed that this method is incapable of engaging students? Is is the assumption that children can't handle challenges? That they can't possibly learn unless teachers make it entertaining? That they're incapable of understanding that all this rote memorization comes first and the good stuff comes later? This "plowing ahead" policy is consistent with the classical education method of filling up the heads of students with facts first, then teaching them how to argue and communicate those facts (i.e., "think critically) much later. Am I the only one here who thinks it's not a bad thing that these students are hitting the books at recess?

The real issue here, of course, is money. The school doesn't have a large tax base, and recieves less money than before from the government because it's doing so well on the state exams. There are fewer assemblies now - but did they really need 15 in nine months, before? Field trips are down, and what's there is funded by teachers and the students.

The funding issues are a problem, but I can't help but feel that by pounding the basic skills into the kids while they're still young, Rail Road Flat Elementary School's teachers are in fact doing more to ensure the future success of their young charges than if they had the cash for all the extras.

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

August 10, 2005

Getting to history

History teacher Polski3 lets loose with a long rant about why history education is suffering today, beginning with the following:

...highly regarded historian, David McCullough cited the negative impact of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative on teaching of history, because of NCLB's emphasis on language arts and math. McCullough also noted that too many "history teachers" in US public schools were NOT history majors, they majored in "education" and did not necessarily communicate a "love of history" to their students. He complained that textbooks were boring the kids to death and turning them off to history due to most history textbooks being written in a dry, data heavy format instead of a "narrative format.

I find much of what Mr. McCullough says to be true. However, I believe there are other factors in students lack of interest in the subject of history. I find that for most of the students entering my classroom in seventh grade, they have had very little exposure to history in their elementary school years...Trying to get the kids to score higher on their math and language arts tests is more important than including history...This is also largely due to mandates from our district office. YOU TEACHERS better bring up those damn test scores, or else!

Could these things be related? Yes, NCLB has so far put the focus on reading and mathematics. But if, as David McCullough claims, many history teachers have in fact no training in history, isn't it possible that other teachers have no training in reading and mathematics, either? Because it's very difficult for me to understand why schools now have to work SO HARD to teach basic skills. Could it be that students are failing to learn history because there's little time available for it, and that's because not only the history teachers are poorly-trained in their subject matter?

There's a reason NCLB focused on math and reading first. And if schools and teachers are having to literally give up everything else just to teach the 3R's, then something's wrong, and it's not necessarily with NCLB.

Posted by kswygert at 07:40 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

August 01, 2005

Looking ugly in Texas

The school ratings are out in Texas, and things aren't looking good:

Sixty-one districts, including 19 regular districts and 42 charter school operators, were labeled academically unacceptable, the lowest of the state's school accountability ratings. That compares with 24 districts that got the lowest rating last year.

The number of individual schools with the bottom ranking also increased, from 95 last year to 364 this year. Schools can appeal the ratings. Certain sanctions and interventions are taken against campuses receiving the academically unacceptable rating. Exemplary districts and campuses, those with the state's highest rating, declined in number.

Stricter standards were given as one reason for the results:

The main causes for schools and districts receiving the academically unacceptable rating...were students' math and science test performances and a new TAKS-aligned exam for special education students given for the first time.
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July 12, 2005

Wrangling over the TAKS alternate tests

I have to admit, I haven't been following closely the battle to exempt special education students from federal testing in Texas. Last year, only 1% were allowed to be exempt from the TAKS; Texas then battled to raise that to 3% this year. Nine percent were actually given an alternate exam two years ago, which has led some editorialists to insist than more than 9% of Texas's students are disabled, while other experts insist that 9% is way too high.

Almost one in ten seems a very high number to me, too, but I'm not a special education expert. I don't know how they decided on that number, given that the guidelines state that if the TAKS is an appropriate measure for a special education student, no alternate test should be given.

If anyone out there has any interesting links on the topic that they'd like to share, send 'em my way.

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June 09, 2005

Florida schools improve

Florida improves but the carping continues:

Despite tougher standards and the first-time inclusion of disabled students, Florida's schools generally maintained their state-assigned grades in reports released by Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday.

Bush also announced a potentially dramatic change in how the state's schools are judged by the federal No Child Left Behind act. The changes could mean that more than 60 percent of Florida schools may avoid federal retribution for failing to show improvement compared with only 23 percent last year.

The state grades are given after analyzing a number of measurements, including FCAT scores and the improvement of each student as he or she moves from grade to grade.

Bush said "the good news continues" and portrayed the grades as an ongoing step toward rectifying a public school system neglected for years.

The good news is immediately followed by criticism:

Democrats repeated their attacks on the grading system, saying they rely too much on the FCAT and ignore the needs of individual students in a diverse state. House Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale said school grades fail to acknowledge that the state's teachers' pay, average class size and graduation rates still rank near the bottom of the 50 states.

"It is one thing to declare success and another to truly achieve it," Smith said. "Unfortunately, the system adopted by the governor and Republicans is one that bases a child's lifetime of education on a standardized test on a single day; a horrible way to grade Florida's educational system."

Okay, suggest a better assessment to use for grading the educational system. But remember, the assessment has to be cheap (for a cash-strapped system), reliable (since there are high-stakes decisions being made), objective (to avoid possibility of biases) and standardized (so that schools can be compared to one another.)

I'm waiting, Mr. Smith.

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May 31, 2005

Minding the gap

One overwhelming benefit of NCLB is that schools must break down test scores by ethnic groups. The NYT discusses the impact of this regulation:

No Child Left Behind requires schools to bring all students to grade level over the next decade. The law has aroused a backlash from teachers' unions and state lawmakers, who call some of its provisions unreasonable, like one that punishes schools where test scores of disabled students remain lower than other students'. But even critics acknowledge that the requirement that schools release scores categorized by students' race and ethnic group has obliged educators to work harder to narrow the achievement gap.

"I've been very critical of N.C.L.B. on other grounds," said Robert L. Linn, a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. But he called the law's insistence that test scores be made public by race and ethnic group "one of the things that's been good."

At least 40 states compiled scores by racial and ethnic groups before President Bush signed the law in January 2002. (In New York, scores broken down by ethnicity were first made public in March 2002.) But even though scores were publicly accessible, many schools felt little pressure to close the gap before the law required that they show annual improvement for each category of student, including blacks, Latinos and American Indians, or face sanctions.

The debate rages on as to whether a top-down regulation like NCLB can help fix such a long-standing problem as the achievement gap, but when schools are forced to make such data public, they're likely to do everything within their power to shrink that gap. Some schools are more effective than others:

In the Pascagoula School District in Mississippi, where 43 percent of black sixth graders scored at the proficient level in math last spring, compared with 83 percent of whites, Superintendent Hank M. Bounds recently ordered all 60 or so district administrators, even directors of technology and security, to tutor low-performing students.

For Diana Krebs, the nutrition director, that has meant that after overseeing lunch for 6,000 Pascagoula children each day, she has driven to East Lawn Elementary school to work on arithmetic after school with four fourth-grade girls whose teacher said they needed extra practice.

"It's like helping your children with homework," Ms. Krebs said.

But not all states are focusing on the gap with equal energy, or in ways that will help minority children, said Enrique Aleman Jr., an education professor at the University of Utah, leaving him with what he called "conflicting views" on No Child Left Behind. Until last year he lived in Texas, where he said the law had seemed to turn his son Diego's elementary school into a testing factory.

"My son was bringing home practice tests every day, and that's not real education," Dr. Aleman said. "My view from Texas was that N.C.L.B. was hurting the kids it was supposed to help."

Test, then tutor, then test again. Too many schools are skipping the middle step.

Posted by kswygert at 03:25 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Getting better graduates?

Methinks a few educrats will wince at Jay Mathews' and Marcus Winters' description of pre-NCLB education as a "pigsty:"

The educational establishment hates the push for standards and accountability just as teenagers hate it when parents barge into their rooms. Both prefer to live in the pigsty unencumbered. Both resent being made to clean it up. No wonder. Change is never easy, and real change is often met with kicking and screaming. That's what we're seeing, just as the standards and accountability movement — embodied in No Child Left Behind — is producing results.

Today's high school graduates are more likely to be academically qualified to attend college than those of a decade ago, before the accountability movement took hold. And we can expect to see more progress if No Child Left Behind expands to high schools...

While the high school graduation rate has hardly budged...[since 1991]...the percentage of students who leave high school college-ready has increased by about 9 percentage points since 1991. Thus, schools are graduating about the same percentage of students, but those who graduate are more likely to have taken the courses required to go on to college.

Students are more college-ready because learning expectations and high school graduation requirements are rising. Responding to reformers' concerns, many states increased the difficulty of their curricula and began requiring students to demonstrate mastery of more difficult material before graduating.

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May 17, 2005

Welcome to NYC - here's your test

A NYC middle school follows the letter of the NCLB law, but not without complaint:

The teen was barely off the plane from Colombia when she took one test and then another yesterday at Jamaica's JHS 217. "She just got here," one teacher said to the test proctor as the new student, 14, sat by herself in the library, her pink and white sandals, as well as her blue sparkly nails, as new as her life in Queens. The proctor, Paula Nieto, shrugged. The teen, whose name is being withheld by request, had just taken a 90- minute state test on English proficiency, and after a lunch break, it was time for the eighth-grade math test. "I think it's a little crazy," Nieto said as she handed out the Spanish version of the test. "This girl is scared. Right now, she's nervous."

It may not have been the best welcome, but it was a sign of how test-driven the education system has become nationwide, educators said...

In the old days, principal Jeannette Reed said, the newcomer would have about two weeks to settle down before getting less formal assessments created by 217's teachers to identify her skills and needs. She would have been assigned a "buddy," a Spanish-speaking student mentor, from Colombia, if possible.

And is there any reason that can't still be done? Do we think this student was irreparably harmed by taking a test in her native language? What's so bad about the first day of school being a bit challenging? The system isn't perfect, I agree, but I'm not sure how else to prevent schools from using loopholes to avoid testing low-performing students.

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May 10, 2005

Opposing the rules, not the exams

An in-depth article describing Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg Sternberg, and the reasons for her opposition to NCLB:

We've got better things to spend our money on," says Sternberg, explaining why she is opposed to a provision in the federal law that requires states to test students annually, beginning next year. "We won't learn anything new about our schools by giving these extra tests"...

Connecticut officials, like educators in several other states, argue that No Child Left Behind needlessly duplicates many of their own accountability measures, which were put in place long before the federal law and provide ample information about how students are performing...

Federal officials have fired back by accusing Connecticut of tolerating one of the nation's largest "achievement gaps"- the margin between low-performing minority students and high-performing white students. Spellings infuriated Connecticut officials by depicting opponents of No Child Left Behind as "un-American" in an interview for the PBS "NewsHour" program recently.

A Democrat who was named to run the Connecticut Department of Education in 2003, Sternberg says she is not opposed to standardized tests on principle. Indeed, she spent much of her 24-year career in the department developing the Connecticut Mastery Test, one of the oldest school accountability systems in the country. Her complaint is with the frequency of the tests, and how they are used by teachers.

Posted by kswygert at 09:46 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

April 29, 2005

Support for NCLB

Support for NCLB in the Mercury News:

For five years, California's attempt to fix failing schools was confused and in disarray. But the federal No Child Left Behind Act has a timetable and sanctions that hold the state's feet to the fire, and this has forced California to make a long-overdue change. State officials now have adopted an academically focused school-improvement method that should work to rescue failing schools. The state and its school districts need to persist in this effort.

Authors Bill Evers and Lance Izumi are of the "schools benefit from facing a takeover" mindset, which is anathema to educrats who'd like schools to remain immune to outside criticism, much less dismantling. For an example of such educrats, Martin West and Paul Peterson suggest the NEA ($ubscription required), using a comparison that is sure to make the union see red:

The National Education Association, its affiliates in 10 states, and a ragbag of school districts have just filed a federal lawsuit alleging that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is an unfunded mandate. If the NEA's complaints sound hauntingly familiar, it's because Americans have heard them before -- 40 years ago, when Southern segregationists did their best to evade the desegregation requirements of Lyndon Johnson's original law offering federal aid for education.

Then, recalcitrant school districts complained about an unfunded mandate. Then, they objected that the dollars did not cover the full cost of desegregating their schools. Now, resistance comes from those who claim to represent public-school employees. Now, as much as then, the resistance is woefully misguided.


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April 25, 2005

NCLB opinions

The Arizona Capital Times calls them "revolts"...

The first salvos of a long-threatened attack on President Bush’s signature education law now have been launched in what amounts to a grassroots rebellion against the No Child Left Behind [NCLB] Act. Simmering frustrations from state and local officials over the 2002 law’s costs, testing requirements and penalties have erupted into open conflict with the Utah Legislature voting April 19 to challenge obedience to the federal law, and the nation’s largest teachers’ union filing suit against the act in federal court April 20. The state of Connecticut is preparing a separate lawsuit seeking full funding of NCLB’s provisions.

Recent efforts by Bush education officials to head off a backlash failed to stop this week’s challenges to the law, which Congress passed with bipartisan support to close education gaps between rich and poor, white and minority students...

...while Chester Finn calls them "tantrums":

Dozens of states are throwing toddler-style tantrums about the rules and expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act - notable among them Connecticut, which plans to sue the federal government on grounds that the law is an "unfunded mandate."

The Bush administration's olive branch is a pledge of a "new, common-sense approach" to compliance and "additional flexibility" on testing and accountability for states that have made progress on NCLB's goal: closing the gap between the academic achievement of poor and minority students and their wealthier, whiter fellow students.

Does this new flexibility mean that adult interests will again trump the needs of children? It's looking that way.

Diane Ravitch looks for the compromise in the Wall Street Journal ($ubscription required), and reminds readers that the reasons underlying the need for the act haven't disappeared:

The critics of NCLB think that it was modeled on education reforms in Texas and that it sprang full-blown from the brow of President Bush. They think they can undermine NCLB if only they can expose shortcomings in Texas's schools. But NCLB is not going away because it is the product of many years of bipartisan demands for changes in the role of the federal government, especially in meeting its responsibilities to poor children...

NCLB will not come up for renewal until 2007. Until then, there will be griping by those who don't like the new federal role in education and those who don't want to see children tested every year. But it seems safe to predict that the next renewal will strengthen the law rather than weaken it. After all, annual testing is hardly a new idea in American education. Not just reading, math and science, but history too is likely to become part of the NCLB mandate for testing.

What is valuable about the law is its insistence that districts measure their progress in helping the children who can't meet state standards. Raising achievement across the board will be hard -- but it is not mission impossible.

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April 14, 2005

Asking too broad a question

The Eduwonks rightfully tweak the NYT for taking a study with a small, limited sample and running it as research that generalizes to the entire student population:

Ordinarily, when an organization releases a study with the caveat that its sample is "not nationally representative" a national news organization wouldn't then run a big story on it as somehow indicative of a national trend. But not The New York Times when it's education and chance to pop No Child Left Behind in the nose.

This new study, while actually very interesting, is not as negative as the NYT story or headline indicate, and is not nationally representative because about 75 percent of the sample is from just four states. In addition, urban districts are underrepresented as are African-American students (substantially). Also, in 7 of the 23 states that make up the sample, only one or two school districts even participate.

To be fair, the NYT article does note the criticisms of the study, and also notes that the results conflict with other existing research. On the other hand, though, the article is critical of NCLB (even thought it's far too early to see when it works, for whom it works, and why), and focuses heavily on the minority achievement gap, even though the study undersampled urban students.

Posted by kswygert at 12:23 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 13, 2005

Overtesting in Maine

Down East they're plum tested out:

After being encouraged in the 1990s to shun standardized tests in measuring student progress, Maine’s teachers now are feeling overwhelmed by a new wave of state and federal student testing requirements.

Maine’s so-called “local assessment” approach to measuring student progress has become so burdensome that Governor John E. Baldacci, Maine Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron and the state’s teachers union have called for delaying assessment-based high school graduation requirements that were supposed to affect this year’s freshmen class...

Further complicating the issue are the federal assessment requirements of the so-called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. NCLB requires public schools nationwide to demonstrate student proficiency in English/language arts, mathematics and science/technology. To that list Maine has added social studies, health and physical education, career preparation, modern and classical languages and visual and performing arts.

Ambitious? Yes. But having to create assessments on the local level while still developing the standards and having to cover material on statewide assessments would be an overwhelming task for just about anyone, and it sounds like that's what Maine's teachers have been doing. To make matters worse, performance on the statewide assessment that is used for NCLB purposes is not good; less than half the state's 11th-graders are meeting standards on reading, and the numbers are worse for the other subjects.

Thus, it's not surprising that Maine may soon be following Connecticut's lead.

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Spellings is taken to task

Connecticut's State Education Commissioner wants an apology from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings:

State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg is asking U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to apologize for critical comments she made about Connecticut's response to the federal No Child Left Behind law on a television news program last week...

She said Spellings was wrong to say on the NewsHour program that Connecticut is claiming it is not ready to start giving the tests in grades 3, 5, and 7. Sternberg said the state has done the work necessary to prepare for the tests' administration and is one of only five states in the country that are on track to fully implement No Child Left Behind's requirements.

"On a very personal note, I must tell you as a Jewish American whose family was deeply affected by the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and later by the Holocaust, bigotry is never "soft,'" Sternberg wrote. "Bigotry always has a hard edge. It is simply outrageous that you would accuse me and my associates of "the soft bigotry of low expectations.'"

Spellings' comments came two days after state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced his intention to sue the U.S. Department of Education for not giving Connecticut enough funding to implement No Child Left Behind, which he said is illegal and unconstitutional.

A DOE spokeswoman says Spellings' remarks were taken "out of context," but it's hard to think of more than one context for the quote, "[Connecticut is] trying to find a loophole to get out of the law as opposed to attending to the needs of those kids."

Posted by kswygert at 06:56 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 11, 2005

Back and forth over NCLB

Although Connecticut is the only state currently suing over NCLB, Utah has been making unhappy rumblings as well. The Eduwonks note that some NCLB supporters are rumbling back:

Not so fast. That was the message Wednesday night from minority parents and community leaders who now question Utah's push to relax federal school- and teacher-quality standards...

Others said they resented the state's efforts to downplay, if not abandon, NCLB. They argued that the state system virtually ignores minority students, who have long lagged behind their white and Asian peers on standardized tests. Luciano Martinez said that as a district administrator in Granite School District, he had a difficult time persuading principals to focus resources on their struggling minority students. "I can see why No Child Left Behind came about," he said.

Jenny D. comments as well. However, she's busy this week with the AERA conference, which is indeed the mother of all educational conferences. Many people from my organization are there, but I'm holding on to my travel money for Psychometric Society this July. Holland, here I come!

Posted by kswygert at 12:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Connecticut's challenge

Connecticut sticks its neck out as the first state to file a lawsuit challenging NCLB:

The lawsuit comes after Connecticut exhausted its appeal process to avoid expanding standardized testing to grades three, five and seven. The state has tested students in grades four, six and eight for years with the Connecticut Mastery Test.

State education officials say that they already know minority and poor children don't perform as well as their wealthy, white peers, and that additional tests aren't going to tell them more.

This has been all over the web for a while. Connecticut claims that it already has testing in place to handle the alternate-year assessments, and doesn't have the money necessary to create new ones. Recently, it was announced that schools will have more leeway in testing students with disabilities (a not-universally-popular change), which leaves some to wonder if we're on a troubling slippery slope back to the old days of naccountability:

For decades, states were not held accountable for the billions in federal education dollars they received. So despite the doubling of education spending between 1970 and 2000, student achievement, however measured, remained flat and low. In 2003, nearly 40 percent of our nation's fourth-graders were reading at the "below basic" level. Worse, the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers remained staggeringly large.

These problems persisted even though most states implemented significant education reforms throughout the 1980s and 1990s. NCLB was the federal response, an effort to narrow the achievement gap, provide options to children in failing schools and ensure that future federal funds were well spent...

...there is still enormous work to be done in Maryland. My concern is that the widening anti-NCLB fever could prove contagious and encourage some in our state to buck the spirit or letter of the law...Maryland should reject the contempt for NCLB, now so fashionable elsewhere, and continue to embrace the law's commitment to improved academic achievement for all our children.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is saying the same thing to Connecticut, though in a tad more inflammatory fashion:

In a nationally televised PBS interview, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings threw barbs such as "un-American" and "soft bigotry" while discussing the state's threat to sue the federal government over elements of the 3-year-old law.

She suggested Connecticut's opposition to NCLB, intended to raise education standards nationwide, amounts to tacit acceptance of achievement gaps between white and minority students. "Here they are on the eve of implementation telling us that they can't do it. I think it's regrettable, frankly, when the achievement gap between African-American and Anglo kids in Connecticut is quite large," she said during an interview on "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Thursday.

"And you know, I think it's un-American — I would call it — for us to take the attitude that African-American children in Connecticut living in inner cities are not going to be able to compete," Spellings said. "That's the notion, the soft bigotry of low expectations, as the president calls it, that No Child Left Behind rejects."

Posted by kswygert at 10:23 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 01, 2005

The usefulness of edublogs

The Columbia Journalism Review has a lengthy article on NCLB and education reform, and how education reporters are often hampered by a lack of understanding of policy, psychometrics, and the reality of life inside the schools:

...Not surprisingly, these reforms, which have more to do with managing school systems than teaching kids, work best when they operate in a centralized, businesslike manner. Since management systems depend heavily on measuring tools, the standardized test — education’s most popular assessment measure — takes on added importance. All this exacerbates the press’s tendency to rely on official sources, and on the seductive power of the test score as the sole measure of success. To avoid the trap of oversimplification, reporters need a working knowledge of everything from psychometrics to education theory in order to untangle where the numbers end and the truth begins...

...Unfortunately, like No Child Left Behind, the story of social promotion is rarely reported from a student’s or school’s perspective. Even more surprising, stories about the campaign against social promotion barely hint at the raft of research showing that retention in grade does more harm than good. Philadelphia has tried it, as have Baltimore, Houston, Washington, D.C., and New York City (three times), along with about twenty-one other school districts nationwide, all with similar results. Instead of infusing coverage with knowledge of the past, reporters hungry for some excitement on the beat tend to embroider official pronouncements, writing as if the policy is a new idea...

The authors clearly understand that education reporting improves substantially when stories are presented "straight up from local schools, where the voices of teachers and children bring the national policy home to readers," and when reporters dig "behind the data, analyzing their origins and putting a human face on their percentages."

And yet the one word you won't find in this article is "blog."

Nothing about edublogs, blogs by teachers, blogs by parents interested in reform, blogs by parents who are fed up and now homeschooling, even blogs by psychometricians (like me). Nothing about the revolution in education reporting that has resulted from those fed up with biased and uninformed reporting. CJR, there's a whole revolution in education reporting that's right under your nose, and while some newspapers are doing a splendid job of explaining NCLB, the impact of great reporting is greatly enhanced thanks to the edubloggers who link to these articles, like Joanne Jacobs, the Education Wonks, The Education Gadfly, EduWonk, and dozens of others.

Posted by kswygert at 03:24 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

March 03, 2005

"Teaching to the test" might just be bad teaching

Villager (TX) guest columnist Jennifer Leeth understandably wants to raise good thinkers, not good test-takers. But part of her argument doesn't exactly hang together:

High-stakes test scores alone reflect neither best teaching practices nor good learning. Case in point: We have twin fifth graders in separate public school classrooms. For those who don't know, fifth grade is a "fail the test, fail the grade" year. In preparation for last week's reading TAKS test, Teacher A drilled the students all quarter on reading passages and testing strategies at the expense of other learning activities. The week before The Test, her class read 14 passages in language arts class alone, and still more in science and social studies classes. By TAKS time, this child was burned out and stressed beyond consolation.

In contrast, Teacher B continued to teach the state-mandated curriculum while preparing her students for The Test. This class continued to read authentic literature and engage in discussions and projects while they prepared for the TAKS. Not surprisingly, this child was more relaxed and mentally ready for The Test.

Which child will score better on the TAKS? Does it really matter?... before you fault Teacher A, ask yourself whether you really want a school finance system that forces teachers to teach to a test for their own survival and that of their school.

But, given the fact that Teacher B apparently exists, can't the argument be made that the test is not the problem? After all, Teacher B wasn't forced to "teach to the test." I read this and I think that Teacher A chose to teach in a manner that was stressful, though presumably effective, and I could logically conclude that the problem is Teacher A's strategies, not the test itself.

I would be very interested in knowing which teaching method was more effective, as measured by the test, and I would not be surprised to hear that Teacher B was in fact more effective. However, it would be nice if a better argument against the TAKS could be mustered than, "Some teachers get stressed out and focus only on the exam."

Ms. Leeth closes with:

...if you are able to process these arguments and respond with critical thinking skills, ask yourself whether your own test scores reflect the full extent of your abilities, and then thank your teacher.

No one test can reflect the full extent of educational ability; no test should claim that it can. Most if not all "do-or-die" tests, like the fifth-grade TAKS, are basic skills exams that do not claim to measure the full extent of skills possessed. They claim to measure the absolute basics that are needed to progress to the next level. Thus, it's legitimate to be concerned with confronted with a teacher who is supposedly great at imparting higher-order thinking skills, yet produces students who are clueless about the basics.

The notion that, somehow, children can be very educated and advanced and free-thinking and logical, yet unable to handle a test of basic reading, science, and math skills, is so pervasive these days. Where did this meme come from? When did we decide that it was more important for fifth-graders to have these "critical thinking" skills than to understand how many days there are in a year, or be able to summarize the main point of a three-page story?

Posted by kswygert at 11:39 AM | Comments (45) | TrackBack

March 02, 2005

Asking questions about the NJ ASK

Fascinating discussion going on over at The Art Of Getting By (via The Education Wonks):

As if 9 week "assessments" weren't enough, my poor little third graders spend the entire year eating, sleeping and breathing the same mantra, "THE TEST IS COMING! THE TEST IS COMING!" Meanwhile, us teachers feel like the little engine that could's engineers repeating, "I THINK THEY CAN, I THINK THEY CAN..."

The test I am speaking of is the NJ Ask. It's this huge standardized test a la, the SAT's for eight year olds. So, before they even know how to write in cursive, these kids know all about anxiety. The NJ Ask is supposed to be a formal assessment of all skills the average third grader should be, at the very least, proficient in. It covers everything from from multiplication and division, to decoding and writing to a prompt. I think they might even ask kids for a recipe for how to make a good gumbo, I'm not really sure.

Some of the comments devolve into the usual Bush-bashing, but others are thoughtful concerns about over-testing students - and at least one parent likes the tests. Unlike many people, I believe the tests are a good thing, but like many testing opponents, I believe it's possible to have too much of a good thing. This teacher's school tests kids formally every nine weeks, and I think it's acceptable to question whether that's appropriate.

So what is the NJ ASK, anyway? It's a measure to see how well the state's third- and fourth-graders are "learning the knowledge and skills called for by the state’s academic standards, the Core Curriculum Content Standards." I found this presentation on the NJ ASK.

I also found sample math items online. Does it look difficult? Yes, it does, although I can't say "too difficult," because I'm not a content specialist in this area. But it troubles me that the math items are so wordy. For example:

Estimate 423 – 174. The difference is between which numbers?

A. 0 and 199
B. 200 and 399
C. 400 and 599
D. 600 and 799

I''m wondering why estimating to get a range is important here. Why not just ask them:

423 - 174 = _____

Also, unless they're giving them partial credit for "good" wrong answers when scoring, there's not much to be gained by making this type of item an MCQ. Of course, MCQ's do allow students to guess.

The open-ended sample item is:

A juice machine charges 65¢ for a can of juice and accepts only nickels, dimes, and quarters. The machine requires exact change.

•Show a combination of coins you could put in the juice machine to get a can of juice.
•Is there another combination of coins you could use to get a can of juice? Show your work and explain your answer.

To be honest, I'm confused by "show a combination." Does that mean list the coins by name? List the amounts? Draw the coins? Perhaps it means all three, but what's wrong with "What is one combination of nickels, dimes, and quarters that could you use to buy one can? Is there another combination?" It's a good construct to test - certainly, it's got real-life applications - but as I neither teach nor have third-graders, I can't say for certain if this seems like something they should be able to do.

(Amusing side anecdote: One time in graduate school, an officemate of mine - who was notoriously ignorant about children - mortally offended another student's precocious 9-year-old daughter when first he asked her if she could put coins in the drink machine all by herself, then asked her if she was able to read the button labels all on her own. There is no huffiness like that of a capable 9-year-old girl.)

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February 10, 2005

A controversy that surprises no one

CNN's headline: "High-school testing bill 'faces stiff resistance.'"

No! Really? Imagine that.

President Bush's plan to expand standardized testing in high schools is facing a fight from some of the same leaders in Congress who pushed through his first-term school agenda. Bush wants Congress to require yearly reading and math tests in grades nine through 11, further extending a greater federal role in education...

Congressional education leaders are wary, if not opposed, to the way Bush wants to change high school, as outlined in his new budget proposal. He wants to spend $1.2 billion on high school "interventions," for example, but erase about as much from vocational education. Interventions could include dropout prevention efforts, individual assessments of students and programs to better prepare poor students for college...

The No Child Left Behind law requires schools to show yearly progress among all major groups of students, with the goal of getting all children up to grade level in reading and math. Testing is a cornerstone, and Bush officials says it makes sense to expand it in high school.

Democratic leaders say they have been burned by their first go-round on the education law, which passed with highly touted bipartisan support. Democrats say schools have not received enough money and that Bush's new budget makes it worse by cutting overall spending.

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February 02, 2005

Today is one for the record books

Cute. Only in this version, I doubt we'd see too much journalistic bias in the reporting of yards rushed and passes caught. And it's funny to imagine a scenario where the bleeding-heart opponents of NRLB (No Receiver Left Behind) are fighting for the rights of the players to score touchdowns in more subjective and "caring" ways.

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February 01, 2005

Leave Bad Schools Behind

A tale of one California school in which parents are speaking their minds by moving their kids:

Oak Grove Middle School has low state test scores, and for many parents -- and teachers -- that's all they need to know. It doesn't matter that the Concord school once was honored as a California Distinguished School and has classes for gifted and talented students, a state-of-the-art technology program and even a psychologist on campus to support the kids.

What matters is that widely publicized state test scores and the federal No Child Left Behind Act have labeled the school underperforming, giving parents a reason to leave. Enrollment has dropped from 915 last year to 750, and the parents of another 180 students have requested transfers by the fall. The act also has figured in the loss of 40 teachers in recent years, Principal Lorie O'Brien said.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this why California's accountability program, open enrollment policies, and NCLB were implemented? So that parents could make judgments based on objective criteria and move their kids someplace better if they chose to do so? Why aren't we being asked to be happy here for the at-most 345 students who may now be attending schools better suited for them? Is the assumption here that no school could possibly be better than one with a psychologist on call, test scores be damned?

...The schools fail to meet state and federal accountability standards often because they're struggling to teach low-scoring students who are learning English after immigrating to the United States, said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., an advocacy organization for more effective public schools which has studied the effects of the federal law.

Jennings and other education experts say that as the schools' test scores spiral downward, it's not uncommon for the more educated families to pull their kids out, increasing the percentage of low-scoring students and making it even more difficult to raise the scores. As a result, the schools -- which range from suburban ones such as Oak Grove to urban campuses -- lose per-pupil funding and the benefits of parents with the time and resources to get involved.

Yes, but if schools are having a very difficult time teaching immigrants, doesn't that suggest that something could in fact be wrong with the educational process? Should parents who do care about how their kids are educated be forced to hang around and pick up the slack for those who don't? And isn't it possible that as test scores decline, other issues could arise - like overcrowding and discipline problems - that arealso factors in a parent's decision to pull out?

Bottom line - isn't it perfectly okay for parents to decide that they value test scores over diversity in a school? Or has that been made illegal by the pro-diversity crowd?

"(At) schools that are so labeled, sometimes teachers feel they're being blamed unfairly, and sometimes teachers are looking for ways to leave," Jennings said. "Sometimes the better-educated parents take advantage of the school choice option."

Again, wasn't NCLB supposed to have at least some of this effect? Because some of those teachers who are so labeled are in fact not doing a great job of teaching. And the last time I checked, it wasn't only parents of kids who were doing well who can request transfers. Any parent can request such a transfer, and any kid can benefit from it. Perhaps it's more likely that better-educated parents will request the transfers, but it seems somehow dishonest to present the story in such a way that a less careful reader might conclude that income is somehow a necessary factor in the equation.

Oak Grove has always had a mix of students from blue- and white-collar families who live in Concord and more affluent Walnut Creek. In 1996, the state named it a California Distinguished School for its exemplary teaching and high standards.

Yes, and in 1996 I was still legally married and wearing size 5 jeans. Schools, which tend to be populated with people, can change as people do. What's more, according to the middle school rubric online here, at least some of the factors going into the selection of distinguished schools are as fuzzy as:

Evidence shows how the entire school community is committed to the vision that all students will reach the standards and demonstrates how all students will be ready for high school and for passing the high school exit exam.

If being committed doesn't translate into something that's objectively measurable, how much is the commitment worth to the students?

Back to the original article:

...n the seven years since the first of the state's new test scores -- which the federal law uses to gauge a school's performance -- the school has seen a marked shift in its demographics: The Hispanic population -- which is largely from the Monument Boulevard area in Concord -- has jumped from 27 to 52 percent, while the white population has dropped from 57 to 30 percent, according to the state Department of Education...

Kristy Caldwell's two children, who attend the high-performing Bancroft Elementary in Walnut Creek, would attend Oak Grove, and that deeply concerns her. "I'm not prejudiced, (but) the school became English-as-a-second-language, " she said. "You would be taking my kids from a great environment to a ghetto environment where they're struggling with other needs ... The test scores at Oak Grove are terrible."

A parent of any race could make the same decision for their kids. Especially when, as the article goes on to say, there are "persistent rumors" that Oak Grove has a problem with fights. Are we supposed to assume that there is absolutely no basis for those rumors? Is a parent whose kid has been beaten up on campus being racist by wanting to move them? Or ignorant in warning them to be careful?

I find it interesting that this article does not explicitly state that any parent can request such a transfer, and that said transfer might be attractive to any parent when a school's demographics have changed so rapidly that "rumors" of violence abound and teachers are forced to teach basic English as well as everything else.

Are parents of children with high test scores making this problem worse by leaving? Yes, when the "problem" is defined as "How do we keep a public school populated when times have changed and scores are down?" However, it's perfectly legitimate for those outside the system to judge with their feet and define the problem as, "How do I best educate my kids?" In which case, the parents are addressing the problem just fine - and in the way that state and federal accountability programs intended.

(via FreeRepublic.)

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January 28, 2005

Spelling the end of spelling bees

OK, I'm still scratching my head over this one:

The Lincoln [RI] district has decided to eliminate this year’s spelling bee -- a competition involving pupils in grades 4 through 8, with each school district winner advancing to the state competition and a chance to proceed to the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C....Assistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Newman said the decision to scuttle the event was reached shortly after the January 2004 bee in a unanimous decision by herself and the district’s elementary school principals.

The administrators decided to eliminate the spelling bee, because they feel it runs afoul of the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "No Child Left Behind says all kids must reach high standards," Newman said. "It’s our responsibility to find as many ways as possible to accomplish this."

The administrators agreed, Newman said, that a spelling bee doesn’t meet the criteria of all children reaching high standards -- because there can only be one winner, leaving all other students behind.

"It’s about one kid winning, several making it to the top and leaving all others behind. That’s contrary to No Child Left Behind," Newman said. A spelling bee, she continued, is about "some kids being winners, some kids being losers." As a result, the spelling bee "sends a message that this isn’t an all-kids movement," Newman said.

Furthermore, professional organizations now frown on competition at the elementary school level and are urging participation in activities that avoid winners, Newman said. That’s why there are no sports teams at the elementary level, she said as an example. The emphasis today, she said, is on building self-esteem in all students.

"You have to build positive self-esteem for all kids, so they believe they’re all winners," she said. "You want to build positive self-esteem so that all kids can get to where they want to go." A spelling bee only benefits a few, not all, students, the elementary principals and Newman agreed, so it was canceled.


You know, my first thought here was that perhaps Newman and the school principals actually oppose NCLB and are being craftily sarcastic in their opposition to it, by coming up with a ridiculous position and insisting that it follows the letter of the law. Certainly, anyone who knows little of NCLB won't think much of it if they believe it prohibits any and all competition.

But on second thought, I doubt the thought processes here are that complex. It's probably just another simple-minded case of an educrat assuming that competion is evil and winning on any scholastic front is a zero-sum game. So much for the self-esteem of those who had hoped to win the spelling bee this year - or even those who would have been quite happy to make the top 10.

Hey Newman, are you making sure that all of your students learn to spell perfectly? If so, then we'll be quite happy to call them all "winners." If not, then those kids are most definitely going to realize their shortcomings when they graduate from your overprotective environment and learn that it's up to them to keep from being left behind.

Oh, and these school principals might want to take a look at this month's Scientific American, which contains the article "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth." Key grafs:

At the outset, we had every reason to hope that boosting self-esteem would be a potent tool for helping students. Logic suggests that having a good dollop of self-esteem would enhance striving and persistence in school, while making a student less likely to succumb to paralyzing feelings of incompetence or self-doubt. Early work showed positive correlations between self-esteem and academic performance, lending credence to this notion. Modern efforts have, however, cast doubt on the idea that higher self-esteem actually induces students to do better.

Such inferences about causality are possible when the subjects are examined at two different times, as was the case in 1986 when Sheila M. Pottebaum, Timothy Z. Keith and Stewart W. Ehly, all then at the University of Iowa, tested more than 23,000 high school students, first in the 10th and again in the 12th grade. They found that self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade. Academic achievement in 10th grade correlates with self-esteem in 12th grade only trivially better. Such results, which are now available from multiple studies, certainly do not indicate that raising self-esteem offers students much benefit. Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance.

Emphasis mine, with "artificially" being the key word there. If Newman's kids aren't taught to relish the art of spelling - and relish academic competition in general - it's quite possible that any boost in "self-esteem" they recieve from not having to watching others win at spelling bees will be pretty artificial.

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January 24, 2005

Spelling an end to social promotion

Despite the howls of protest over retaining Florida's third-graders who didn't pass the FCAT, the retained students appear to be doing better:

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's study encourages the use of standardized tests to end social promotions, which allow students to advance to the next grade level to keep up with their peers...the state Board of Education last week decided it would ask lawmakers to end social promotions at all grade levels...

The Manhattan Institute, a think tank that researches public-policy issues, released a study in December that showed Florida third-graders who were retained did better on the FCAT than those who were socially promoted. Researchers presented testimony about the study earlier this month at a meeting conducted by the House of Representatives' PreK-12 Committee.

The study compared the third-grade class of 2002-03, the first to fall under the retention policy, to the previous class. Low-performing students who were retained made higher gains - 4.10 percentile points - than similar performing students who were promoted.

Researchers acknowledged that their results only show one year and that they hope to conduct a long-term study to learn more about the impact of the policy.

The study is here; Devoted Readers will not be surprised to learn Jay Greene is the author (in fact, you probably got around to reading it before I did).

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Where does the science fit in?

In Spring of 2008, the state of North Carolina is going to begin testing fifth- and eighth-graders in science. The trick now is in deciding just where to squeeze science classes into the elementary and middle school curricula:

Science has continued to be taught, of course. But with schools struggling to find enough time in busy days, top priority often goes to reading and math. Test results in those crucial subjects help establish a school's reputation and determine teacher bonuses.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board committee is scheduled to discuss Tuesday whether to lengthen its six-hour and 15-minute elementary school days, which are shorter than in many other N.C. districts. The extra push on science is helping spur the idea, which some board members and district officials have already endorsed...

Some fear tests will prompt school districts to rely solely on textbooks instead of also including the experiments that help science come alive. But state and local education leaders say they must do more hands-on learning.

"If they are actually manipulating the materials, they are going to understand the concept better, instead of just memorizing a definition," said Marty McGinn, Fort Mill, S.C.'s testing coordinator.

In South Carolina, teachers combine science with reading and math to save time and help students learn, McGinn said. One Fort Mill class, for example, read about earthquakes, then worked with partners to write books about them.

That kind of so-called integrated instruction helps kids truly grasp what's taught, said Colleen Sain, Cabarrus County's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "We have to decide what we're about as far as education," Sain said. "Do we have a list of 100 facts that we want every child to memorize and spit out by the end of high school? Or do we want them do see the connectiveness?"

I'd've said "connectivity," but I see her point. However, it's good to see that schools are considering lengthening the school day in order to respond to an increased push for science education.

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January 14, 2005

Looking for the middle ground

Another day, another state (Michigan), another round of debate on the topic of grading diverse schools based on how their subgroups perform:

Large school districts say their diversity is their strength, but it became the Achilles heel of some local schools Thursday when federal No Child Left Behind rankings were issued. Seven of the region's 10 biggest school districts -- representing 46 percent of West Michigan's students -- failed to meet federal guidelines in math and English tests...

While the system is intended to hold districts accountable for the education of all students, leaders of large and diverse districts say the odds are stacked against them because they will have more subgroups -- giving them more chances to fail.

Superintendents said forcing special education students to take tests designed for mainstream students is particularly unfair. Of the nine area districts that missed the AYP mark, eight were tagged partially because of scores from special education students.

...Kentwood Superintendent Mary Leiker said it's unfair to test to students just learning English or who are in most special education programs. "These are children we set up with individualized educational programs because they have special needs," she said. "Now, is it fair to tell them they have special needs on every day except testing day? If a child is autistic, God bless them. But they're still autistic on test day"...

But advocates for special education students say that's exactly the kind of thinking No Child Left Behind is intended to stamp out.

...[ Richard J. Robinson, executive director of the Boston-based Federation for Children with Special Needs said] "Too often, schools label students as 'special education' and steer them into a track of low-level courses with low expectations. No Child has forced them to shed light on students who have historically been put in the background."

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More work for psychometricians

Boy, the whole Armstrong Williams scandal was bad timing for this kind of announcement:

President Bush began a second-term drive yesterday that he said would improve the American high school, urging the same testing and consequences he used to shake up earlier grades.

In his first major education speech since winning reelection, Bush touted his plan to demand state reading and math tests in grades three through 11. That would broaden his No Child Left Behind law, which requires one year of state testing during grades 10 to 12.

"Testing in high schools will make sure that our children are employable for the jobs of the 21st century," Bush said at J.E.B. Stuart High School. "Testing will allow teachers to improve their classes. Testing will enable schools to track. Testing will make sure that the diploma is not merely a sign of endurance, but the mark of a young person ready to succeed."

Leave No Teenager (or Potential Employee) Behind, I suppose.

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January 10, 2005

No bubble sheets for tap shoes?

The sad tale of a dedicated-yet-unhighly-qualified teacher with bells on her tap shoes but no test to take:

Though her superiors will tell you otherwise, dance teacher Jennifer McClung at Homewood High School isn't considered "highly qualified" under federal guidelines imposed under President Bush's No Child Left Behind act. The designation is required for teachers in core teaching areas such as English and math and other disciplines including foreign languages and fine arts.

Dance falls under fine arts.

McClung graduated from Auburn University with a music education degree. While touring with a show choir in Alaska, she was asked to take over Homewood High's program. After seven years of teaching dance, including coaching the Star Spangled Girls dance group of the school's marching unit, McClung and her administrators are seeking a way to get her highly qualified status.

To become highly qualified, McClung has two options.

One would send her back to school to get about 30 credits of dance classes by May 2006, when all public school systems must have their teachers highly qualified. The other option would be to take a Praxis standardized test that passes state muster and would evaluate her teaching ability.

But for now, no such test exists for dance.

"There is no way that I would be able to get a bachelor's in dance in the time that they're requiring me to do so," McClung said. "For me to stay highly qualified in dance, the Praxis is the only way for me to stay in fine arts."

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A new alternative

The Lawrence Journal-World (KS) notes that the closing of Lawrence Alternative High School may be bad news for students who attend it, but good news for test-score bean-counters:

Some students at the alternative school are saying they will drop out if they don't like the new alternative programs being designed for use in the district's other schools. And their absence could boost the district's overall test scores -- a key component of the act's requirements.

"If a significant number of kids drop out, then they won't bring the scores down," said Dick Wedel, a former social studies teacher at LAHS, adding that he hopes they don't drop out. "That's one way to get better scores."

Whether that comes to pass is anyone's guess.

Ironically, test scores within LAHS are one of the reasons that the school is being closed. With only about 10% of students deemed "proficient," scores were too low to justify the school's $1 million operating costs. The scores aren't surprising, considering that these kids were referred to LAHS after having problems at other schools (and anecdotal evidence suggests these kids hated standardized tests as well). But if LAHS didn't seem to help these kids do any better in school than they had before, I can see why the district made this decision (even though the district claims the school would have been closed regardless, based on other factors).

About 80 students will get to see what they think of the new alternative programs at the other schools in the district, which may included mentoring and personalized learning. Some of them don't particularly like big schools; others feel that "regular" schools don't care too much for them. It remains to be seen if the new programs will be more effective than LAHS was, or whether the drop-out rate increases.

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January 09, 2005

Cash solves everything

Eduwonk's concise takedown of FairTest's NCLB snit is priceless. Nice to know all the qualitative problems with the program can be easily solved with an infusion of some very quantitive dollars.

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January 08, 2005

Number 2 Pencil operates on a shoestring budget, I swear!

This is disheartening:

The Bush administration paid a prominent commentator to promote the No Child Left Behind schools law to fellow blacks and to give the education secretary media time, records show.

A company run by Armstrong Williams, the syndicated commentator, was paid $240,000 by the Education Department. The goal was to deliver positive messages about President Bush's education overhaul, using Williams' broad reach with minorities.

The deal, which drew a fast rebuke from Democrats on Capitol Hill, is the latest to put the department on the defensive for the way it has promoted Bush's signature domestic policy...

The Education Department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the law's benefits, the department said.

Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."

"It's a fine line," he said Friday. "Even though I'm not a journalist — I'm a commentator — I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."

My first thought? "Well, crap. More ammunition for the test-haters."

My second thought? "Hey, how come no one offered to pay ME?"

Tribune Media Services has dropped William's columns, four of which in the last year were about NCLB:

In a statement, TMS said: "[A]ccepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party."

Joanne Jacobs and Instapundit good round-ups of reactions. The consensus - with which I agree - seems to be that the problem wasn't so much the acceptance of cash as the cover-up of it. What bothers me the most, though, is that I'm expecting a flood of anti-NCLB coverage, as though the concept of the program itself is now fundamentally flawed because one person was not honest about being paid to promote it. Williams seems willing to throw himself on our mercy and beg forgiveness, but I'm betting it's NCLB itself that people will be more critical of in the future.

Oh, and Instapundit reader Rick? Sorry, dude, I'm already engaged. But I do have some gorgeous single female friends...

Posted by kswygert at 10:45 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Arizona: Improving their AIMS?

Trevor Bothwell of the Conservative Voice approves of senator Thayer Vershschoor's (R-AZ) recent crusade to dismantle Arizona's AIMS, but heartily disagrees with his reasons for doing so:

Arizona state senator Thayer Verschoor emerged as an unlikely hero to many Arizona high schoolers this week, announcing his intention to dismantle the state’s AIMS test, an accountability measure that essentially acts as an exit exam for potential graduates...According to The Arizona Republic, Sen. Verschoor believes that graduation requirements “should be a local control issue,” stating, “This should not be mandated by big government and a state school board. To me, we are saying that we don't trust our teachers."

Sen. Verschoor is correct, inasmuch as our responsibility for providing public education should not fall under the auspices of the federal government...But the senator’s claim that administering high school exit exams implies that we don’t trust our teachers misses the point. Tests such as the AIMS exam are implemented by many states precisely because we often cannot trust many of our public school teachers and administrators, who have methodically dumbed down academic standards over the past few decades through their condemnation of fact-based instructional methods and student discipline.

Indeed. It's silly to see anyone outside the field of education suggesting, with a straight face, that assessment means we don't "trust" teachers to do their jobs. Does this mean that any college that requires entrance exams doesn't "trust" their applicants to represent themselves fairly on their application forms? Or does it just mean that in college admissions, as in just about every other part of real life, assessment is par for the course, and if you're good, you should be able to demonstrate that? Funny how educators keep assuming that what they do cannot possibly be measured, and in fact, shouldn't be measured.

Bothwell doesn't mince words at the end of the article:

...most importantly, our schools can’t continue to neglect to teach kids rote skills such as spelling, writing, multiplication and division tables, and geography in the early grades, and then expect them to pass an exit exam in high school that likely tests such cumulative competence. Parents and educrats in Arizona are rallying around Sen. Verschoor because he too believes the AIMS test to be unfair. But it isn’t so much the exam itself that is unfair as it is the poor preparation many of these students have received from the beginning of elementary school.

The AIMS has been under attack for quite some time. Back in 2002, ASU researchers concluded that the AIMS math portion was too difficult, and was seemingly measuring college-entry-level skills as opposed to exit-exam-level skills. Even if that were so, it's hard to understand why a 97% failure rate for non-white, non-Asian examinees is supposed to be an indictment of only the exam. Do the researchers think it's reasonable that only 3% of these youths are prepared for college? (And some of you might remember that ASU seems to have a track record of anti-testing publications).

Now, some op-eds are clamoring to "fix" the exam, while other pontificators insist that the AIMS is a good idea carried "too far:"

The district reported that 75 percent of juniors passed the writing portion of the test, 59 percent passed the reading part of the test and a mere 36 percent passed the math section.

These juniors will be the seniors who must pass AIMS or not graduate next year....But it is very likely some seniors — the number of them is the only debatable issue at this point — will not get diplomas after four years of schooling because they were unable to pass one test.

All of this kerfuffle is revolving around the idea of whether or not the test is fair, and as usual, most everyone is talking past one another. In any discussion of this, answers to the following questions are crucial:

1. What should the AIMS measure?

2. If the AIMS actually does measure college-entry-level math skills, as some claim, is that what the state of Arizona wants? And if not, why not?

3. Are students being taught AIMS material in classrooms? Is the high failure rate because there's a mismatch between test content and curriculum content? If so, why is that happening?

I'm sure I could think or more, but these are the basics that have to be clarified. Without them, we'll either see lots of AZ students flunking the exam and being held back - or NOT being held back and subsequently finding out that their math skills aren't worth a damn in academia or the real world.

Posted by kswygert at 10:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 08, 2004

Growing roots

Despite all the opposition, and all the kvetching, NCLB is now "implanted" in our educational system, and more and more schools are meeting the requirements of the law, according to Education Week:

The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002 as the centerpiece of his education agenda, is the latest reauthorization of the nearly 40-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The revised law is designed to close achievement gaps and bring all students to the “proficient” level on state tests by 2013-14, in part by ensuring access to high-quality teachers, improved reading instruction, and other measures.

Nearly half the states—23 and the District of Columbia—are now testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as the law will require starting in 2005-06. That’s up from 20 states last year...

Of the states not giving standards-based reading and math tests in each of the required grades, many are running to catch up and meet the requirement by next school year, with a number of them field-testing items this coming spring.

Some states are doing away with additional tests (some of which were not standards-based), in order to make more room for the federally-mandated ones. States are asking for (and receiving) changes to the federal requirements to remove some of the burdens. And states are discovering that schools can be A-level on one report card and failing on another:

Twenty-six states use criteria, in addition to those spelled out in the federal law, to assign ratings, according to Education Week’s survey. And sometimes schools may get dual ratings that do not always add up.

Often, that’s because state accountability systems focus on the overall performance of a school’s students or give credit for growth, while the federal law requires schools to get a minimum percent of students in each subgroup—including those who are poor, speak limited English, have disabilities, or come from racial- and ethnic- minority backgrounds—to the “proficient” level on state tests each year.

In Florida, for example, some schools that got A’s under the state system did not make adequate progress under the federal law...

The article's chock-full of good stuff - go read.

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December 01, 2004

Tests will expand to fill the space available

EdWeek (free reg required) details the changing playing field for psychometricians and testing companies, thanks to NCLB:

The No Child Left Behind Act has spawned new opportunities—and challenges—for an increasingly diverse testing industry. With all of the federal law’s testing requirements, the Government Accountability Office estimates that states will have to spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion in the next six years, depending on the types of tests used.

That prospect has led to new openings both for traditional test publishers—like CTB/McGraw-Hill and Harcourt Assessment—and for a host of middle-market or niche players who are scrambling to keep pace with growing demand.

“Obviously, there are more players than there used to be,” said John H. Oswald, the senior vice president and general manager of elementary and secondary education for the Educational Testing Service, based in Princeton, N.J. “There are many more choices that states have than they used to have.”

Based on an Education Week Research Center survey of state education departments this summer and fall, CTB/McGraw-Hill, in Monterey, Calif., now is the primary contractor for the largest number of state tests, followed by the San Antonio-based Harcourt Assessment and Pearson Educational Measurement of Iowa City, Iowa...

But other players, such as the Dover, N.H.-based Measured Progress, the Minneapolis-based Data Recognition Corp., and the ETS, a relative newcomer to the precollegiate testing field, have also grown rapidly in the past several years. States can also choose from a handful of smaller players.

NCLB, aka the "Psychometrician's Work Act of 2001."

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November 30, 2004

Doing testing right

Testing professional Rick Stiggins on the lessons to be learned from the recent obsession with standardized testing:

Politicians are so painfully misinformed about sound assessment practices that they do exactly the wrong thing with them. They misunderstand how testing impacts student motivation...

The problem is that not all students respond to the increased pressure in productive ways. High achievers bank their confidence, redouble their efforts and learn more. But perennial low achievers see success as even more unattainable. They give up in hopelessness and learn less. For them, high-stakes tests have exactly the opposite effect.

Average them and what do you get? No change.

But what if we could keep those low performers from giving up? We know how to do just that, not with intimidation-driven tests but with effective confidence-building classroom assessment...The problem is that teachers and administrators have never been given access to those practices because it has not been part of their initial training and there is no money for professional development...

I agree that tests in and of themselves don't increase learning. I also agree entirely with Rick that the way for children to build confidence on high-stakes exams is to have plenty of experience with those "confidence-building" low-stakes classroom assessments that provide plenty of helpful feedback.

However, I believe that the educational community often has such an ingrained suspicion of tests of any kind that even "effective confidence-building classroom assessments" might not be welcomed with open arms. I agree that education is not about once-a-year tests - it's about multiple tests, some which are high-stakes, and some which are for feedback only. But I suspect that many "educators," trained to value "self-esteem" above all, avoid any sort of objective assessment or feedback in the classroom. Until we can get away from the notion that one bad test score (high-stakes or no) will irreparably damage a child's self-esteem, educators will not take advantage of the positive impact that testing can have.

Posted by kswygert at 03:47 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 16, 2004

Looking beyond the test scores

A recent study by the Great Lakes (MI) Center for Education Research and Practice suggests that parents are uniformed about the MEAP exams:

High stakes testing is the pillar of education reform under the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Yet, despite all of the time and money spent on the testing process, one out of four parents do not know what the results are used for and two out of three do not even discuss MEAP during parent- teacher conferences.

Parents rate grades, report cards, and classroom tests as the most important indicators of whether their child is getting a quality education. Their child's interest in and attitude about school follow.

"Standardized tests alone don't meet the needs of students and parents, yet teachers and schools are spending more time, energy and money on them than ever," said Teri Moblo, director of the Lansing-based Great Lakes Center. "Standardized testing is not a bad thing if it is one of many ways that student progress is assessed. But we must find better ways to use such tests to help individual children, and we must address the other things that parents believe are even more important for their kids."

I agree with parents that great test scores are not necessary for success in life, because test scores in and of themselves are not the key. It's the education behind high test scores that is a key; scores are merely a measure of how well schools are doing.

I also found these results interesting:

One in three parents asked feel that rewards such as increased funding from the state or higher property values based on a school's test results is a bad idea. One in three parents asked feel that the current state and federal government consequences under NCLB for schools that perform poorly on such tests are a bad idea.

Does that mean that two in three parents felt that increased funding was a good thing, or that NCLB consequences based on testin are a good thing? It's a bit frustrating for only the oppositional results to be reported here.

The study found that parents who say they did poorly taking similar tests (one in four) when they were in school were twice as likely not to go on to college as those who did well on such tests. This raises the issue of whether test scores might hold their children back from getting the education/training needed in today's competitive job market.

Again, it's not the test scores - it's the education behind them. It's not tests that hold children back from college - it is the fact that their secondary education was subpar that holds them back from being competitive in academics. The parents surveyed here do realize that test scores are not the be-all, end-all; what's behind them is what's most important.

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November 04, 2004

Four More Years! - Of NCLB

Sorry for the recent lack of posting; I've been a blog-addicted political junkie over the past few days just like the rest of you, and haven't been keeping as close an eye on the testing news.

Regular education- and testing-related blogging to resume shortly.

Posted by kswygert at 06:32 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 25, 2004

When one size doesn't fit all

NCLB requirements aren't quite catching everyone - not in a ethnic sense, anyway:

Mesa sixth-grader Valeria Quezada, 11, cannot tell the truth when she takes a standardized test and faces questions about her race and ethnicity. She is Hispanic and a first-generation U.S. citizen on her father’s side of the family. But her mother is white and non-Hispanic.

The federal No Child Left Behind law does not allow for this scenario.

Under the law, all public schoolchildren in the United States must identify themselves in one of five racial and ethnic categories when they take tests such as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards. Students may not check more than one box, and "multiracial" or "other" are not options.

"I don’t think they should have to choose," said Valeria’s mother, Michelle Quezada, an instructional aide at Zaharis Elementary S chool where Valeria attends with her second- grade brother. "I get frustrated every time I have to mark one of those boxes, and sometimes I don’t mark any box."

The five standard categories, which the federal government created in 1977 and incorporated into the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, are: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian.

This is old-fashioned, but it was done for simplicity's - and statistical - sake. It's hard to understand why neither the reporter, nor anyone interviewed for this article, felt the need to point out that schools are required to show results disaggregated by these five ethnic groups, which explains why the categories are so large and broad. The goal wasn't to come up with categories that would cover every kid (a la the US Census model), but to define them broadly enough that there would be a substantial sample size in each category. If 10 more ethnic groups get added, it would be logical to require schools to meet the target for all of those new groups as well, which would be much more difficult.

And I'd bet that if "Other" were provided as a category for which schools didn't have to show results, quite a few poorly-run schools would be shoving all their bad test-takers into that category.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the state is only following directions from the federal government and should not be blamed. "I’m opposed to racial categories on standardized tests," Horne said. "I think students learn as individuals and not as members of a racial or ethnic group."

I agree 100% - about the "students learn as individuals" part. One's race does not define one's performance. Not asking about race, however, makes it possible to disguise race-related test scores gaps, which do persist in this country due to inequalities in education and cultural specifics, not to mention the soft bigotry of low expectations. Removing the racial questions smacks too much of a cover-up to me.

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Kerry vs. Bush

More on the education policies from our Presidential candidates:

Roger Giroux, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, remembers the old days, when every child wasn't expected to pass every test. If every child passed, "that was a sign of a poor test," Giroux said. "Tests are supposed to discriminate on the performance levels of kids."

If Giroux had five minutes with President Bush, he'd ask him one question about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires yearly tests in reading and math for all students in grades 3 through 8: "Mr. President, at what price are we to make sure that every child passes the test, given limited resources?"

It's a big question in the 2004 presidential race.

I understand Giroux's point, but NCLB isn't about challenging tests. It's about minimum-competecy testing, which is why the howls of indignation about the "unfairness" of the tests are often incorrect.

Kerry contends that schools need another $27 billion to implement the law and says that the current funding shortage has left schools too little money to spend on other things, such as smaller classes, textbooks and after-school programs. And he said the situation has been made worse by the president's pursuit of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Bush's supporters say it's natural for opponents to complain about a lack of money. "There will always be a complaint by some that education -- or anything, for that matter, any program or any project -- is underfunded," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a member of the House Education Committee. He said the federally mandated tests are needed to ensure accountability to the public.

Education Secretary Rod Paige said the debate over how to fix the nation's schools is about much more than money. From 1965 to 2000, he said, the federal government spent more than $130 billion on programs for disadvantaged students, but "the money seems to have made little difference." The new law, he said, "is making a positive difference in millions of lives" because schools are being forced to show that they're accountable for the money they're spending.

Money without accountability is a waste.

If schools are not testing, that's "punishing children," Bush said, because schools then have no idea how their students are performing.

"I went to Washington to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations," Bush said in a speech in Chanhassen earlier this month. "I felt strongly we needed to end this business about just shuffling the kids through, grade after grade, year after year, without teaching the basics. We've raised the standards. We measure early to solve problems before it's too late."

...On its Web site, the Kerry campaign complains that too many states are measuring student performance "with fill-in-the-bubble tests that limit both teaching and learning." While Kerry says he's committed to making the law work, he is promising to support states that use more "sophisticated tests that capture the full range of skills that we want students to develop."

Wow, I hope he's planning on plowing a lot more money into the system, then. And when are these new exams going to be pilot-tested and validated?

Many educational critics say that schools are already spending too much time on testing, which takes away from instructional time.

Not if they're good tests, and not if the curriculum is in agreement with the testing standards.

Posted by kswygert at 11:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 14, 2004

Education in the debate

From the third Presidential debate on October 13, 2004:

Mr. President, what do you say to someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who's being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States?

BUSH: I'd say, Bob, I've got policies to continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to go get an education. Here's some help for you to go to a community college.

We've expanded trade adjustment assistance. We want to help pay for you to gain the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century. You know, there's a lot of talk about how to keep the economy growing. We talk about fiscal matters. But perhaps the best way to keep jobs here in America and to keep this economy growing is to make sure our education system works.

I went to Washington to solve problems. And I saw a problem in the public education system in America. They were just shuffling too many kids through the system, year after year, grade after grade, without learning the basics.

And so we said: Let's raise the standards. We're spending more money, but let's raise the standards and measure early and solve problems now, before it's too late. No, education is how to help the person who's lost a job. Education is how to make sure we've got a workforce that's productive and competitive.

Got four more years, I've got more to do to continue to raise standards, to continue to reward teachers and school districts that are working, to emphasize math and science in the classrooms, to continue to expand Pell Grants to make sure that people have an opportunity to start their career with a college diploma.

And so the person you talked to, I say, here's some help, here's some trade adjustment assistance money for you to go a community college in your neighborhood, a community college which is providing the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century. And that's what I would say to that person.

SCHIEFFER: Senator Kerry?

KERRY: I want you to notice how the president switched away from jobs and started talking about education principally.

Let me come back in one moment to that, but I want to speak for a second, if I can, to what the president said about fiscal responsibility. Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country.


This president has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see. Health-care costs for the average American have gone up 64 percent; tuitions have gone up 35 percent; gasoline prices up 30 percent; Medicare premiums went up 17 percent a few days ago; prescription drugs are up 12 percent a year.

But guess what, America? The wages of Americans have gone down. The jobs that are being created in Arizona right now are paying about $13,700 less than the jobs that we're losing.

And the president just walks on by this problem. The fact is that he's cut job-training money. $1 billion was cut. They only added a little bit back this year because it's an election year.

They've cut the Pell Grants and the Perkins loans to help kids be able to go to college. They've cut the training money. They've wound up not even extending unemployment benefits and not even extending health care to those people who are unemployed.

I'm going to do those things, because that's what's right in America: Help workers to transition in every respect.


SCHIEFFER: Next question to you, Senator Kerry.

The gap between rich and poor is growing wider. More people are dropping into poverty. Yet the minimum wage has been stuck at, what, $5.15 an hour now for about seven years. Is it time to raise it?

KERRY: Well, I'm glad you raised that question. It's long overdue time to raise the minimum wage. And, America, this is one of those issues that separates the president and myself.

We have fought to try to raise the minimum wage in the last years. But the Republican leadership of the House and Senate won't even let us have a vote on it. We're not allowed to vote on it. They don't want to raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage is the lowest minimum wage value it has been in our nation in 50 years.

If we raise the minimum wage, which I will do over several years to $7 an hour, 9.2 million women who are trying to raise their families would earn another $3,800 a year. The president has denied 9.2 million women $3,800 a year, but he doesn't hesitate to fight for $136,000 to a millionaire.

One percent of America got $89 billion last year in a tax cut, but people working hard, playing by the rules, trying to take care of their kids, family values, that we're supposed to value so much in America — I'm tired of politicians who talk about family values and don't value families.

What we need to do is raise the minimum wage. We also need to hold onto equal pay. Women work for 76 cents on the dollar for the same work that men do. That's not right in America. And we had an initiative that we were working on to raise women's pay. They've cut it off. They've stopped it. They don't enforce these kinds of things.

Now, I think that it a matter of fundamental right that if we raise the minimum wage, 15 million Americans would be positively affected. We'd put money into the hands of people who work hard, who obey the rules, who play for the American Dream.

And if we did that, we'd have more consumption ability in America, which is what we need right in order to kick our economy into gear. I will fight tooth and nail to pass the minimum wage.

BUSH: Actually, Mitch McConnell had a minimum-wage plan that I supported that would have increased the minimum wage. But let me talk about what's really important for the worker you're referring to. And that's to make sure the education system works. It's to make sure we raise standards.

Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it. The No Child Left Behind Act says, "We'll raise standards. We'll increase federal spending. But in return for extra spending, we now want people to measure — states and local jurisdictions to measure to show us whether or not a child can read or write or add and subtract."

You cannot solve a problem unless you diagnose the problem. And we weren't diagnosing problems. And therefore just kids were being shuffled through the school.

And guess who would get shuffled through? Children whose parents wouldn't speak English as a first language just move through. Many inner-city kids just move through. We've stopped that practice now by measuring early. And when we find a problem, we spend extra money to correct it.

I remember a lady in Houston, Texas, told me, "Reading is the new civil right," and she's right. In order to make sure people have jobs for the 21st century, we've got to get it right in the education system, and we're beginning to close a minority achievement gap now.

You see, we'll never be able to compete in the 21st century unless we have an education system that doesn't quit on children, an education system that raises standards, an education that makes sure there's excellence in every classroom.


Posted by kswygert at 10:05 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 11, 2004

Looking down their noses at basic skills

The Marshall Democrat-News (MO) picks up on a recent report by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) that suggests problems with NCLB, and reprints arguments from the AP that support the study. Not having read the study myself, I'll just link to Secretary of Education Rod Paige's strongly-worded response to the study, here, which suggests a deeply-flawed methodology and results that aren't quite what PACE claims they are.

(Update: It appears now that not only was the study mistakenly attributed to PACE, but the organization is actively trying to distance themselves from the study. Interesting. )

I'll try to do a more in-depth analysis of this controversy later. Right now, I just want to nitpick by selecting this one passage from the news article:

Another major flaw of NCLB is the emphasis placed on standardized tests to measure performance.

In many school districts across the state (especially those with poor performance records), an entire month is spent on nothing more than preparation for a test taking no more than five days -- and generally only three. This is valuable time that could be spent teaching equations, atoms, or World War I, but is wasted preparing for something for which students attach very little value.

Many states have scaled back ambitious tests, reverting to the commonplace Iowa Basic Skills test to evaluate proficiency in basic ability. Nevertheless, wasting an entire month on instruction to pass a test is ridiculous, but schools are forced to do so in the face of lost funding.

Think about this for a minute. Basic reading and math skills are something to which students "attach very little value." Schools are "forced" to spend weeks on teaching these very basic skills. It's a "time-waster" for students to be able to pass the "commonplace" IBST, much less more ambitious tests. Schools should be free to focus on history, equations, and physics without first ensuring that they are giving all of their students a solid grasp of the basics.

Do these critics hear themselves?

Some of these critics might say that what this really means is that the skills tested are so basic it wastes students' time to prepare for the test. But if students really have the basics down cold, schools should have to spend virtually no time on test prep. While I agree that many tests are not perfect, and it's bad to have a test that is completely out of sync with the curriculum, it's just plain to silly to complain about how much time schools are forced to spend going over basic skills, and then say the problem is with the tests.

Posted by kswygert at 04:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 08, 2004

Maybe they can issue the AYP reports in purple ink

Bob Ray Sanders of the Fort Worth Star Telegram would like us to hold schools accountable without ever, you know, pointing out which ones aren't doing so great.

The state has four categories for schools and school districts: exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable and academically unacceptable.

With the tougher standards, several school districts in the area dropped in the ratings this year, causing some angst among teachers, administrators, trustees and parents. In all of these schools, no matter their rating, we have teachers who are teaching and outstanding students who are learning.

Unfortunately, in many of these schools, the dropout rates are unacceptable and the overall attendance rates are clearly dismal. These are issues which must be addressed along with academic achievement. It doesn't take a genius to know that a kid is not going to learn if he or she is not in school.

But what must the teacher or the principal do about the dropout rate? That is more a community and parental problem than it is a school problem.

I want our kids to achieve in public schools, and I would like to see the expectations set at a high mark -- a very high mark. That said, I don't want us to become so blinded and so driven by testing and ratings that we forget about truly educating the kids.

It seems we have now turned our schools into one big testing ground, and our educators are spending so much time and effort on No Child Left Behind that we are going to allow too many to be left by the wayside.

I also want to see us get away from these labels, for what does it say to those committed educators and the academically gifted kids in a school that we have just designated "substandard" or "academically unacceptable"?

Accountability? I'm all for it.

Stigmatizing? Let's stop it.

You know, there's a bunch of Halloween candy downstairs, and some Goldfish crackers, and some leftover pumpkin cheesecake. I'm all for going downstairs and eating all of it right now. But gaining weight from it? Let's just stop that. It would just be too unfair if I couldn't eat all I wanted without negative side effects.

And we'll sooner see the day when I can eat all the chocolate I want, without gaining weight, than we'll see the day where it's possible to hold a school accountable for student performance without there being stakes attached to some outcome measure. This incessant wishing that we could somehow help bad schools improve without telling them that they are bad is just silly.

(And to those of you who think I'm completely callous on the topic, let me point out that I think this equally-critical editorial is worlds better than the first, because it addresses specific points and makes specific criticisms about the state curriculum, instead of just whining about unfair it is to judge schools. I can't say I agree that the suggested science topics are out of line for what should be covered within one year of third-grade science education, but then I'm not a science teacher, nor a third-grader.)

Posted by kswygert at 05:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Missing the point in Baltimore

Susan Baer of the Baltimore Sun answers letters from readers (free sub required):

Sue Allison, Lusby: Neither candidate is addressing the No Child Left Behind Act to my satisfaction. The only difference they seem to have is on whether or not the misguided law is fully funded. But does either candidate really believe that public schools can achieve absolute perfection (100% of students scoring in the proficient range of standardized tests in math and reading by 2014)? Do they really believe that this is what parents want for their children's education -- annual hysteria over extremely flawed, misleading, narrowly focused, dumbed-down standardized tests?

Do they really believe that we want our public schools to be cleared out and replaced with private management companies and state employees when our school administrators don't achieve what is virtually a statistical impossibility with regard to test score increases? Where is the discussion of crumbling facilities and the lack of course offerings in science [and] the arts?

Baer: Education is another issue where voters have very strong opinions and where there is much divide over Bush's policies, specifically his No Child Left Behind Act. You're right -- both candidates have talked some about education during the campaign, but mostly in broad strokes. Kerry supported No Child Left Behind, but, as you point out, has been criticizing the Bush administration for falling $27 billion short of funding it. The Democrat also says he believes the act places too much emphasis on testing and believes other measures, such as attendance and parental satisfaction, should be considered. But neither candidate is going into much detail into the kinds of issues you're bringing up.

Susan thus misses the opportunity to point out that (a) public school teachers are state employees, in a way, (b) who's to say that privately-managed schools can't do better than public ones, and (c) NCLB gives parents choice to change schools if their kids are failing, which means parents aren't stuck with who the government chooses to replace in failing schools.

Zalee Harris, Prince George's County: ...I want to know when the government is going to remove non-academic High Stakes from our classrooms and free our teachers to teach Johnny and Twanna how to read, compute, and think without social indoctrination. I want Johnny and Twanna to learn the U.S. Constitution, be free to select courses that satisfy their own dreams, and be allowed to learn at their pace.

I want to return local control to parents and [the] community, without dictating parental involvement. Question? How is it that members of Congress decided that protecting marriage should be left up to each state, i.e., their claim that by federally protecting marriage they are violating the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, when since 1965 Congress has controlled public education, which should also be dealt with at the state level and is clearly a violation of the 10th Amendment? America deserves an answer to this question.

Baer: You raise a lot of powerful questions. Many educators and state and local officials agree with you, for instance, that Bush's Leave No Child Behind Act, a federal mandate for new math and reading standards, infringes on states' rights, even though the bill was passed with broad bipartisan support in Congress.

Wha? How on earth does Baer read this question as one that is criticizing only NCLB, which puts the focus back on core academics, hold schools accountable, and allows parents to escape failing schools? The author of this letter is clearly someone who is in favor of school choice, and is more than likely is homeschooling. Baer might be right in assuming that homeschoolers aren't too thrilled with NCLB, but what she misses is that they didn't like the way government schools were run before NCLB either. I strongly doubt that "many educators and state and local officials" would agree with the sentiments of letter writer, no matter how much Baer tries to cast the question in an anti-NCLB light.

Posted by kswygert at 05:43 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 05, 2004

Bashing NCLB

Here's my wish for the election season - no matter what Bush or Kerry come out with as their debate points, the main thing I'd like to see is an end to biased reporting in which the claims of those opposing NCLB are credulously repeated:

Dreary skies did not stop educators, past political figures and parents from gathering Saturday at the Ohio State House lawn to protest President Bush's education policy, No Child Left Behind. The message of the rally organizers and participants focused on high-quality education for all children, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status.

"I have taught the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, and one thing I know is the testing necessary for No Child Left Behind is not facilitated properly," said Drue Barezinsky, special education teacher for Dublin City Schools.

Okay, I have a Ph.D., and I don't understand what Ms. Barenzinsky means when she uses "facilitated" here - the Act has not been brought about more easily, properly? But, moving on:

Rally organizers distributed information that claims the policy is punishing the schools rather than supporting them by using a standardized test to mislabel schools as failing and then place harsh sanctions on them.

"When I go home I don't mind spending personal time doing work for children, but when I have to spend my time working on meaningless paperwork to defend myself on why the students are unable to pass the test, I get upset," Barezinsky said.

So, being required to defend why students flunk the test a meaningless issue?

Many rally supporters say the system is failing children.

"When students fail, the schools are blamed," said Pattie O'Brien, a teacher in Athens, Ohio. "But the problem is we are leaving teachers and students behind. Educators, not legislators, should be making critical decisions about education."

We tried that. It didn't seem to work. Now we're trying something else. And since when is requiring teachers to be accountable for student learning the same thing as leaving them behind?

Some of the suggested alternatives smack of enough governmental interference to make NCLB look like a libertarian proposal:

Rally speakers spoke of many issues, and some speakers offered possible solutions.

"It will take $1.5 billion to do this. However there are five steps that must occur," [vice president of the Ohio Education Association Patricia] Brooks said. "Making a level playing field, providing resources and access to free school programs, provide intervention specialist in the classrooms, access to technology and having expertise teaching in the classroom will all help close the existing gap."

Emphasis mine. Making all the playing fields level among all children. Yeah, that'll happen. What's more, I thought activists like this opposed NCLB because it gave too much power to the federal government. Does Ms. Brooks really believe there's a system that can level the playing field yet keep governmental interference down?

The rally urged people to vote on Nov. 2 and elect a president who will support the schools.

"Are you ready to make a change and volunteer to help defeat President Bush and the NCLB act?" said Dennis VanRoekel, vice president of the National Education Association.

Supporters were urged to go to www.rallyforchildren.org to learn more about the policy. "The hope of the nation depends on our children," VanRoekel said. "But what does that say when 99 percent of public schools will be labeled as failing?"

According to the most recent report, a quarter of the nation's schools failed to make adequate yearly progress. In notoriously-bad districts like Washington DC, the numbers are higher, but still only around 50%. If VanRoekel wants to pull numbers like 99% out of his hat, so be it, but there's no reason for reporters to credulously print them. I don't have much faith in activists' opinions of the issues when they make up numbers to give to the press.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the rallyforchildren website, which seems to be convinced that reading and math are not useful skills for children in the 21st century, advertises the appearance of testing critic Susan Ohanian at its rally, along with "musical performances" that will probably feature these artists. If nothing else, what passes for "music" among testing critics will convince NCLB supporters to put music education back in the classroom - fast.

Update: Be sure to check out Eduwonk's insider information on the city where the rally took place.

Posted by kswygert at 05:47 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Countdown to election day

So far, the focus of the presidental race has been mainly security, and terrorism, and the military, but some voters want the focus to shift back to education:

...In campaign 2004, Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, say surprisingly little about education. Some educators and parents want to hear more.

"Yes, war and the economy are important issues, but our children's future should at least make the top-five list of issues," said Michelle Martin, principal of Winchester Avenue Elementary School in Martinsburg, W.Va., a state that both political parties consider up for grabs in the Nov. 2 election.

When the president does mention schools, he boasts about his No Child Left Behind initiative, which he says "at long last" brings accountability to public schools and sends a message that poverty and race won't be excuses for academic failure. In a second term, he promises to bring the yearly testing regimen to high schools -- it is now limited to elementary and middle schools -- and to institute a new program to help districts better train teachers.

Urk. I'm a psychometrician, and even I don't know if I'd be willing to accept that bringing yearly testing to high schools is necessarily a good thing. Accountability, yes, but we've seen enough problems with exit exams that I'm not sure how well this model will apply to high school students.

Kerry devoted only a few paragraphs to education in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. But he does offer a blistering critique of the president's education policy, accusing Bush of so badly underfunding No Child Left Behind as to ensure the failure of many public schools.

We can talk about the funding issue all day, but it's silly to say that a Republican presidents want to "ensure" failure of public schools.

Kerry promises to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year, in part to fully fund No Child Left Behind. He would also establish a federal fund to train teachers, provide bonuses to teachers who raise student performance, and begin a new after-school program for more than 3 million youngsters.

Sounds like he's just talking about the "evil rich" here, doesn't it? Like himself, I suppose. Notwithstanding the fact that Kerry voted for NCLB, I think he'll find the idea of giving bonuses to teachers who raise student performance a tough sell with some of his constituency. Jonathan Schorr has a lengthy discussion of Kerry's ideas here.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, on the other hand, says the check is in the mail:

In an interview, Paige said federal education funding is slated to reach a record $57 billion in 2005, up 36 percent since Bush took office -- a bigger increase than the Clinton administration achieved during comparable periods.

The Bush administration has been careful not to dictate standards, letting states set their own, he said. His department has provided waivers when states requested more flexibility...Where the administration won't compromise, he said, is in insisting that all students be evaluated for yearly progress.

"First we start off with the premise that the name (of) the bill bears: No child should be left behind -- notwithstanding their ZIP code, or notwithstanding their native language," Paige said. "All students should have an opportunity to experience our very best efforts."

Ultimately, the bottom line is, conservatives and liberals can come together in complaining about NCLB:

Nationally, conservatives complain that the law is a federal intrusion into local school districts, while liberals complain that it is underfunded. The National Education Association, the nation's biggest teacher union, backs Kerry but continues to seek an even broader overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

"Instead of punishing schools that need help the most, educators, parents and the public want to see investments in the classroom," said NEA President Reg Weaver. "We all know what works in the classroom to help students achieve -- high-quality teachers, up-to-date resources and small class sizes."

But Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and co-author with her husband of "America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible," said Bush deserves credit for insisting that the new law respond to what he calls the "soft bigotry of low expectations," which he argues both underestimates and shortchanges minority youngsters.

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October 04, 2004

Tromping through swamps before taking the test

Starting with the 2007-08 school, schools must test science knowledge to be in compliance with NCLB. So the goggles, test tubes, and slimy critters are coming out all over:

Around Maryland, school districts are getting ready: Anne Arundel County schools are buying new textbooks and materials for many of their science classes. Carroll County schools are putting much of their science curriculum online. As in Baltimore County, Howard County and Baltimore City schools are working to incorporate science into reading and math lessons, and vice versa, so that no subject suffers as a result of spending more time on another. In Howard schools, for example, students read technical science material...

No Child Left Behind will require students to be tested in science one time each in elementary, middle and high school. The federal law passed in 2001 leaves it to the states to decide whether scores on the science tests will contribute to the formula that determines whether a school has made "adequate yearly progress." Like most states, Maryland has decided it won't, but nevertheless will set passing scores and publish the test results...

Last spring, Baltimore County held its first elementary school science, engineering and technology fair. This school year, third-graders at several dozen schools will build race cars for eggs, a project that combines math and physics. Two portable planetariums are making the rounds at elementary schools around the county.

Also this year, all 8,000 fifth-graders in Baltimore County are participating in a new outdoor environmental education program. Each fifth-grade class is to take a daylong field trip during a 10-day unit on forest, beach, wetland and shallow-water ecosystems.

One recent Thursday at Miami Beach Park in Bowleys Quarters, fifth-graders from Battle Grove Elementary got to hold the silverside fish and baby striped bass they'd caught before putting them back in the water. They watched a water snake and measured water temperature and salinity. They marveled at the size of a dragonfly's jaw, concluding that the insect had to be a predator.

Clayton McKenzie, 10, was having a blast. "You get to walk around and actually see things," he said.

Can't think of a more apt description of good science education for youngsters than that.

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July 21, 2004

A surprising educational force in Oregon

Hidden amongst the hippies and educrats in Oregon are a group of pro-testing professors who have been developing empirical evidence to support standardized tests and NCLB:

Over the years, the University of Oregon has developed a reputation as a hippie haven, home to Hacky-Sackers, Frisbee-throwers and anti-globalism activists. But tucked away in a bucolic corner of the campus is a group of education professors whose work has been widely influential and found favor with the Bush administration.

Along with their counterparts at schools like the University of Illinois and the University of Texas, Oregon professors have been the driving forces behind the push for letting "scientifically based research" inform classroom practices. The professors are promoting teaching techniques that they say have been tested extensively in classrooms and have produced good results on standardized exams.

Some of their concepts have been scooped up by the Education Department for use in the No Child Left Behind act, the Bush administration's centerpiece education bill...

Critics say the Oregon professors have helped usher in an age of rigidity in education, with classrooms full of teachers who "teach to the test," and students whose creativity is stifled because so much time is devoted to preparing for testing.

"The emphasis on research-based instruction is a bit of a problem," said Barbara Bowman, a professor at Chicago's Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development. "Some of the more qualitative ways of assessing children's learning are generally not included. We are focusing on things that are easy to see, rather than taking a look at the whole."

Lovely to see the anti-science crowd rush in to identify themselves as fools. Apparently, it's more important to take a non-scientific look at "the whole child" than to measure how well a child can read. How easy it must be to "teach" a child when the assumption is that the outcome cannot possibly be measured.

On the other hand, given that critics insist the structured curriculums are actually harmful to kids, no wonder teachers are so stressed out today:

Rheta DeVries, who directs the Regents' Center for early development education at the University of Northern Iowa, said such structured curriculums [as phonics] are harmful to children.

"Testing takes over and determines the curriculum, and children don't get experience with hands-on science experimentation and activities that call forth their best energies," she said. "What a child knows cannot necessarily be measured in fragmented tests used for assessment."

Yes, it can. Tests can indeed measure what a child knows - maybe not everything a child knows, but someone who understands the material will not fail a basic skills exam. It's one thing to (correctly) worry that basic skills tests might lead teachers to dumb down curriculum, but it's just plain silly to claim that test don't actually measure learning.

What's nice is that some Oregon teachers who have special education students are rejecting the touchy-feely stuff and embracing the empirically-supported theories:

...Sharon Brumbley, a special education teacher who has long been a Direct Instruction disciple, said that using the curriculum at early grades has reduced the number of children placed in special education later on at her school in Springfield, Oregon.

"They've pared out all the nonessentials, and gotten down to what kids need to learn, what they need to know," she said.

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July 19, 2004

The NCLB backlash, explained

Great article by Sol Stern in City Journal, about our incumbent "Education President" and the passionate reactions to NCLB:

For NCLB’s reading initiative alone, Bush richly deserves the title “education president.” But in addition, NCLB, though not perfect, is a powerful instrument of reform in other ways. What’s more, a new Bush-promoted school voucher program for Washington, D.C., may point the way toward further education reform in a second Bush term.

Not that the president’s opponents in the education establishment and the Democratic Party are likely to give him any credit for these accomplishments. With all of today’s harsh criticism of NCLB, it’s easy to forget that it passed Congress by overwhelming bipartisan majorities (87 to 10 in the Senate; 381 to 41 in the House) and that Ted Kennedy stood beaming with the president at the bill-signing ceremony (above). That era of good feelings lasted only a few months—about as long as it took for the public education industry to realize just how serious Bush was about no longer rewarding failure.

The educrats have ample reason to be upset. Before NCLB, the public schools’ failure to educate poor minority kids resulted in ever-increasing streams of federal money to local districts—more than $200 billion over the last four decades, disbursed with no questions asked. Now along comes Bush, requiring state and local districts to prove that the programs that federal dollars pay for have a solid scientific basis and actually work. Once public educators started trashing NCLB, Democrats suddenly decided that they hated it, too. Senator Kennedy now claims that the president “duped” him and that the act’s funding amounted to a “tin cup budget,” despite a big hike in federal education spending under Bush.

Stern's got some provocative theories - and blunt language - when it comes to the overwhelming negative reaction of educators to President Bush's reading initiatives:

You’d think that educators would welcome the scientific turn in federal reading policy. After all, the racial gap in school performance that liberals as well as conservatives decry as the greatest obstacle to equal opportunity in America first shows up as a wide gap in reading. While 40 percent of all American kids don’t attain the “basic” reading level by fourth grade, the rate of reading failure for inner-city black and Hispanic children is a catastrophic 70 percent. If we now have hard evidence on what methods will best bring these struggling kids up to speed, why wouldn’t educators support the government’s efforts to promote those methods?

The short answer is ideology and money. The nation’s leading teachers’ colleges and professional teachers’ organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English, hate phonics. Columbia University’s Teachers College, to take one prominent example, doesn’t have a single class in phonics instruction. In these precincts, “whole language” reading instruction, in which children ostensibly learn to read “naturally” by absorbing word clues from whole texts, is the politically correct pedagogy, even though its claims to success have no scientific backing. The educational establishment views President Bush, Reid Lyon, and all their works as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to regiment America’s children.

There’s also tons of money at stake. If the idea of science-backed reading instruction takes hold in the nation’s school districts, millions of dollars in fees currently paid to the ed schools for whole-language teacher training and curriculum development will vanish.

Stern also uncovered a testing critic who is, amazingly, even more hysterical than Alfie Kohn:

Meanwhile, progressive education’s militant anti-testing wing had found a brand-new cause. Best-selling writers like Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn have always maintained that “testing kills”—apparently meaning this metaphorically. But now, at least one of their progressive-ed allies believes that NCLB testing requirements literally will kill kids.

Margaret A. McKenna, a big Kozol fan and president of Massachusetts’s biggest teacher-training institution, Lesley University in Cambridge, writes that NCLB’s “overwhelming focus on student achievement on annual standardized tests” will lead inexorably to more school violence like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. After all, she argues, Columbine was a “high-achieving school,” where students felt alienated by the pressure of high-stakes testing. Teachers, obsessed with test scores, didn’t have time to get to know the kids and create a “real community.” That’s why they missed the telltale signs of student alienation and impending tragedy. Now, McKenna warns in a bizarre Washington Post op-ed, Columbine-like carnage is likely to explode in schools across the country as NCLB’s accountability requirements “force communities to focus more on raising test scores than on raising kids.”

And here I thought Michael Moore's surreal Lockheed Martin/Kosovo bombing theory was a farfetched idea. McKenna, in stating that testing, rather than sociopathy and poor parenting, might cause school shootings, has gone Moore one better. I'd point out to McKenna a few problems with her theory - most school shootings don't happen in the "high-achieving" schools; not one person familiar with the case information has ever suggested that testing had anything to with Columbine, which happened three years BEFORE NCLB was passed; children are much more likely to face violence outside of schools, and the vast majority of homicide victims under the age of 12 are killed by adults - but I doubt that bringing her attention to logical inconsistencies would do much good.

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July 07, 2004

How long until Alfie Kohn lands a record deal?

More news from the NEA National Convention - President Bush, look out! Singing teachers!

[Utah teacher Lily Eskelsen] performed the song (with the unforgettable hook "If we have to test their butts off, there'll be no child's behind left") this week at the National Education Association's annual meeting.

The aim was partly to get the crowd of nearly 9,000 teachers pumped up, partly to promote her new CD. It's part of a small, homespun protest movement emerging as frustrated teachers, parents and activists strap on guitars to decry the burden of standardized tests under the second year of President Bush's far-reaching No Child Left Behind education reform law.

"It shows how much opposition to No Child Left Behind has permeated the popular culture, at least with educators," says Bob Schaeffer of the Center for Fair & Open Testing, which has criticized Bush's education policies.

Yeah, so much opposition that they're strapping on guitars and writing rhymes, which is what I'd expect of a teenager's protest, not that of an educated person. They're basically letting off steam and having fun, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's ludicrous to represent this as serious protest.

(And, just for the record, I'd consider someone who wrote a song in support of testing to be equally goofy.)

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June 16, 2004

Florida's educational hurricane

In Florida, students at failing high schools have the option to be bussed elsewhere - but what happens when all the surrounding high schools don't make the grade, either?

For parents of students at Orange's three failing schools, the F's mean their kids could be bused to better schools -- those rated at least a C. But with four more of Orange's 17 high schools dropping from C to D, the choices are becoming more limited.

A school advisory co-chairman had some strong words about those kids who dared to flee sinking ships:

At Oak Ridge, School Advisory Council co-chairman Cheryl Leonard said her school has been ruined by an exodus of strong students who fled for magnet programs elsewhere in the county.

"Oak Ridge has been absolutely raped of its best students," said the Oak Ridge alum and mother of an incoming senior. "I want to cry when I think about the students who have left either because of magnets or because their parents have lied about their address."

Bet those parents aren't crying. They got their kids out of failing schools and into good ones. Why should they have an obligation to stay behind? The problems in Florida's education system start early, and while the focus has been on elementary school students, the benefits have not yet begun to show for the later grades:

School officials struggled Tuesday to explain what caused the poor showing at many high schools after years of taking standardized tests known as FCATs.

Many students arrive at high school unable to do ninth-grade-level work, state education officials said. The schools inherit students promoted to the next grade even though they never mastered essential skills, said Jim Warford, chancellor of primary and secondary education in Florida.

The WaPo has a long and interesting article on the FCAT, which states that Florida's own improvement programs aren't meshing with NCLB:

In 1998, when Republican Jeb Bush, the president's brother, first ran for governor, 48 percent of Florida's students were dropping out before getting a high school diploma...Jeb Bush made education one of the most prominent issues of his campaign, promising to bring accountability and improvements to a system in which many Floridians had lost faith...

The new education plan, dubbed A+, placed strong emphasis on a new statewide student-testing program. At the same time, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush pushed through a similar program in his state. It laid the foundation for the No Child Left Behind federal education reforms he touted during the 2000 campaign and eventually pushed through Congress.

Those two programs -- one federal and one state -- are on a collision course this summer. That's when new test results could show that many of state's schools pass the Florida A+ standards while failing to show sufficient improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind rules. Failing to make progress on the federal standards would require the state to let the parents of students in failing schools transfer their children to better-performing alternatives.

We're not talking about a slight disconnect here. 94% of Florida's schools passed the Florida standard, while only 13% passed the NCLB standards. How could this be?

The goal of NCLB is to raise reading and math proficiency to 100 percent for all students in the country by 2014. Unlike the A+ plan, which grades schools on the aggregate scores of all their students, NCLB measures the performance of subgroups of students in reading and math and requires all groups -- defined by racial, ethnic, income and other factors -- to keep improving until all groups reach the 100 percent goal. These different scoring techniques have given some schools passing grades under the state A+ plan but failing grades under NCLB.

The article does a nice job of outlining the political pressures that are affecting Florida's educational hurricane. Democrats vs. Republicans, accountability supporters vs. those who feel the FCAT is "biased," testing supporters vs. those who believe tests impeded "deep thinking," etc. It's all there. Just as Florida brought the world's attention to the problems with the voting process, Florida will be ground zero for some of the primary battles being fought over NCLB.

(Thanks to Devoted Reader Roy L. for the link)

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May 17, 2004

A good use of test scores

In suburban NY, school report cards are impacting school board races:

Armed with facts and figures culled from the voluminous, data-rich report cards, a group of parents is endorsing candidates who support their push for a more back-to-basics approach...

Typically, anxiety over report card scores has been highest in New York City suburbs, Ernst said, where housing prices, frequently linked to the reputation of local schools, are astronomical. They've also been of concern in poor, urban school districts whose officials frequently say that if they have lower scores, they are reflection of the poverty rates in their communities.

Since its inception in 1997, release of New York's annual Report Card on the Schools has become a spring ritual, with students, teachers, administrators, real estate agents and, last but not least, parents, waiting eagerly for the scores...

Parents and students can use the results to compare their school with others across town, across the county, or clear across the state.

In Guilderland, the report card scores are fueling the latest incarnation of the perennial reading wars, which have raged for more than a decade. The issue has also spilled over into the board race in which five candidates are competing for three seats on a nine-member board. Three candidates are being backed by a group that is using report card scores to pick apart the district's elementary school reading program.

"You don't know if you are good or bad unless you have a point of comparison," said Melissa Mirabile, who heads a group of Guilderland parents who want the district to adopt a more structured reading program in the early grades.

Ms. Mirabile is a stockbrocker who waded through the data on the report card and didn't like what she found:

"The numbers started to jump out at me," she said. Among her findings: between 1999 and 2002, the percentage of students in the top of four scoring levels dropped from 30 to 25 percent. Statewide, it rose from 16 to 21 percent.

Broken out by school, the situation is even more stark, she contends.

Ms. Mirabile's response was to organize a pro-phonics parental group to endorse the election of three school board candidates who support that approach. My only question is - this is news? I mean, is this the first and only area in which parents have been perusing the accountability data and using that information to drive school board elections? If so, that's a shame.

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April 26, 2004

Early news on NCLB

From the Sun-Times comes the news that NCLB may be working as planned in Chicago:

Kids who won highly prized transfers out of failing Chicago public schools averaged much better reading and math gains during the first year in their new schools --just as drafters of the federal No Child Left Behind Law envisioned, an exclusive analysis indicates.

And, contrary to some predictions, moving low-scoring kids to better-performing schools didn't seem to slow the progress of students in those higher-achieving schools...

Some researchers questioned the results, and said further study is needed. But some parents of transfer kids said they didn't need further study to tell them a switch was the right decision for their kids.

"My son has made almost a 360-degree turnaround,'' said Tammie Summerville, whose son, Isaac, now 10, barely paid attention in school and balked at doing homework -- until he won a coveted seat at Dixon Elementary, in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood.

"Now, he enjoys school,'' Summerville said. "I'm happy I switched.''

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April 12, 2004

The independent state of Nebraska

Out in Nebraska, the land is wide and open, and the NCLB testing is unorthodox: Nebraska says "no" to mandatory statewide testing.

With criticism mounting over implementation of the federal accountability law and states scrambling to overhaul their testing systems to comply, Nebraska alone has succeeded in saying no to mandatory statewide tests.

The state has persuaded federal education officials to approve the nation's most unorthodox assessment system, which allows school districts to use portfolios to measure student progress.

For this, Nebraska Education Commissioner Douglas Christensen has been hailed as a visionary and derided as an obstructionist.

"I don't give a damn what No Child Left Behind says," Christensen said. "I think education is far too complex to be reduced to a single score. We decided we were going to take No Child Left Behind and integrate it into our plan, not the other way around. If it's bad for kids, we're not going to do it."

The article then mentions that Nebraska's portfolio assessments are, like most such systems, "expensive...time-consuming for teachers and it makes comparisons among districts difficult." The only reason it works as well as it does there is because the school districts are small (only 159 of Nebraska's 517 school districts are large enough to trigger federal attention) and the populations are homogenous. True to form, though, NCLB critics are insisting that Nebraska's system can work for other districts and states.

Nebraska's 517 school districts design their own assessment systems: a portfolio of teachers' classroom assessments, district tests that measure how well children are meeting locally developed learning standards, a state writing test and at least one nationally standardized test included as a reality check.

So they haven't opted out of standardized testing altogether. That's wise.

These are submitted to state education officials and a team of outside testing experts for review, and the districts are rated not just on the proficiency of their students but on the quality and reliability of their testing portfolio.

Also wise. This is why this plan satisfies the NCLB requirements. Interesting, too, that in a time when time-crunch complaints are constantly featured in news articles, Nebraska's teachers don't mind taking the extra time for portfolio work:

Sixth-grade teacher Melissa McCain knows some of her Nebraska colleagues think their jobs would be easier with state-ordered tests. But after the year she spent teaching in Texas, where children take high-stakes tests every year, she's convinced the extra work beats the alternative.

"Everything was about the test in Texas. The pressure was great. I would have kids who got sick on test day, they were so stressed out," McCain said. "Here, we are assessing our kids every day. I have more flexibility to meet the needs of individual kids."

There's nothing wrong with that. The high-stakes tests were developed, in essence, to force schools that were doing little or no assessment to keep better track of performance, and to allow states with very heterogenous populations to compare performance across districts. In Nebraska, it seems they've found a happy medium that works for Nebraska. But it would be a mistake to assume that this sort of assessment would be feasible or affordable or valid elsewhere.

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April 07, 2004

Do poll results show US supports NCLB?

The Education Week headline reads, "Opposition to School Law Growing, Poll Says":

American voters are becoming increasingly aware of the No Child Left Behind Act, but a growing minority of them are deciding they don’t like it, a new poll sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week suggests.

Three-fourths of voters questioned in January said they had heard about the bipartisan law, up from 56 percent who said so in a survey a year earlier...While supporters still outweighed those who dislike the law, the opposition grew threefold between January 2003 and a year later. Twenty-eight percent of this year’s respondents said they opposed the No Child Left Behind Act, compared with 8 percent in the 2003 PEN/Education Week poll.

Although we certainly can expect that as the number of those aware of NCLB increases, so will the number of its detractors, there are a couple of ways to look at this. One way is to say that the people who have discovered NCLB only in the past year have got it right, and these increased numbers reflect a public response to negative effects that took several years to develop.

One could also claim that these Johnny-come-latelys have it wrong. Perhaps they're people who don't have kids in the system. Perhaps the mainstream press has been consistently biased against NCLB, and those who discovered NCLB in the past year only know about it from reading negative articles. This poll oversampled minority parents; if those parents are more likely to believe that standardized testing, the cornerstone of NCLB, are unfair and racist, then it wouldn't be surprising if they were more likely to oppose NCLB. The main increase in opponents appears to have come from the "Not sure about NCLB" category, and perhaps those undecided folks are more swayed by negative press.

And is it possible that John Kerry was one of the people surveyed?

How can we tell? We can't. We can say that it appears from this poll that NCLB appears to have more detractors, but we don't know anything about who they are and why they oppose it, and I believe that would be the more useful info. And there are usual disclaimers about respondents who are willing and able to complete telephone surveys.

Other polls suggest that support is holding steady:

But David H. Winston, a Republican political strategist and the president of the Winston Group, a polling firm in Alexandria, Va., said the opinion research his group has conducted on the No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t bear out the conclusion that more voters are opposing it...

Mr. Winston cautioned that there were some differences in polling technique, both in the phrasing of questions and the sample. His group polled 1,000 registered voters with no oversampling. A December 2002 poll by the Winston Group showed 50 percent of respondents with a favorable impression of "Bush’s education reforms," and 29 percent unfavorable. Results from a January 2004 survey were about the same, with 52 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable.

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March 17, 2004

The desperate need for psychometricians

"Hire Ed," an article in the March 2004 issue of Washington Monthly, does a great job of presenting both the pros and cons of NCLB in an unbiased manner. What's more, this is the first article I've seen that emphasizes both the importance of psychometricians and the scarcity of them:

You might expect...that California would have been in a good position to handle a key NCLB provision, that each state rank the proficiency of each of its schools. Instead, when that provision kicked in last year, California stumbled..."It was chaos," says Bill Padia, who heads the [DOE's] policy and evaluation division.

The problem, it turned out, was that the law required the policy and evaluation division to make the calculations much faster than it had ever done before, using an assessment formula many times more complex than it was used to...And because the NCLB law has begun to create intense demand for a limited pool of experienced and knowledgeable testing experts, some of Padia's best people had been poached by testing companies and affluent school systems that could offer higher salaries. Once two-thirds of his 31 staffers had held doctorates, but by the time of the NCLB debacle last summer, only two did, one of whom was Padia himself...

At the end of the article, in the midst of the suggestions for helping NCLB work comes this stunning paragraph:

It is almost impossible to exaggerate just how unprepared these departments are for the task, or how vital the federal government's role in preparing them will be. To take just one example, each state will need teams of specially trained statisticians to oversee the development and administration of state tests. This is crucial not just to improve the very low quality of many tests currently in use, but also to avoid the kind of errors that have befallen California and other states in the last six months. Right now, however, the nation's education schools produce just 36 graduates with these skills each year. These testing experts are the equivalent of Arabic-speaking U.S. soldiers and spies in Iraq: We simply don't have enough of them, and the lack of such talent is costing us dearly. Washington needs to mount a crash effort to create that talent.

Emphasis mine. I've been saying this for a while; psychometric organizations have been addressing it as well. Efforts have been made to recruit more people to the field of psychometrics, but it's slow going. We desperately need more people in the field, and we need ones who are willing to put up with the (relatively) high stress and low pay that accompanies jobs in state-level education departments.

The paragraph above is stunning in part because the media description of tests tend to be so thoughtlessly and thoroughly negative that readers could be forgiven for deciding that psychometricians are hateful, bigoted people who deliberately create baffling, biased items that are guaranteed to be too hard for minority students. And who would want to be one of those? In order to see a rise in the number of psychometricians, there needs to be a change in their public image; this article is a start.

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March 16, 2004

Hurdling the ninth grade barrier

The hurdle appears to be set at the ninth-grade level, as the rate of ninth-graders who don't make it to 10th grade on time (or ever) has tripled in the last 10 years:

The rise in retention and dropout rates has revived and retooled a controversy over whether schools retain students for the right reasons, and whether the shame and frustration of retention is prompting more teenagers to quit school.

In North Carolina - an extreme case, but emblematic of a national trend - about 15 percent of kids are now "retained" in ninth grade, according to a new Boston College study. Some suspect a correlation with the staggering dropout rate: Nearly 1 in 5 students never returns for grade 10. Then, too, by the time retained students finish ninth grade, many are near the age at which they can quit without parental permission.

Part of retention, say experts, is a growing emphasis on state testing. But racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors figure in, too: Among black, tribal American, and Hispanic students statewide, 1 in 4 now repeats freshman year.

Why is ninth grade key? Because it's usually the first year of high school, when all the issues - cliques, puberty, dating, partying, tougher coursework, etc - that can trip up mediocre students are in full force. Also, students who sit through ninth grade at least twice are often old enough to drop out by that point, and the lure of jobs and the military begins to grow.

In respose, schools are using various methods to smooth the transition:

Many districts are now taking action. Some are starting "academies" that segregate freshmen and give them special attention. In Chicago, the country's third-largest district is discouraging would-be dropouts through waiver forms warning them of the dangers of quitting school. The city is also planning longer classes for kids having trouble in core subjects.

And many school systems are pondering a revamp of the junior high concept to better prepare incoming freshmen. In New York, up to two-thirds of the city's middle schools may be eliminated, making high schools 6th through 12th grades - an effort, in part, to smooth the middle years. In a huge educational overhaul, Indiana will track students more carefully during the high school transition and raise the minimum age that a student can drop out...

New York's plan seems like it could be hell on sixth-graders. And raising the minimum dropout age only masks the problem, I think. What good does it do to make a kid wait until age 17 if school is doing nothing for them?

Posted by kswygert at 01:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Rural teachers now have more time to demonstrate expertise

More wiggle room for rural teachers in the NCLB Act:

Under the law, all public school teachers must prove they are "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-06 school year. That means they must have a bachelor's degree, hold a state teaching license and demonstrate mastery of the subject they teach.

School officials in rural areas have complained that they can't meet those requirements because of the difficulties of recruiting qualified teachers to sparsely populated areas. As a result, a single educator might have to teach several subjects.

Under the changes announced Monday, teachers in rural areas who already are qualified to teach at least one subject will have three years -- or until the end of the 2006-07 school year -- to demonstrate expertise in the other topics they teach.

Newly hired teachers also must show expertise in at least one topic and will have three years from their hiring date to prove they are qualified to teach other subjects.

"These policies will help address the unique challenges faced by teachers in rural districts and schools," Education Secretary Rod Paige said Monday. "We know that effective teachers are one of the most crucial factors in student achievement and are needed in every school in America."

Via Joanne Jacobs.

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March 04, 2004

Connecticut wants out of NCLB

News reports from Connecticut indicate that the state senate is asking for exclusion from the NCLB Act altogether:

The state senate is asking that Connecticut be excluded from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Officials unanimously approved a resolution exempting Connecticut from the federal education mandate. The resolution asks Congress to grant waivers to states with high education standards and strong standardized test scores.

Lawmakers say the act, which was designed to establish accountability for poorly performing school districts, is unfair. Connecticut leaders want extra funding for only districts with large numbers of under-performing students...

The Senate resolution is now awaiting action by the House.

I couldn't find anything about this on the Connecticut DOE website. If any of you who are residents there know more, drop me a line. The chances of Connecticut succeeding at this are slim at best, I think.

Posted by kswygert at 11:29 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 02, 2004

PA educators petition for change

Superintendents in Eastern PA are petitioning the state capital for changes in NCLB:

On Monday, 138 superintendents from several eastern Pennsylvania counties gathered at Norristown High School in Montgomery County to sign a petition to support changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.

[Changes requested in the petition are]:

Altering the punitive-testing requirements so schools and children aren’t judged on a single test score.

Ensuring that the teacher quality definition will not force qualified, competent teachers from the classroom.

Closing loopholes that exempt charter schools and supplemental service providers from some of the requirements.

Requiring Congress to fully fund the act before punishing cash-strapped school districts that don’t meet the mandates of the new law.

Well, when one test score is defined as "punitive," I can tell we're dealing with people who find objective testing punitive in and of itself. What would the alternatives be? More test scores? Or more subjective measures?

I found this quote telling:

Tammy Manko, a parent with two children in the Freeport Area School District, and Dominic Duso, vice president of Apollo-Ridge Education Association, share many of the same reservations.

Manko said she pays close attention to what is going on in education, and she has discussions with a number of relatives who are teachers. Manko believes the act puts a lot of pressure on students and teachers, and that there’s too much emphasis placed on the PSSA tests.

“I have never put a lot of faith in that kind of testing,” she said. “I think these tests are the antithesis of what education should be. I feel for the teachers and I feel for the kids.”

She said teachers feel the need to teach to the standardized tests. Kerr said that’s not something that’s encouraged in the Armstrong School District.

Duso said No Child Left Behind holds schools accountable for things that are hard for them to control.

So it's more important to "feel" for kids than to understand why they're doing so poorly on objective tests? That's more important than trying to figure out what teachers were teaching previously other than basic skills? And I'd be willing to cut schools slack on the attendance thing if they were to accept that it is the schools' responsibility to teach reading and math, no matter what their students' home lives are like.

Posted by kswygert at 01:40 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 27, 2004

Shocking Chicago

The Chicago school board plans to "shock" some schools into realizing their shortcomings:

The school board has adopted a strict new accountability plan that would place nearly half the city's 600 public schools on academic probation, a move decried by critics as extreme but embraced by officials as necessary to shock the system into higher performance...

The new rules, passed late Wednesday, require elementary schools to have at least 40 percent of students meeting state and national testing norms, up from 25 percent; the standard for high schools increases to 25 percent from 15 percent. Under those rules, 293 of the system's 602 schools face probation, up from 82 now. A school can get off probation by reaching the 40 percent or 25 percent cutoff on tests given in the spring, or showing substantial progress -- 10 percentage points -- on the tests.

Duncan said that over the past 10 years, the number of students scoring in the bottom quartile on standardized tests has been halved, from 48 percent in 1993 to 24 percent now. The problem is that too many students are now stuck in the mid-range...

Critics, of course, say that these increased standards aren't fair because they're accompanied by no extra funding. But recent score increases have happened despite greater fiscal restraint, so it doesn't follow that test scores only rise when more money is pumped into the system:

...Duncan said there is plenty of evidence that the system continues to move away from where it was when Bennett embarrassed the city with an insult that is still raw for many Chicago educators.

That comment ushered in dramatic reforms. And in 1995, the state Legislature gave control of the schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has kept a jealous eye on the schools, preaching fiscal restraint, tough new standards, and accountability.

The impact was immediate and Daley, and his new management team, structured like a corporation, quickly became darlings of the education world. They achieved labor peace, balanced the budget, eliminated millions in waste, and instituted more after-school and preschool programs, while dramatically expanding summer school and ending the practice of advancing students simply because of their age.

And scores have improved, although they also seem to have plateaud. Hence the tighter standards.

I checked out the website of the PURE folks, who were mentioned in the article as being critics of these new tougher standards. They sound like devoted parents who supposedly support tougher standards and true school reform. But they can't get over their testaphobia. This is what they want for accountability measures:

Sound, high quality methods of determining student academic progress which include true multiple measures such as classroom-based assessment, grades, and other student work products created over time, and which use standardized tests as a secondary factor in the overall assessment.

I read this and I think: What happens when standardized test results wildly deviate from class grades, which has been happening all over the country lately? Doesn't this compound the issue of grade inflation? Does PURE know how difficult it is to develop "high quality" student work products that measure longitudinal development? Does PURE know how much more that costs than regular standardized tests, and how much more classroom time is involved? Just how secondary are standardized tests supposed to be?

Another conundrum is that PURE wants "High quality performance standards for teachers beyond administrative certification which support capable teachers and allow effective remediation of poor-performing teachers," but they also want students to suffer no sanction if taught by unqualified teachers. If that's the case, what motive is there to become qualified? And where are the demands to get rid of poor teachers who fail to respond to remediation?

PURE also regurgitates the standard anti-testing lines:

[NCLB flaws are that it is] misusing standardized tests resulting in increased student push-outs and drop-outs, more students denied promotion or graduation status due to test errors, and a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on tested subjects...

1. There is no solid evidence that standardized tests cause higher dropout rates (or push-outs). There is research to suggest that higher dropout rates correlate with exit exam use, but correlation is not causation. States with large numbers of poorly-performing high schools, that most likely have high dropout rates, are probably the states that were most likely to implement early exit exams, in order to identify and support struggling students.

2. While recent test scoring errors have been lavishly described in the media, there is no evidence that tests are routinely miscored.

3. Schools that already teach basic skills in an effective manner won't find themselves narrowing the curriculum. Schools that can't teach third-graders to read English will find themselves with less time to teach art, music, and self-esteem. No one has yet demonstrated that narrowing a school's curriculum to include solid reading and math instruction for all students is damaging to education.

Posted by kswygert at 09:49 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

NYC's wiggling third-graders

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is offering "wiggle room" for NYC's third-graders who flunk the state's standardized reading test:

The new promotion requirements, announced last month by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, would force any child scoring at the lowest level on the annual citywide reading or math tests to repeat the third grade. But at a public forum on the new policy, held yesterday evening by the Manhattan borough president, C. Virginia Fields, the chancellor said that parents would be given a chance to plead for their child's promotion...

The policy is intended to end a practice known as "social promotion," in which students are advanced despite failing to meet academic requirements. In recent weeks it has come under increasing criticism by parents.

Numerous studies of such policies around the country have found no benefit in forcing students to repeat a grade and instead show that those held back are far more likely to drop out before graduating high school.

Again, the chicken-and-egg problem. This doesn't mean retaining causes them to drop out later; what it most likely means is that kids who are struggling enough with early grades to be retained are more likely to drop out later.

Students who still scored at Level 1, the lowest of four rankings on the standardized tests, would be able to enroll in an intensive summer-school program and to retake the test. Those still at Level 1 would be forced to repeat the third grade. Under the city's policy, children scoring at Level 2, which is still considered failing to meet academic standards, could be promoted.

"We're talking Level 1 - which is far below standard," Mr. Klein said. "So even with the fallibility of testing, there is a wide margin in there. But as I said, that being so, we will have a process whereby students through their teachers - if their teachers think it's warranted - can make an appropriate appeal."

I'd like to hear more about the standard error of the test, and to know how far below proficient the ranking of Level 1 is. If it's very far - say two standard deviations or so - below what would be considered proficient, then Mr. Klein has a point here. Students scoring at Level 1 are unlikely to have true abilities at or above the proficient level.

On a related note, Jay P. Greene, writing in the New York Post, praises Klein:

The reforms being championed by Chancellor Joel Klein could finally lead to significant improvement of the city's schools after many frustrating years of spending increases and academic stagnation...

First, Klein supports a radical revision of the teachers-union contract that would eliminate counter-productive work rules and ease barriers to firing bad teachers. As Eva Moskowitz's City Council hearings made clear, the union contract in New York is a monstrosity, making it nearly impossible to get rid of lousy teachers...The single most important thing that a city schools chief can do to improve academic outcomes is to destroy the stranglehold that the teachers union has on the school system through the contract...

Klein has also made a big push to enforce academic standards by ending the social promotion of third graders who haven't acquired basic skills. New York students suffer under the existing system of being pushed to the next grade regardless of whether they learn anything or not...

if students repeat grades when they haven't been taught the basic material, teachers will have much greater incentive to make sure their students learn: High retention rates would produce unwanted media attention and parental ire...

Klein's proposed addition of 50 charter schools should be music to reformers' ears. Not only would it expand education options in the city, but it gives the chancellor leverage in his union contract negotiations...

Posted by kswygert at 09:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

California's adjustments to NCLB

California's doing some retooling to the NCLB regulations:

California education officials took a screwdriver Wednesday to some rigid rules regarding the controversial federal No Child Left Behind Act, saying the policies are potentially unfair to thousands of schools.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced 11 proposed changes in what was already a federally approved blueprint for how the state implements the education law...

For example, the superintendent said, California state law gives parents the right to opt their children out of standardized testing.

But the federal law punishes schools that fail to test at least 95 percent of students. Those schools are then deemed failures in meeting adequate yearly progress -- which could ultimately result in sanctions or loss of federal funding.

About 25 percent of the state's schools did not meet adequate yearly progress because they didn't test enough students -- not because the students didn't perform well enough, O'Connell said.

One of the changes proposed Wednesday would allow schools to count students who opt out of testing as "not proficient" instead of as a non-test taker. By doing so, schools would still have incentive to encourage students to take the test, but they wouldn't be punished in the head count if the parents decide to opt out.

If the state law allows parents to oppose testing by keeping their kids home, I agree that schools shouldn't be punished for this. There should be some way to distinguish between schools that fail to test kids and parents that refuse to have their kids tested.

At first, I thought the schools would still suffer thanks to those not-proficient scores for the opt-outers. But it's possible that, if the kids whose parents keep them home are kids who would have scored non-proficient anyway, the school's average remains where it would have been with those kids testing, and the school doesn't get punished for not testing enough kids.

Posted by kswygert at 11:04 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 25, 2004

The battle over NYC's third-graders continues

A top New York education official has squared off against NYC Mayor Bloomberg and his plan to retain third-graders based on test scores:

Board of Regents Vice Chancellor Adelaide Sanford said the state Education Department's guidelines advise against basing promotional decisions on a single test for elementary and middle-school students.

"Test scores should not be used in isolation because low test scores can often result from low motivation and other factors that are independent of a student's knowledge," Sanford said during a hearing sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields.

If the test is that high-stakes, I'm not sure if motivation is an issue. However, one can certainly argue that the test is not a good enough measure of reading ability to judge whether a child should be promoted, and one can also argue against ever using a single test score to make such a decision. All test scores contain error, and while they may contain less error than subjective grades, that doesn't mean that supplemental information shouldn't be used in conjunction with scores.

Sanford argued the policy punishes students who lag academically because they have inexperienced or incompetent teachers.

Well, but if students are lagging behind academically, then it's reasonable to argue that they should be held back to retake the grade with a different teacher. After all, if no students of an incompetent teacher get retained, when will we discover the incompetency?

Such a policy doesn't take into account if children are struggling because of undetected health problems, including those that affect vision or hearing, she said.

Students with visual or hearing handicaps would, I assume, be struggling with all the grade-level material. There's no reason not to provide test accommodations for kids who already receive such help in the classroom, but if a kid hasn't learned the material (whether due to the handicap or not), I don't see where it follows that promotion to the next grade is required.

And she stressed that all the data she's seen shows that children who are held back are more likely to drop out. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein staunchly defended the tougher policy, arguing that troubled kids are worse off later in life if they're passed along.

Chicken-and-egg problem. Smart kids aren't likely to be held back. If kids who are retained one year in the lower grades then go on to drop out later on, where's the proof that it's the retention itself, rather than the lack of intelligence/motivation/discipline that led to the retention, that is the cause of that? I have no doubt that retention is correlated with dropping out, but that doesn't mean that retentions cause later dropouts. Correlation doesn't imply causation.

The chancellor stressed he's talked to numerous teachers who say their students are lost because they're years behind. And he said half the city's kids leave the schools without basic skills.

I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to be a sixth-grader teacher who realizes that her class is at the fourth-grade level. I agree with Bloomberg that social retention can do much more harm than good, especially if it's done in great numbers. But I disagree with using one test to decide whether a child should progress or not. Perhaps the test scores and grades could be combined, where test scores are weighted so that grade inflation won't help a kid pass.

Posted by kswygert at 12:27 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

Mamma mia, so that's what a spicy meatball is

Teachers in Florida are using field trips to help their students on the FCAT:

Some Martin County schools place such importance on field trips that they've secured thousands of dollars in grant money to pay for impoverished students to visit places they normally would not see.

Many of the school's field trips aren't out of the ordinary: the bookstore, bowling, the movies. But many children in Port Salerno and rural Indiantown haven't done these things that seem "normal to us as middle class"...

Teachers say these trips help develop reading and writing skills by expanding students' vocabularies and helping them relate to reading passages. And a field trip, even one as simple as the annual Olive Garden outing, helps them understand what they have read in books.

"If you can go to an Italian restaurant and taste the spaghetti and sauce, you can do it much faster than you can reading about Italy," Miller said.

Port Salerno Elementary third-grade teacher Joe Harper said many of the things children read about in typical elementary books can be foreign to children from other cultures. Harper said he used to be surprised by the simple English words his students couldn't put into context, even though they were reading at grade level.

"They're fluent at a third-grade level, but their comprehension is maybe at a first-grade level because they don't have the cultural background," he said. "Things unique to America they just don't see. Something I've become a lot better with over the years is not to assume anything."

Posted by kswygert at 04:22 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

One teacher's response to the SOLs

A Virginia teacher blames the SOLs (Standards of Learning) exams for his decision to leave the public school system:

Standards of Learning were introduced to make education better. But in my experience, they had the opposite effect. The intense pressure to raise test scores eventually squeezed the life out of school, both for my kids and for me...

The idea behind the SOLs is simple: Lay out what kids should know, test them on it and then hold the schools accountable for their scores...Beginning this June, students who do not pass the high school tests won't graduate; beginning in 2007, schools that do not have a 70 percent passing rate on the exams will risk losing state accreditation.

From the start, the get-tough tests rubbed me the wrong way. Implicit in the notion of "accountability" are the assumptions that: (a) education is a product, the input and output of which can be standardized and measured; and (b) it's high time for teachers and schools to quit slacking and get to work.

It's very hard for me to imagine what education is if there's no observable change in the student. Just because a test is standardized doesn't mean that something other than reading and math can be measured with it. And some teachers have been spending an awful lot of time slacking, though they call it "child-centered education" while others call it "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

I can see why good teachers don't like the tests. But there are an awful lot of bad teachers out there.

In my experience, teaching is more alchemy than science. Its fundamental elements -- connecting with kids and sparking their love of learning -- can't always be measured by a test.

Yes, but what the kid learns can be. What good is a "love of learning" if the students don't learn anything? And what kid is better off - one who is in love with learning and knows few facts, or one who considers some classes to be drudgery but has a solid grounding in factual knowledge nonetheless?

This is why it pained me deeply to find myself in a situation where I felt compelled to give a rarely engaged student a practice bubble test instead of letting him read a book he had discovered he loved. My teaching directly to the high-stakes test would better serve him in the short term. He had to pass to graduate, and it was my job to make sure he did. Engaging him with books and instilling the habits of mind that might make him a lifelong reader would have better served him in the long run. I didn't have time to do both.

Can anyone out there enlighten me as to why there isn't time to do both? I'm serious. High-stakes tests aren't given every day. I don't work in the classroom, so I don't see this first-hand. But I find it hard to believe that the SOL alone kept this one kid from reading this one book.

This teacher, by the way, wants a return to this version of a lunchtime "coffeehouse" in school:

I remembered past years' versions of the coffeehouse: desks draped with tapestries, espresso maker bubbling in the background. Kids recited poetry into a microphone or played confessional songs on guitar. All these changes in the way we taught were hard to swallow, I thought, as I finished my sandwich and headed back to class.

Could he be a little more obvious about being attached to the 1960's? I can't think of anything more annoying at lunchtime than poetry recitations or "confessional songs." And again, why does the SOL mean there's literally no time left to have students read entire books?

The principal, Cathy Crocker, stepped to the dais, a Midwesterner whose indefatigable cheer belied the pressure she was under to raise our school's test scores. She thanked us for our efforts, describing her joy at seeing such caring, dedicated professionals working so hard with students. My spider sense started tingling...We had to raise our scores, she told us.

One way to do that, she said, was "bell-to-bell teaching": Every child's fanny in a seat from the moment the bell rings until the end of class 90 minutes later. I wondered if the controlled chaos of the writers' workshop in my room qualified as bell-to-bell teaching.

I wonder if any teaching at all happens in some classrooms where teachers aren't taught how to control chaos. And why isn't learning to sit still for 90 minutes considered legitimate character development?

The teacher, Emmet Rosenfeld, sounds like a genuinely nice guy, so I don't want to sound like I'm picking on him. He's probably a great teacher. But is the public school system in Virginia one that would really benefit, right now, from lunchtime poetry readings? Is all the instruction that teachers must take to craft lessons that relate to tests an indication of too much testing, or too little instruction about testing in education programs? And if there's so little time available to actually teach in the classroom, is that because teachers haven't been taught to impart information in an efficient fashion? If the tendency is to let children "discover information" all the time, I can see why there would be little time left to teach them all the facts they should know.

Posted by kswygert at 12:49 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 20, 2004

Easing the pressure on schools

The rules have been changed yet again; this week, the federal government announced that test scores of recent immigrant students (who don't speak English) would no longer be a factor in the determination of whether a school is meeting the academic progress yearly targets:

Federal education officials said the changes reflect a willingness to respond to protests from states and school districts that the rules for English learners are unreasonable. There are 5.5 million English learners in U.S. schools...

"We are listening to their issues and ideas for improvement as the law continues to be implemented," Education Secretary Rod Paige said in Washington. "Our goal is to provide the maximum flexibility while remaining faithful to the spirit of the law."

Not surprisingly, the change is welcomed by many:

In the Coachella Valley, more than 24,200 students are learning to speak English in the valley’s three school districts, according to the California Department of Education’s most recent survey.

Seventy percent of Coachella Valley Unified School District’s enrolled students aren’t fluent in English. About 32 percent of Palm Springs Unified School District’s students are English learners; and 30 percent are learning English in the Desert Sands Unified School District.

The change announced Thursday in the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program is expected to relieve pressure on these districts and on other public schools with immigrant populations, which until now have been required to test newcomers in reading and math before they have had a chance to learn English.

Critics of the program say the law essentially has forced failure on schools with large immigrant populations.

The NYTimes has more:

The change is expected to relieve pressure on public schools with immigrant populations. Until now, those schools had been required to test newcomers in reading and math during their first year in this country, before many of them have had a chance to learn English...

Under the law's strict provisions for demonstrating adequate progress by each subgroup of students — English-language learners, disabled students, minority students and the poor — almost 30 percent of American public schools have been labeled "in need of improvement."

Education Department officials said they did not know how many of the schools would have escaped that designation if today's rules had been written into the original law...But Ron Tomalis, an adviser to Education Secretary Rod Paige, said that in some states where department officials had analyzed test results, the list of subpar schools could shrink by 20 percent to 25 percent.

Under the changes...students who do not speak English will have a year — during which they will presumably learn the language — before they must take the standardized tests in reading and math. Schools may administer English proficiency, language arts and math exams to immigrant students.

This information isn't yet up on the NCLB/Education Reform page at Whitehouse.gov, but I assume some official press release will be up soon. The Republicans are already rushing to praise the changes, though:

U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-DE) today praised the U.S. Department of Education for a new policy that will give states and local schools flexibility in assessing limited English proficient (LEP) students without compromising on the rights of such students to learn English under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)...

According to a recent national survey, Republican leaders noted, 81 percent of Hispanic Americans support using standardized tests to decide whether students can move from one grade to the next, and large majorities of both African-Americans and Latinos support using such tests to "identify areas in which students need extra help and teachers could improve." Ninety-two percent of Hispanics agree it is "very important" for immigrants' children to learn English in school. Support is strongest among those born abroad. (Hannah Gladfelter Rubin, "Survey Finds Hispanics Support Schools, Testing," Education Daily, January 30, 2004)

"This policy comes two months after the Education Department finalized a similar rule on students with special needs that will also help to ensure good schools are not wrongly identified by states as needing improvement," said Boehner. "Many of the law's skeptics ought to stop and take a look at these rules and policies, and recognize they provide significant flexibility to states and schools without compromising the ability of disadvantaged children to access a quality education. They are reasonable and fair, particularly in light of the billions in federal education funds states are receiving to implement the law's requirements."

Update: As I mentioned above, the change is seen as a good thing by many educators, but Reform K12, hardass that he is, disagrees:

A valid issue is the whole matter of federal regulations in education, and whether they are "fair" to schools, and this can be discussed elsewhere.

But we feel very strongly that it is a mistake to separate children into classes, and then to treat those classes differently. Although it may seem that it is making the system more fair, really the kids may end up on the short end.

One reason why so many immigrant children have trouble learning English is for the very simple reason that schools don't take the task very seriously. We have a host of ideologically-driven programs which are designed to either embrace the child's home culture or language (or Spanish, even if the kid's Vietnamese!)

These programs are euphemistically titled "bilingual education" and most do little to help a kid learn English.

Teaching English isn't rocket science, all you have to do is talk to the folks that are already successful in teaching immigrant children (you'll find they're quite satisfied with an immersive program, coupled with intensive English instruction, including teaching the rules of grammar, heaven forbid).

Exempting these English Language Learners won't speed up this process any.

Posted by kswygert at 10:06 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 01, 2004

NCLB debate in PA

Tony Doylestown, PA - the county seat of posh Bucks County - held a forum on the No Child Left Behind Act. The consensus among the Doylestown parents seems to be, "Tests for thee, but not for me":

Undaunted by the year's first snowfall and temperatures hovering slightly above negative digits, approximately 150 concerned parents, students and educators attended a forum on the controversial No Child Left Behind program January 15 at Central Bucks West High School.

The forum, sponsored by the Parent Advisory Council at Central Bucks West High School and the Central Bucks School District, gave local officials, Central Bucks administrators and eager onlookers an avenue to express their feelings on the measure...

While many in attendance agreed that No Child Left Behind is a noble idea, they expressed displeasure with the act's implementation, specifically its reliance on one test (the PSSA) to adequately measure a school's and a student's capabilities.

O'Neill, a former special education teacher, spoke up loudest against the test, which is given presently to students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 11.

"I'm not a believer that a standardized test should be an end-all for all these kids and schools," he said. "I object to the concept that kids in Bucks County should be penalized for 50 years of neglect in Philadelphia"...

This past year, all Central Bucks elementary and middle schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The overall PSSA scores at both East and West far exceeded the required targets. However, East and West students in special education did not meet AYP, thus the high schools were given "warning" status...

O'Neill clamored for the Pa. Department of Education to set up different tests for different students. "One shoe doesn't fit all," he said.

Emphasis mine. I can understand why a special education teacher is frustrated with NCLB. That's why recent modifications were made, and I expect more changes to come. But why the comment about Bucks County kids having to pay thanks to the crappy state of schools in Philadelphia? They're not being penalized. They're taking tests, and doing well on them (in general).

Posted by kswygert at 08:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 09, 2004

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

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

January 05, 2004

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

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

December 31, 2003

Muddying the language waters

State officials in Washington claim the federal rules for language assessment in schools make no sense:

It's a classic Catch-22, state education officials say: The federal government holds public schools accountable for improving, as a group, the academic performance of students who don't speak English well -- but once the students learn English, they leave that group, so their improvement doesn't count in the federal calculation.

Pete Bylsma, director of research and evaluation for the state education department, likens it to giving a hospital no credit for curing patients because when they recover their health and are discharged, they're replaced by new patients, and the place is constantly full of sick people.

"When we have to test students that can't read the test and can't write the answers, it's going to be real hard for them to pass the test," he said yesterday.

One proposal is for English-language learners to be exempt from NCLB bean-couting until they've been in school three years "or until they have learned English." I'm in favor of the change that includes a deadline; otherwise, we're back to a situation in which there's no real accountability for a student as long as English is their second language.

Posted by kswygert at 10:59 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 29, 2003

The hypotenuse brouhaha in Mississippi

Federal law requires that items on a mathematics test for accountability must contain items for the highest-level required math course in that state. Mississippi currently requires geometry for graduation, but the state exam only contains items up through Algebra I. So Mississippi might change the exam - or drop the geometry requirement:

In Mississippi, geometry is the highest-level math course required for graduation, but students are given standardized tests in Algebra I, which is a lower-level course than geometry.

The board is considering either dropping geometry as a graduation requirement, or changing its standardized test into a comprehensive math test that would include Algebra I and geometry.

If the geometry requirement is dropped, the number of required math courses would increase from three to four. Board members hope that would force most students to take geometry, anyway.

Board member Kenny Bush of Philadelphia said removing the geometry requirement, even if the new requirement forces most students to take it by default, would send a message that Mississippi is lowering math standards.

"If the public can perceive us as lowering standards, that's not good," he said. "I think we either need to require geometry or at least some other math higher than Algebra I."

Believe it or not, one Mississippi math teacher is quoted as saying the exam should not be changed because that would be inconvenient - for the teachers:

Wingfield High math coach Valerie Kursar said the state has invested a considerable amount of money in developing the Algebra I test and providing teachers extra strategies to teach...

"If they change (the test) to geometry, teachers are going to have to start all over again providing extra resources for the geometry test," she said.

Isn't that what teachers are getting paid to do? Teach the skills that the state deems necessary?

Posted by kswygert at 09:55 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Revisions to Louisiana special ed testing rules

New exam rules in New Orleans mean that special education students will face a tougher testing hurdle:

Looking toward adulthood, 15-year-old Rebecca Hulse holds to a simple aspiration: to one day sell hot dogs at the Superdome.

The bright-eyed eighth-grader from Metairie, mentally disabled since her birth, is resigned to a life within limits. She speaks clearly and answers questions deliberately, but such basics as counting change or writing full sentences remain outside her grasp.

Yet between now and March, Hulse's teachers at V.C. Haynes Middle School are charged with preparing her for the high-stakes LEAP test.

She and as many as 5,000 other special-education students in the state are expected to lose their eligibility this year for easier exams tailored to their disabilities.

Those easier exams may have originally set the bar too low, and resulted in misclassification of students. But testing opponents say the new tests are "cruel" for children who will never have a chance at passing them:

Severely disabled students remain eligible for an alternate test. Those with disabilities categorized as mild or mild/moderate will be assessed in the spring with regular education students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the LEAP, or Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, test.

Although Hulse can write only a few select phrases, in March she will be expected to compose short essays. Her math skills, limited to addition with single-digit numbers, will be challenged with algebra.

"It's only going to totally frustrate her and ruin the progress we've been making with her," said Ann Hulse, a 29-year special-education teacher who adopted Rebecca three years ago when the girl was a student in her class at Ella Dolhonde Elementary School. "She's now at a kindergarten or first-grade level . . . In her lifetime she will never be on an eighth-grade level. Never."

Perhaps this just reveals my ignorance of the special education classifications, but why is an eighth-grader who is performing at the kindergarten level labeled as having a mild or mild-to-moderate disability? My God, how poorly does a child have to perform to get the label of severe disability? This seems wrong to me. The only way children who are this incapable of learning get diagnosed with mild to moderate disabilities is if kids who are two, or three, or four grades behind are diagnosed as having mild to no disability.

Has the school system pendulum swung from being too quick to label underperformers as disabled to being too willing to accept those performing two grade levels behind as "normal"?

That much said, the prior exams were geared towards the grade level at which the students were performing, which sounds right to me. It's odd that as the federal government is relaxing special education testing rules, Louisiana is tightening them.

State officials claim many school districts gave the easier tests too freely, to students who should have taken the regular tests. That effectively padded school performance scores and, Beridon said, shortchanged students who could accomplish more in life if challenged.

By mixing the disabled students' test results with those of regular education students, thereby including them in the performance scores, the state hopes to prod educators who might otherwise shunt their disabled students to the side.

Although overall student dropout rates have fallen in recent years, the percentage of Louisiana students who fail to earn a diploma is among the worst in the nation. Beridon said that low ranking will linger as long as thousands of special-education students are pre-emptively diverted from the diploma track.

That rank is 43rd out of 50, according to this table. My home state of South Carolina actually has the worst graduation rate - only 48% of ninth-graders graduate within four years.

Posted by kswygert at 09:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 16, 2003

Who says one person can't make a difference?

Can the decision to label a school as "failing" hinge on the performance of one student? Apparently, yes:

One student who left Eastern Elementary School last school year during the Maryland School Assessments indirectly has helped overturn a state decision that has held the Hagerstown school to a threatening standard this year.

The Maryland State Department of Education told Washington County Public Schools officials in November that the 560-student school will not have to provide costly tutoring services for its students this year...

Eastern was told in September, after the release of last spring's standardized test scores, that it was placed in its second year of "improvement" this year, meaning its scores did not meet state proficiency standards for three consecutive years, Palkovitz-Brown said...

After some investigation on the part of the school system's pupil personnel office, school officials discovered that the area in which Eastern failed most on the spring 2003 exam - special education - was accounting for a homeless student who left the school in the midst of the examination period. This caused his scores, marked as failures due to his absence, to be factored into a group that otherwise would have reached the state standard of proficiency, said Carol Corwell-Martin, the school system's school improvement coordinator and Title I school support specialist...

So far, the student hasn't been located - he allegedly moved to New York, but officials there have no record of him. His reading score had been low enough to pull down the special education scores just low enough to trigger further intervention on the part of the state. Now that his test scores have been shown to be the issue - and he doesn't even attend the school any more - the school has won it's appeal to be released from the special education tutoring requirement.

Posted by kswygert at 09:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 11, 2003

The headaches of testing English in Illinois

At Huff Elementary School in Elgin, Illinois, 54 percent of the students are first-year learners in English. Yet the Measure of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE) exam is required for all students, and the scores for all students factor into the state's academic watch list.

Is this fair? I'm not sure. Title III of the NCLB separates children just learning English from those who can be expected to be performing at grade level in English, but it requires schools to assess both types of kids, and to set standards of performance for both sets of kids. The IMAGE exam measures progress in English, so why give it to kids who are learning English for the first time? It seems odd that Illinois would have this sort of requirement for kids.

On the other hand, the problem here could be that Illinois has a very low standard on the IMAGE for kids who have completed only one year of English training, and this elementary school just isn't meeting that because they have so many of those kids, or so many of those kids are otherwise learning-challenged. From the article, it's hard to tell exactly what the issue is.

Posted by kswygert at 11:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

More on the NCLB changes

New Jersey's NJ.com website has more on the recent modifications to the NCLB regulations and special education students:

Under a new provision of the law, school districts will have greater flexibility in meeting the requirements for students with disabilities, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced Tuesday...

No Child Left Behind mandates testing and proficiency for all students, including special education and limited-English proficiency students, with consequences for schools whose subgroups fail to achieve adequate yearly progress. As the first round of test results came out over the past few months, many educators complained their schools had failed to make adequate yearly progress based solely on the performance of their special education students.

Under the new provisions, states, districts and schools can count the "proficient," or highest, scores of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who take assessments based on alternative assessment standards...

Nationally, about 9 percent of the total student population is served in special education, of which about 9 percent have the most significant cognitive disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education...

Under the new regulations, the number of students taking alternative assessments may not exceed 1 percent of all students in a school district in the grade tested. Districts can apply for an exemption from the 1-percent limit, if they can demonstrate they have a significant portion of students with cognitive disabilities.

Let's hope this removes the problematic issue of schools getting bad grades based solely on the performance of their most developmentally-delayed students.

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

December 10, 2003

Changing the rules for special education students

Those of us who predicted that the NCLB Act regulations affecting special education students would be the first to change were correct - but some South Carolina educators say the changes aren't enough:

A change announced Tuesday in the federal No Child Left Behind education accountability law recognizes that severely disabled children cannot meet the same academic standards as their nondisabled peers. But local educators complain the U.S. Education Department did not go far enough in revising the law's unrealistic requirements...

The rule change announced by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige affects students with the most "significant cognitive disabilities" who don't take the same standardized test as others their age. It allows up to 1 percent of a district's total number of students to test off grade level and still count toward meeting academic progress goals.

That means, for example, that a severely disabled eighth-grader whose mind functions like a third-grader, and therefore learns third-grade standards at school, can take the third-grade Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, and the score will still count...

The new rule is designed to give districts greater flexibility in meeting progress goals for disabled students.

South Carolina has about 110,200 special education students, more than 16 percent of the total student population. Disabilities range from speech impairments to autism.

Kathleen Magliacane, Berkeley County's director of special education programs, said she hopes the state pushes for a 2 percent to 3 percent limit.

Interestingly, at least one state official is willing to be quoted as saying that some kids in SC's special education programs don't need to be there:

But state education officials fear some students in special education programs don't need to be there. Before No Child Left Behind, schools did not need to count the scores of disabled children at all. In an effort to increase test scores, officials may have mislabeled some children.

"We do have concerns about over-identification," said Susan DuRant, the state Education Department's director of exceptional children. "We don't want to use the fact that we have high numbers of special education students as an excuse for changing the rules."

Posted by kswygert at 04:43 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 08, 2003

The era of testing-induced violence?

Devoted Reader Chris notes that Time has uncovered an alarming trend; an upward swing in violence and aggression in kindergarteners:

The alarming trend has been confirmed by Partnership for Children, a local child-advocacy group that has just completed a survey of child-care centers, elementary schools and pediatricians throughout Tarrant County, which includes Forth Worth and suburban Arlington. The final report is due out in January, but a preliminary version obtained by Time shows that 93% of the 39 schools that responded to the survey said kindergartners today have "more emotional and behavioral problems" than were seen five years ago. More than half the day-care centers said "incidents of rage and anger" had increased over the past three years. "We're talking about children - a 3-year-old in one instance - who will take a fork and stab another child in the forehead. We're talking about a wide range of explosive behaviors, and it's a growing problem," says John Ross, who oversaw the survey.

Oh my gosh. What's to blame? Television? Video games? Eminem? Bad parental examples? Lax disciplinary rules in school?

Would you believe, testing?

...those who see a problem believe they are witnessing the result of a number of social trends that have come together in a most unfortunate way. Many cite economic stress, which has parents working longer hours than ever before, kids spending more time in day care and everyone coming home too exhausted to engage in the kind of relationships that build social skills...

In addition, many educators worry about rising academic pressure in kindergarten and first grade in anticipation of the yearly tests demanded by the No Child Left Behind Act. In Texas, which has led the nation in embracing such tests, most kindergartens now go the full day, yet some have eliminated recess or limited it to 15 minutes a day.

I think kids should get play time, too, but I think it's just plain silly that Time suggests - without any corroborating data - that NCLB-influenced changes may be related to, or the cause of, this disturbing trend. And I think it's sad that testing gets mentioned before this fact:

The stunning finding is that 43% of the kids age 2 and younger watched TV on a typical day and that 26% had a TV in their room. The median amount of time spent watching: two hours a day.

And notice that the programs that are trying to cope with this problem are not in any way related to academic pressures, or test preparation:

On the front lines in Philadelphia and Fort Worth, schools are trying to teach kids what they have failed to learn at home. Philadelphia has extensive anti-bullying and character-education programs. It has Saturday counseling for troublemakers and truants, and requires parents to attend. This year it has extended the program to kids in kindergarten through fourth grade. For now, the Fort Worth district is working mainly with individual students and their parents. But sadly, it, along with districts throughout Texas, is also training more and more teachers how to physically restrain a furious, flailing 5-year-old.

To suggest that academic pressure is the cause of school violence is ridiculous. Philly and Fort Worth have the right approach, because violent behavior will have to be dealt with before academic achievements can be improved.

Posted by kswygert at 05:41 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Being good enough vs. "complacency"

From Louisiana, the frustration of good schools that are seemingly not "good enough":

Mimosa Park Elementary School in St. Charles Parish is, by most measures, a good place to go to school. In the heart of Louisiana's fourth wealthiest parish, the kindergarten-through-third-grade campus boasts high test scores and a sterling reputation among students' parents...

But as the state's school accountability system ratchets up pressure for continuous academic improvement, simply being good overall is no longer good enough. Beyond making failing schools work, new federal education guidelines require progress across the board, from the entire student body in an all-around terrible school to a pocket of struggling, impoverished students on a top-notch campus.

And therein the problem lies. Even small drops in overall performance will cause a school to face state intervention, and this is apparently what those who designed this program want to see:

"Complacency is the right word," said Leslie Jacobs, who has wielded substantial influence over the accountability program as a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"The model's always been about growth and movement," she said. "The question I would ask is, in five years, why have they gone backward?"

In the past, minimal growth or a falling score was forgiven for high-ranked schools, but that changes next year. All but the top-tier schools in the state, and none in St. Charles meet that mark, will be subject to school-improvement labels...Scores are based on standardized test results, attendance and, for high schools, dropout rates.

Some argue that bringing up the scores of all students is impossible; a matter of reality, not complacency. Others say the goals for all subgroups must exist so that those kids are not overlooked:

Robin Jarvis, director of the Education Department's Division of School Standards and Accountability, said meeting the goal requires the schools to focus in on racial or economic groups that might otherwise be given up on.

Yet even Jacobs, one of the most hard-line of accountabilities supporters, acknowledges that there is a limit to how far it can go. The state's requirements for moving subgroups forward, she said, is backloaded so that much of the growth would not have to occur in the final years leading up to 2014...

"To sit back and say that every special ed child is going to be proficient by 2014 is ludicrous," she said.

It is. So what's the middle ground that motivates schools to educate these kids, but doesn't punish good schools for doing all that seems humanly possible?

Posted by kswygert at 05:19 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Switching tests down in the land of Bougainvillea

And now, a NCLB-affected area that we don't hear too much from - Guam.

[Guam] Department of Education officials are considering a switch from the SAT-9 to the Stanford 10, the newest version of the test series. But principals are worried that differences in the new version would adversely affect students' performance if the switch is made too soon...

Mark Slitt, spokesman for Harcourt Assessment Inc., said many of the skills that are tested in SAT-9 are also tested in the Stanford 10. He said that while there are differences between the two tests, there also are advantages to the Stanford 10, and that the company tried to ensure the test met the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act...

Rose Rios, principal of Inarajan Elementary School, said parents and teachers are only just learning to use the SAT-9 to help identify their children's weaknesses. Rios is also concerned that the new test might affect the department's ability to monitor student improvement.

Machananao Elementary School acting Principal Vangie Iglesias said teachers and parents have become familiar with the test and have learned how to use the results of the test to help students.

"Changing that now may be detrimental, but, like I said, it depends on how different the new test is," Iglesias said.

Iglesias said she wants to look carefully at the differences between the two tests before any decision is made.

Nothing very controversial here; I just didn't want those of you who were hungering for information on educational policies in Guam to feel left out. But don't go look at the weather report; it's enough to make me want to stick my head in the oven.

Posted by kswygert at 04:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 03, 2003

A new plan for a failing school

Woodlawn High School (LA) has been labeled "failing," in part because of rock-bottom standardized test scores. The school developed tutoring programs for before and after school, and on weekends, but only 10% of those kids who needed it showed up. So Woodlawn's adding an extra period to the school day to try to make some difference on the kids while they're a "captive audience":

Woodlawn High School freshman Timothy Brown plans to study science a little more when the school adds an extra enrichment/tutorial period by the end of December.

Science is his least favorite subject and English his favorite. He'll get extra help in both, as well as math and social studies, as students prepare for state standardized testing in the spring. Woodlawn Principal Carter Bedford and his faculty carved time from the regular school day to create a seventh period...

Bedford plans to start the new schedule as soon as possible after board members approve it. He's already assigned teachers and created student rosters for them...

The comments by some teachers are astounding in their obviousness; no one's mincing words about the low level at which these kids are performing:

[Teachers] will provide more one-on-one attention during the extra period. [Teacher] Hall plans to focus on reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.

"Their comprehension skills are really low, and we need to work on vocabulary. If they understand the vocabulary words, then they can better understand what they're reading," [teacher] Hall said. "They also need to work on how to analyze the essay questions. They don't always understand what they're being asked to do. We have to break it down for them."

Yes, I'd say understanding of vocabulary is paramount. It gets worse when the discussion moves from the regular students to the special-needs kids:

Bedford estimated that 30 percent of his 800-plus students are "academically challenged" - so far behind their peers that some work at an elementary-school level. These include special education students and those still trying to pass the eighth-grade state test that determines whether they move to ninth grade.

Emphasis mine. Principal Bedford has his work cut out for him.

Posted by kswygert at 08:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 02, 2003

Special students, failing schools

Self-described "Long-time reader, first time contributor" Rafel - make that Devoted Reader Rafel - sent along this CNN story about the impact of special education students on standardized test results. He's not impressed by the schools that claim that the special education testing requirement of NCLB drags them down and puts too much of a burden on teachers. Let's see what the article has to say:

Special education has been a battleground for years. Parents of special ed students fought long and hard for their children to be included in mainstream classrooms, and for the money to provide them with extra help. Now the new law, dubbed No Child Left Behind, has focused even more attention on special education, because of the consequences for entire schools.

The law mandates that schools bring all groups of students up to grade level on standardized reading and math tests, including special ed students and those who do not speak English. If even one of those groups fails to meet progress targets for two years in a row, an entire school can be listed as failing and face an escalating list of sanctions...

Stop and think. Why would such stringent testing requirements be put into practice in the first place (even though all evidence suggests that some of these requirements will soon be relaxed)? It's because schools have long been able to use "special education" as a dumping ground for kids who aren't really of low ability, but who don't respond well to boring or ineffective teachers. I think one can argue that the percentage of special education students in a school and the quality of instruction that those students receive is one measure of how good a school is. There's a reason it's not called the "No Child Except "Special" Ones Left Behind" Act.

However, the Education Department does not want to let all special education students and their teachers off the hook, said Ronald Tomalis, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education...

"There have been low expectations for some of these children all along," he said. "And that's not because of mental abilities, but because of poor instruction received in the early grades. We need to challenge schools that these children can achieve. Sure, they will need an intensive program, but they can be brought up to grade level."

For more seriously disabled children, he said, a proposed change to the law would let 1 percent of all children in a district skip the grade-level exams and instead take a test tailored to their abilities. If they scored well on that alternative, it could be counted in their school's favor.

One teacher describes her sixth- and seventh-grade class in the following way:

In Harper's classroom, she interrupts her math lessons constantly to ask her sixth- and seventh-graders not to kneel on the floor, to tell them that no, it is not time to go home yet, and to listen patiently to stories that do not involve math.

It can take about 15 minutes to wade through four or five math problems, because her 12- and-13-year-olds are struggling to master fractions, not the pre-algebra that occupies most seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle school.

Harper said she measures her students' progress not by their performance on standardized tests but by how they are doing on plans tailored to each youngster. For many of them, the realistic goal is not to work at grade level but to gain as much self-sufficiency as possible, she said.

No offense, but why are these kids in sixth and seventh grade in the first place? How did they get promoted to that point when they seem to be functioning as third-graders? It seems to me - and I'll admit that I don't know that much about the politics of special eduation - that at some point, everyone decided that special education kids should be "mainstreamed" into classes. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and it seems that special education teachers want to be able to say, "Oh, these kids deserve to be sixth-graders, but they can't be expected to do sixth-grade work." What's the definition of a sixth-grader, then?

I'm not saying I have a solution - I've never claimed to have one, in this area. But it's quite obvious that many folks in the current educational setting simply want the definition of what it means to function at a grade level to be stretched so far and wide that it's essentially meaningless. The current practice of standardized testing narrows the definition significantly, resulting in this battle that is most definitely just getting started.

Posted by kswygert at 09:33 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

November 17, 2003

No relief for "failing" schools

One example of a kink in the NCLB Act: Schools are receiving failing grades simply because not enough students take the test. The problem is that some kids count in multiple categories, so one kid missing the exam can cause problems all over:

It was no surprise to Clarke County educators when district high schools didn't meet achievement standards for the 2002-03 school year - nor when they had plenty of company from high schools around Georgia. The state's refusal of an appeal for an exemption is a bit more disheartening, however.

Neither Cedar Shoals nor Clarke Central high school fell short on academic achievement - instead, they failed to meet standards because not enough 11th-grade students took the graduation tests used to measure achievement...

Because there was no time to get many students on track to take the tests last spring, Clarke County appealed for an exemption on the 2002-03 scores. Not only were special-education students unlikely to have taken the test, but many juniors haven't been taking it right away, preferring to wait for a later test date so they feel more prepared. Those students, too, will have to be encouraged to take the test at the right time so they'll be counted in the participation rate.

That appeal has been denied. State administrators pointed out that special-education students weren't the only group that didn't meet the participation standard, Smith said.

But that's problematic because the special-education students who didn't take the tests also count in other categories. A student who is African-American, poor and receives special-education services, for instance, would be counted not just in the special-education subgroup, but in the ''black'' subgroup and in the ''socioeconomic status'' subgroup. He also would be counted in the ''all students'' category for that school.

That means that single student would reduce participation levels in four categories if he didn't take the graduation test, not just in the special-education category.

Clarke County administrators are still hopeful that concern about the problem -which is nationwide, not just in Georgia - will lead the federal government to take action.

Posted by kswygert at 12:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 14, 2003

The testing backlash, and how to deal with it

Is there a NCLB/testing backlash, and if so, what can we do about it? Professor Rebecca Zwick takes on this weighty topic in this article as part of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's "Crosstalk." She manages to lend a sympathetic ear to those who are frustrated with testing, but she notes that only a tiny minority of educators, parents, and students oppose all tests on general principle. Many specific changes to the tests have been proposed, and she outlines the three changes that she believes would make the testing process less painful, and more accepted:

1. Opportunities must be provided for school personnel, students, parents and the community at large to become more informed about state and federal testing mandates. In a statewide survey conducted after the CAHSEE had been administered for two successive years, high school principals were asked to estimate the percentage of students and parents who were familiar with the exam. On average, the principals estimated that only 51 percent of students and 17 percent of parents "know what knowledge and skills are covered by the exam." And indeed, only 58 percent of the 47 principals surveyed, and 63 percent of the sample of 159 teachers, said that they themselves were familiar with the exam content.

Nor is the public well-informed about federal assessment requirements... Because of this information gap, these testing programs are often viewed as incomprehensible requirements imposed from on high...

2. The tests that are selected or developed must be well designed for the task at hand and must be skillfully administered and scored. Tests are often discussed as though they are interchangeable, but like any other product, a test may be of good or poor quality. And even if an exam has been competently developed, it may not be well-suited to a particular purpose...

It is the joint responsibility of state officials and testing companies to assure that contracts provide enough time, resources and technical expertise to allow the development of high-quality tests, administration procedures, and scoring methods.

3. Government-mandated tests must be seen as part of a genuine, adequately funded school improvement effort, rather than a reason for punitive action against students, teachers and administrators. Increasingly, tests are used as the sole criterion in determining which students get promoted or graduate-a violation of professional testing standards-or which teachers or school systems receive a bonus...

Many students and school personnel regard this reliance on a single test score for major decisions as a form of double jeopardy: Students who attend schools with inadequate resources and facilities, and are therefore already suffering an educational disadvantage, are less likely to be well-prepared for the tests...

In summary, government-imposed testing programs would meet with greater acceptance if there were better communication and better tests. Also, the public would be more enthusiastic if tests were seen as tools within a well-funded good-faith effort to improve education.

Well said. She's addressed several points that I've made at various times, only she does so more elegantly (and with more data to back up her statements).

Posted by kswygert at 03:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 06, 2003

NCLB not just dangerous, but "deadly"

This past week, I deconstructed an essay by a professor of education whose defeatist, anti-capitalist article essentially concluded that public schools should not be expected to educate all children; indeed, that until the world is made perfect, we can't expect public schools to do much of anything at all. The author cited Alfie Kohn, who is, as one of my commenters pointed out:

"...against competition -- but not just competition in schools. When you read Kohn's work, it sounds like it was written in the 1930s. He talks about "wasteful competition" in the economy, too. You know -- if only companies didn't have to advertise, if only they would all work together in the marketplace so there would be no winners or losers, etc."

Well, Alfie's brilliant - and practical! - ideas are back in evidence in yet another essay whining about the prevalence of testing and the "deadly effects" of the NCLB Act:

Author Alfie Kohn isn't a fan of standardized tests.

That much was evident during his presentation Wednesday at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point's School of Education Okray Colloquium. Dubbed "The Deadly Effects of 'Tougher Standards," Kohn's lecture ripped into the federal No Child Left Behind legislation..

"This is a system designed to make sure that all children will never succeed," Kohn said. "When they talk about rigorous testing and raising the bar, they mean ensuring failure for many of the students."

And, as Alfie does not want you to notice, that ensuring failure is something for which the schools should be held accountable. After all, if it is a given that children cannot do better when standards are raised, that suggests that something is so inherently wrong with the public school system that changes must be made. However, his conclusion is simply that we just shouldn't raise standards.

Teachers and parents shouldn't be concerned about raising standardized test scores, anyway, he said. The learning that matters isn't necessarily measured by standardized tests, he said.

He says blithely, providing no explanation and no data. Given that most if not all NCLB-related exams measure reading, writing, and arithmetic, I am assuming that he believes that these skills do not matter. I am also assuming that he believes that it isn't a national shame that so many of our public schoolchildren have not shown mastery of these core skills at a basic level. No, no, he's got a whole other universe of "learning" that "matters" defined in his head, one that somehow bypasses the need for learning to read.

"Standardized tests are an exquisitely accurate measure of the size of the houses near your schools," he said. "The tests stink. They measure what matters least..."

No, they're not an "exquisitely accurate" measure of house size; only someone unfamiliar with test reliability and standard errors of measurement would use this hyperbole, even to drive a point home. Yes, test results are similar to grades in that SES is related to a child's academic standing. That doesn't mean, however, as Alfie wants you to conlude, that children from poor backgrounds cannot achieve, nor that they cannot be expected to achieve. This does not mean that a child's educational attainment is beyond their control, nor beyond the school's control. If this were the case, then no child would have climbed from poverty, no child would have been the first in her family to go to college, no child would have done better than his parents.

Children have been able to do this in the past because the public schools they attended believed they could do it. Alfie wants to give schools a reason to give up on these kids. Despicable.

Leah Tappa, 22, president of the Association for the Education of Young Children, said "teachers are being held a little more accountable" even though they may not be at fault for students who don't do well on the standardized tests.

Oh, now that's exquisite. Here's a teacher celebrating an anti-achievement ideology that frees teachers from the requirement of having to prove they can do the one thing they've been hired to do; i.e., educate children. Ms. Tappa, I don't know if your desire to avoid accountability comes from an addled ideology or lack of self-esteem, but let me assure you, if you are standing in front of a room of small children in order to teach them the alphabet, it is indeed you who hold the power. You are their link to the world of literacy and if your charges come from poor background, then your efforts are even more important.

And ultimately you are accountable for how well they do; otherwise, why are you there?

Posted by kswygert at 11:36 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 03, 2003

The good and bad sides of school report cards

An overview of school accountability, from MaineToday.Com:

Maine eductors...have long fought the practice of grading schools based on student performance. When the Maine Educational Assessment - the state's standardized test - was established in the mid-1980s, state officials promised that the data would not be used "like a basketball score in the paper"...

School "report cards," though, are common in other states. Long before the federal No Child Left Behind Act arrived...many states were giving parents information on school performance. Some experts warn that unless Maine educators embrace public accountability, the state's schools are in danger of falling behind.

"It has become a way we do business in education in most places," said Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, one of the groups that pushed for No Child Left Behind. "Maine is one of the last states to move in this direction."

For schools to be accountable and for reform to occur, the public must have a way to evaluate the performance of schools, proponents say.

For schools that do poorly, lists that grade school performance - like the ones released by Maine's education department last month - give principals the leverage to prod teachers to do things differently, and for politicians to provide more money, they say. High-performing schools provide examples of teaching methods that work best.

Moreover, they say, the data must be given to the public, not just to administrators for examination in the privacy of their offices.

"We need to be able to tell how our schools are doing," said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, which has been ranking schools since 1997. "This is important information that holds schools accountable for student performance."

Kentucky, which has moved from the bottom of national rankings to somewhere in the middle, gives cash to schools that do well; schools that do poorly get more teacher training.

Posted by kswygert at 10:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 29, 2003

The Head Start exam, and its detractors

The Head Start standardized tests have arrived:

The new federal emphasis on accountability in education reached Nate Kidder recently in the form of his first standardized achievement test. Nate is 4 years old.

He sat on the edge of his chair in the cafeteria at the West Early Childhood Center, where he is a Head Start child, and chewed his lip. Patricia Stevens, the center's principal, gave him the 15-minute exam, asking questions on simple vocabulary, letter recognition and math. At one point, she showed Nate a page with four pictures and asked him to point to the one that matched the word "vase."

I've heard from readers who suggest that fifteen minutes is a long time for a four-year-old to concentrate on anything, but the personlized interaction and the type of test items here do not seem inappropriate for the purpose of the test.

...More than half a million 4-year-olds in Head Start programs around the country are taking the same test, which has been mandated by the Bush administration...

Federal officials say the test will improve the quality of Head Start, the 38-year-old program intended to prepare poor children for kindergarten. But many of the country's leading education experts, and Head Start providers and teachers, say the test could harm the children as well as Head Start...

Wonder which one of these potential harmful situations has these experts more concerned? As described above, it is very hard for me to see how the testing situation could be harmful. The NYT goes out of its way to point out that Nate was "nervous" and that the test was "not fun," but my guess is that most four-year-olds are in the process of learning to deal with situation that challenge them, and are used to "not-fun" situations (i.e., picking up toys, being punished for pulling the cat's tail, etc).

The suggestion that kids might be guessing on the exams is also floated here as an implied criticism of the exam, although (a) guessing behavior is present on every test from this Head Start assessment right up through the medical boards, and (b) if kids consistently guess right, then at some level they do know the answers. If most kids are responding randomly, that will show up in the item statistics, and the test developers will realize that the test is not appropriate.

Experts also say the test fails to take into account the complex lives and needs of children living in poverty.

"When you get an answer from a child living in poverty, it's not a very good indicator of their capacity," said Dr. Edward Zigler, a psychologist, a founder of Head Start, and the director of the Center on Children and Social Policy at Yale University. "They have a variety of motivational factors that get in the way. If you grew up in poverty, you become wary and suspicious of adults you don't know, and testing situations."

If I read this correctly, this psychologist is essentially saying that if a child is from a poor home, there's no real way to test if they can recognize letters of the alphabet, and it's a given that they're afraid of testing, period. That sounds like poppycock to me. Instead of assuming that these children will mistrust strangers, and presumably lie to them, why not use this opportunitey to teach kids that testing can be safe and relatively stress-free? The test administrators don't berate kids for getting the wrong answers, so why are we being told to assume that the kids will be freaked out by it?

Wade Horn, the federal official in charge of Head Start, said that extensive field testing had been done to make certain not only that the test is reliable, but also that children find it "fun, interesting and enjoyable."

The test was clearly not Nate Kidder's idea of fun. When Mrs. Stevens showed him four pictures of people with different facial expressions, and asked him to point to the one that matched the word "horrified," he bit his lip and looked at her for reassurance.

And...four-year-olds never do that any other time? When Mommy goes to introduce Nate to someone new, does he sometimes bite his lip and shy away, or look at her for reassurance? Does that mean Mommy should never put Nate in those situations, simply because they're not fun? Is "fun" the only rationale that should be used when deciding how to educate a child?

Obviously, I'm not advocating torturing four-year-olds, but the NYT is really reaching here in their efforts to demonize this test. You can't tell me that for every Nate in Head Start, there's not also a Natalie who eagerly awaits the chance to show off how well she can identify the letters of the alphabet. Why didn't the NYT interview that child?

One can argue, as one of the test administrators did, that the test questions were not appropriate, or one can argue that the drawings used were poor, or that the illustrations need context. Those are all valid criticisms of any test. But I think it's silly to claim that all kids will be as unsure about answering as Nate was, and while I understand the concern of teachers who feel that kids like Nate will have their confidence undercut by these exams, I see no reason to assume up front that that will be the case.

Oddly, one teacher claims that "building confidence" is one of the main components of Head Start, and complains that the tests don't measure this. Does this mean they'd rather the test administrators give feedback during the exam? This might make the test less stressful for some, but more for others. Why the assumption that a neutral testing environment must be a confidence-destroyer?

Opponents of the test agree with federal officials that Head Start needs to be improved...[but]...they worry that Head Start teachers will start teaching to the test — and overemphasizing literacy and math skills.

For children from deprived homes, who will presumably go to less-than-stellar public schools, is it possible to overemphasize literacy and math skills at this point? Since when did we decide that it was harmful to teach these skills to young kids? When did we start assuming that the type of kids who attend Head Start cannot benefit from learning these skills?

Many of the children at the West Center here have parents working at minimum-wage jobs at Wal-Mart, Burger King or other businesses. Some parents are barely out of their teens.

Even more reason that Head Start should be offering enhanced educational opportunities to the children of these parents. And if the parents are very stressed out about these tests, who may be partially to blame for that? Perhaps the teachers and Head Start officials themselves, who describe these tests in such an unremittingly negative fashion. And perhaps the NYT as well, which manages to mention a chatty, non-nervous little test-taker near the end of the article, along with another jibe at the test administrator:

At the Head Start center, John Ross Espino, a chatty 4-year-old, was a lot more interested in talking to Mrs. Stevens than in answering her test questions. When she asked him to point to the picture that corresponded to the word "diving," he told her, "I have swimming lessons today."

Normally, Mrs. Stevens said, she would have been delighted to talk with John Ross about his swimming lessons. But in keeping with the test instructions, she proceeded to the next question.

Yeah, that's just....torture. You mean these people are trying to get four-year-olds to stay on task for fifteen minutes? Imagine that. Is this the worst the NYT can come up with? If so, they're going to do have to do a lot more to convince me that these tests are actually harmful to kids.

These tests may indeed not be valid for this group, but if that's the case, the test scores and the item statistics will show that. This sort of presumptive hatchet job tells me that the NYT has already decided the tests are invalid; the better to ignore the results when they're finally released, I suppose.

Update: Don't miss Joanne Jacobs take on this subject. I particularly like it when she yells at the fatuous psychologist who insisted that poor kids can't be tested:

Fatuous comments:
"When you get an answer from a child living in poverty, it's not a very good indicator of their capacity," said Dr. Edward Zigler, a psychologist, a founder of Head Start, and the director of the Center on Children and Social Policy at Yale University. "They have a variety of motivational factors that get in the way. If you grew up in poverty, you become wary and suspicious of adults you don't know, and testing situations."

Joanne's reply:
IT IS NOT A TEST OF THE CHILDREN'S CAPACITY! It's a test of the effectiveness of Head Start. The test is given by the teacher, an adult the child does know. And I don't believe four-year-olds are wary of testing situations. It's a game to them. Maybe a boring game, but a game.

All caps counts as yelling, right? And Joanne emphasizes, as I should have but didn't, that the NYT tack of attacking the test's meaningfulness for assessing individual children is moot. The purpose of the test is assess how well Head Start helps children; the debate is really made of up those who want to know if Head Start is teaching kids useful academic skills along with social skills vs. those who are comfortable with the US having spent $60 billion since 1965 on a glorified day-care system.

My guess is that those who are so heavily criticizing the test in advance would like to keep the money rolling in for the glorified day-care environment. Otherwise, why such animosity towards an exam that doesn't report scores for individual students?

Update: I should have known that Scott Ott would have uncovered the secret to equalize our nation's youth:

The Senate version of the Head Start reform bill would rename and 're-mission' the Great Society program. Instead of trying to prepare poor children for school in hopes of enhancing achievement, 'Slow Start' will enroll children from middle-class and wealthy families and attempt to "confuse and de-motivate them" so that they won't excel their peers from low-income families.

'Slow Start' is part of the Democrat party's new 'No Child Leaved Ahead' program, designed to prevent underachievers from suffering self-esteem drainage when they note the superior performance of their classmates.

"Our nation was founded on equality," said Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy. "But the poor kids will never catch up if we don't do something to trip up the rich kids."

Mr. Kennedy expects that enrollment in the 'Slow Start' program will exceed Head Start in its first year.

"Most well-off people have just lucked into their money," said the Senator. "They feel guilty about how their clever little prodigies always bust the grading curve. They would love to do something to level the playing field, and they're willing to stoop to conquer inequality."


Posted by kswygert at 11:26 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 22, 2003

Counting top teachers

The cheeseheads are doing something right; Wisconsin has been rated the #1 state in terms of teacher quality. Of course, this is self-reported, but with 99% of core classes reported as having "top teachers," either they're indeed very good, or Wisconsin is brazenly fudging the numbers.

This Olympian article has much more information, which not only suggests that Wisconsin teachers probably are pretty good - but teachers in other states might be really bad:

Most U.S. public school teachers -- even those at schools with large numbers of poor students -- are qualified to do their jobs, according to information that all states submitted to the federal government. But each state defined teacher qualifications differently. And experts say some state definitions are so broad that virtually all classroom teachers would meet the requirements.

That has the potential to mask one of the most troubling problems in American schooling: assigning students to educators who don't fully grasp the subjects they teach, education experts say...

There is a powerful incentive for states to show high numbers of qualified teachers. Despite tremendous shortages of science and math teachers, the law requires that all teachers of key academic courses be highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Three states -- Alaska, Alabama and California -- reported that fewer than half their classes met the requirements. Wisconsin reported that nearly all of its classes -- 98.6 percent -- were taught by strong teachers...

No Child Left Behind requires states, for the first time, to publicly report figures on teacher quality in key subjects like English, math and science. The law defines "highly qualified" teachers as those who have earned a bachelor's degree, hold a state teaching license and demonstrate mastery of the subjects they teach.

But state definitions vary widely regarding how teachers demonstrate that knowledge.

Some states demand that teachers majored in their subject in college. Others require them to pass a test. And others give veteran teachers at least partial credit for time they've spent teaching a subject -- even if they didn't study the topic in college.

To teach high school chemistry in Wisconsin, a teacher must have at least a college minor in chemistry and a bachelor's degree in science. In Florida, the teacher must pass a state test in the subject, according to state officials.

Therefore, if I read this correctly, if you live in Wisconsin, your child will learn chemistry from someone who at least minored in chemistry in college. If you live in Florida, your child will learn chemistry from someone who got a bachelor's degree, most likely in education, and then passed a chemistry test. I'd guess Florida is more likely to suffer from the ill consequences of "assigning students to educators who don't fully grasp the subjects they teach."

Here's CNN's story on the topic:

Several states indicated problems in coming up with the figures in the way the department wanted: percentage of classes taught by highly qualified teachers, not the percentage of top teachers themselves. The distinction is meant to expose situations in which teachers qualified in one subject are assigned to teach classes outside the field they know.

The top education official in Wisconsin, state superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, said it's no surprise her state reports having a highly qualified teacher in almost every class. A mix of factors -- high standards set for teaching certification, strong schools of education, active professional teaching groups -- have long boosted teacher quality, she said.

Posted by kswygert at 10:59 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

October 17, 2003

NCLB "on steroids"

Utah's state board of education have implemented a set of new standards that described as tough, yet vague, and the howls of indignation and predictions of "dire consequences" have begun:

Superintendent McKell Withers and Assistant Superintendent Charles Hausman told a legislative task force Thursday that the proposed standards are flawed because they rely on year-end standardized tests that are not designed to measure students' competency or academic growth.

They also warned the Public Education Legislative Task Force that the stakes are so high in the board's Performance Plus plan that struggling students will drop out in droves, and schools will begin to shunt those who have trouble on standardized tests, such as students learning English or who have disabilities, into alternative schools.

"The consequences of Performance Plus far outweigh the consequences of No Child Left Behind and at a faster rate," he said. "Performance Plus is No Child Left Behind on steroids. We need to look at the consequences because the devil's in the details and the angel's in the architecture."

Performance Plus is the plan for implementing the reforms initiated by the state board, Gov. Mike Leavitt and state and federal lawmakers. The most drastic change is a shift toward competency-based education in which students advance through school based on their skill and subject mastery rather than grade level or the amount of time they spend in class.

Performance Plus defines competency as a C or better and passing the year-end standardized test for core classes in which a test is available. D grades would be eliminated in high school and some middle school courses. Course grades would reflect students' final ability in each course, not an average of the work performed throughout the semester or school year.

I'm confused already. Does eliminating D's in high school mean that the lowest grade that can be administered is a C? Or does it mean that you stay in one grade until you earn a C, at which point you advance? And I'm confused as to why "final ability" in a course must be considered in the absence of average grade throughout the course. If what they mean is that the course grade will be based on one examination at the end of the course (and I don't see how it could mean anything else), then that removes the motivation for students to improve steadily throughout the year, and the stakes at the end of the year are now too high.

Most pressing is the use of the state's year-end standardized tests, 60- to 105-question multiple-choice tests that sample students' knowledge of a year's worth of curriculum in language arts, math and science.

Each test has a different passing score, which could vary widely from one year to the next. For example, a fourth-grader could answer 67 percent of math questions correctly and not pass, but answer 59 percent of math questions correctly the following year and pass.

So, these tests are going to be used as the sole indicator of whether or not a students should pass? I don't agree with that. The differing passing score is not necessarily a problem, although it indicates that the tests are not of equivalent difficulties for students in each grade, which suggests poor test construction.

In Salt Lake City School District, half of the Latino students taking the 11th-grade test in language arts last spring would have failed, as would more than a third of low-income students and 69 percent of special education students.

The tests serve their original purpose well but should not be used to determine whether a student passes, Hausman said. "To make decisions about [course] credits, sanctions and diplomas is clearly a misuse of the test," he said.

I agree. Tests can supplement grades, but I don't believe they should replace them entirely - especially if it's a test that was never designed to be high-stakes for the student in the first place.

Posted by kswygert at 10:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 10, 2003

Between a rock and a hard place

Education officials in Maryland are squawking because the national NCLB act conflicts with other national laws regarding special education students:

Education officials say 30 Maryland elementary schools failed to meet standards by the federal No Child Left Behind law. But it's not because the schools are performing poorly. Instead, state and local officials say they're being squeezed between two sets of rules.

The schools didn't meet the standards of the law because they assisted thousands of children who have disabilities or limited English skills on a key standardized test. But another federal rule requires schools to provide such help.

The 30 schools are at risk of having to pay tutors, change their faculties and even face possible state takeover because of their low test scores under No Child Left Behind.

Of all the carping I've heard about NCLB as it relates to special education students, this is the first I've heard about the law actually conflicting with another federal law. What "assistance" are they referring to here? Surely, NCLB doesn't require that children not use tutors or special preparation for the standardized exams; it sounds as though they're referring to accommodated testing.

Ah-hah! Here's more on the story:

The [Maryland] officials said they and educators in other states are being squeezed between two sets of federal rules: one that invalidates the scores of children who had the test read to them and another that requires schools to provide such help...

Terms of the new federal law's testing requirements clash with decades-old legislation that requires some children to receive special assistance in the classroom and on examinations...

The problem occurred on one section of the new Maryland School Assessment in reading taken by third-graders in March. It is standard procedure in Maryland for adults to read test questions to students with limited English skills and to special education students whose individual education plans require such accommodations.

But the private company that developed and scored the Maryland exams, following rules set by national associations for testing professionals, threw out the results when students received such help on questions that asked them to recognize individual words and explain their meaning. Under current guidelines, when any section of the test is invalidated, the student fails the entire test and receives the lowest possible score.

Ouch. Big problem. This affected the scores of almost 3,400 students. U.S. Education Department official Ronald J. Tomalis says he's working on this with the Maryland officials, in an attempt to figure out ways of accommodating students in ways that do not "violate the professional standards for test validity."

Those standards, by the way, demand that disabilities be accommodated in such a way that the contructs being measured by the exam are not affected. For example, on the Reading Comprehension section of the GRE, a visually-disabled student may choose to read the test in Braille or use a reader (human or computerized), because it's understood that such students cannot ever learn to read with sight. However, their fingers and ears allow them to interpret printed or verbal information, and answer questions about it, so the "reading comprehension" construct is considered unchanged, and the accommodations are legal.

(This is what all the flap is about when the accommodation on a test is extra time, by the way. Because high-stakes standarized tests are often speeded, it can be argued that allowing for more time changes the construct being measured, regardless of the disability of the examinee.)

The situation in Maryland in thornier. I don't think it can be assumed that kids who have the capability to learn to read visually, but have not yet done so, should be afforded the same accommodations as people who simply cannot see. I'm speaking here of the kids who are new to the US and are just beginning to learn English. I agree with the law that requires states to test children who are new to the country, but does not count the scores of students who have not been in the country for a year. I don't believe these students should receive accommodations at any point during their testing.

But what about the special education students who are presumably limited in their capacity to learn to read English? In a sense, they may be more similar to the visually-disabled students. I don't know enough about the situation to know whether such students are more likely to be able to interpret information they've heard, rather than read. It may be that a "reading" test is just not suitable for such students, in which case the test should be read aloud and labeled as something else.

A sticky situation, indeed.

Posted by kswygert at 12:43 PM | Comments (2)

October 08, 2003

Failing on paper but good in reality?

The NYT sets out today to demonstrate how a school can be "good," yet still fail "on paper." Let's see how convincing this argument is:

At Ms. Wellons's school [Micro-Pine Level Elementary School in NC], special education classrooms are bright and inviting, their walls full of posters and learning tips. Though it is costly, she keeps classes small. Elizabeth Lawhon, a teacher, and Kim Hicks, an aide, have just six children in their class. All six were thoroughly assessed; they do not have learning disabilities, they are slow learners, six borderline retarded fourth and fifth graders with I.Q.'s in the 60 to 70 range.

Each day they get several hours of reading and math help...

Because these five, plus a few more like them, could not pass a standardized test on their grade levels, Micro-Pine Level has been labeled a failing school under the federal No Child Left Behind law. For many who know special education, the law is surreal.

Ah, the special education loophole/pit of despair. I agree entirely with the teachers of these kids that a child with an IQ below 70 cannot be expected to do grade-level work. This is the one aspect of the NCLB Act that I (and many of my readers disagree with).

I've always said that I understood why the act is phrased the way it is, and why this requirement stands. Although this particular schools seems to be using special education classes only for children who truly deserve it, one of the nasty secrets of overburdened and underperforming K-12 schools is their willingness to shove kids into special education who are simply undermotivated or problematic, without actually being developmentally disabled. The demand of NCLB that these kids be tested, and that these kids be expected to develop skills in school, is to prevent schools from fudging test scores by placing all the underperformers in special ed.

Unfortunately, it leads to the ridiculously hellish situation we have now, in which schools with only a few special education students, one who desperately need segregated attention, are affecting the rating of the entire school:

Lou Fabrizio, North Carolina's testing director, and Dane Linn, the education director of the National Governors Association, say the special education standards of the 2002 federal law, more than any other provision, have caused good schools to be labeled failing...

By most measures, Micro-Pine Level is a fine school...Under the federal system, Micro-Pine Level made adequate progress as a school, with 86 percent of all students proficient in reading and math. But the 2002 federal law says that if just one school subgroup fails to make adequate progress — poor students, blacks, Spanish speakers — the school gets a failing rating. Micro-Pine made adequate progress in 15 categories, but missed in special education, and that is all it takes.

And that's a shame. I hope the publicity being received by these "failing" schools will lead to some sort of modification of NCLB. I don't know what the modification should be, though, because the abuse of the special education label is still a possibility. This article, about the fuss over Trenton's failing schools, notes that, of the 145 NJ schools that were put on an early warning list, 60% of those failed only one of their subgroups - and I'm betting most of those were special education subgroups. Perhaps the law should simply be modified to say that a school must fail more than one subgroup to actually be considered a failing school, or to recieve a warning.

Posted by kswygert at 11:17 AM | Comments (1)

October 06, 2003

Critical discussion on NCLB

SunSpot's got a fairly balanced discussion of the impact of NCLB and the tests that have followed in its wake. While the usual frustration and opposition from the educational establishment is duly noted, the reporter concludes that this opposition may not be the real problem - and notes that the public supports standardization of both the testing and the curriculum:

...most educators think the NCLB has replaced what President Bush -- its leading proponent -- called the "bigotry of low expectations" with the chaos of too-high expectations. Its basic mandates, they say, are unrealistic: for example, that 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in 12 years, that children with disabilities meet the same high standards as non-disabled students and that every teacher be "highly qualified" by 2006...

The greatest problem with the NCLB is that its regulatory structure is neither federal fish nor local fowl. Political compromises made to secure bipartisan passage resulted in a bill of more than 1,000 pages and mixed messages. Some provisions wound up too rigid -- for example, that all students must meet the standards, and the arbitrary date when all teachers must be fully qualified. But the law allows each state to specify its own standards, tests and schedule of annual yearly progress...

What should be done to quiet the storm? In the short run, the NCLB requires fine-tuning in many areas cited by critics, and it needs more federal money. At the same time, the education establishment must do more than complain...

...The public is way ahead of educators on the obsolete logic of local control. In a national poll last year, more than two-thirds of the respondents favored a single national standardized test and -- here's a shocker -- a standardized national curriculum. The original bipartisan support for the enlarged federal role under the NCLB reflects this shift in public opinion...

Posted by kswygert at 03:01 PM | Comments (2)

September 30, 2003

A success story at a challenging school

Van Esselt Elementary School in Washington State has become a NCLB "success story," despite the challenges posed by a student body with 80% below the poverty line, and most of which speak English as a second language. Principal Hajara Rahim has struggled for nine years to help raise the educational quality of the school, and she seems to have done a great job of it:

Van Asselt is the kind of school that educators call "challenging."

More than 80 percent of its 385 students qualify for federal meal subsidies, which are based on family poverty levels. Many of the students, and more of the parents, are immigrants. A sizable percentage of students speak English as a second language, with their first language Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Somali, Tagalog, Samoan or any of a dozen others. Three-fifths of the students are identified as Asian or Pacific Islander, another fifth are black and most of the rest are Hispanic.

Rahim set out to dispel the prevailing pessimism at the school. "I tried to work on the morale and spirit of the staff, " she said.

Among the teachers, she fostered "an atmosphere of connectiveness throughout the school rather than having people going into their rooms and closing the door," she said. She organized schoolwide activities and scheduled faculty meetings at each grade level, "making the team responsible for certain things rather than just the teacher."

Rahim also worked to integrate the curriculum vertically, so that kindergarteners are specifically prepared to handle what they'll be taught in first grade, and so on, through grade five...

As part of the improvement effort, Rahim said, the school also began tracking its students more carefully, assessing their skills with tests at the beginning of the school year, in the middle and at the end, which allows teachers to tailor lessons more effectively...They coordinated the after-school program to reinforce the school-day instruction. They emphasized homework, in some cases recruiting members of the community to help students whose parents are illiterate in English.

The result? Math proficiency scores at Van Asselt, as measured by the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), have nearly doubled in just two years. Just amazing.

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

September 29, 2003

One educrat speaks his mind

Edublather extraordinaire from Hal Alford at the Verde Valley Online new site:

There is considerable controversy surrounding the federal "No Child Left Behind Act" because the law is based almost solely on competency testing...

While a single-test assessment system may be well intentioned, the practice seems to violate many fundamental psychometric, pedagogical, and ethical principles and standards of the education profession and may be harming rather than helping many children. The testing practice can be especially damaging to children of poverty who lack the supports and assets that are available to children elsewhere. It should be no surprise that most of the 276 schools identified as "underperforming" for the 2002 school year, were from schools located in economically distressed areas.

It is no surprise, because many of those schools are in fact "underperforming," and are shortchanging their students of an education. The whole point of NCLB was to refuse to allow loopholes for schools that don't use the money they have to educate children as well and as efficiently as possible. If the tests were removed, these schools would still be underperforming; we just wouldn't have objective evidence of it. These results are a validation of the testing program, not a criticism of it.

Characterizing schools as "underperforming," as the Arizona State Department of Education has done, publicly embarrasses and stigmatizes children and entire communities. Should a school under perform according to test results for a second consecutive year; they are classified as "failing." The law requires that "failing" schools take corrective steps, such as replacing the principal and allowing parents to send their children to other schools. This becomes costly and creates chaos for already beleaguered schools.

Oh, how sad. Much better that an inefficent principal remain in place. Much better that parents be forced to keep their children in bad schools, with no input other than their tax money. How dare they want the same choice that more financially-gifted parents have? If schools are so already-beleaguered, why should parents be forced to stay and support them?

Due to external pressures on schools to perform well on the tests, educators are reluctantly but invariably gearing their curricula to "teach to the test," a practice that undermines the teaching and learning process and negatively affects teacher and student morale.

I've said enough about "teaching to the test" before, so I won't go into all that again, but let me just point out that the test in question is AIMS, Arizona's Instrument for Measuring Success, and it measures only reading, writing, and arithmetic. Try as I might to go the distance with these testing critics (and I admit I don't try too hard), I just can't get worked up about teachers being forced to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic in an timely manner.

Are they doing so in Arizona? Doesn't yet seem like it. Here's a sample high-school level reading test. The readability of items on this form can range anywhere from fifth-grade on up, even though it's 10-, 11th-, and 12th-graders who take this exam. Note that the two sample items are a technical manual and a weather map. Then go to this document, scroll to page 7, and note that only 62% of 10th-graders, 42% of 11th-graders, and 32% of 12th-graders met expectations on this reading exam.

Granted, the 11th- and 12th-graders who took the exam were either new students or previous flunkers, but those results are still wretched. Some Arizona teachers have a much worse problem than morale; they're also incompetent.

...The tests are almost exclusively focused on math, reading and writing and ignore other important areas of learning such as art, science and social studies.

Which are all just oh-so-useful to kids who haven't mastered reading yet. It's admirable that Hal wants schools to focus on science, but when kids haven't mastered reading weather maps, I'd say they're not quite ready to start learning meteorology yet.

The tests fail to account for individual learning styles and developmental capacities, and they ignore state-of-the art research on multiple intelligences, including emotional intelligence. The emphasis on testing is certain to leave many children behind feeling discouraged and less confident about their ability to learn.

Gak, choke, urk.... *chugs Maalox* Ahhh. That's better. I really should be more careful about reading such piteously weeny edublather, at least while I still have these ulcers. My gag reflex is more sensitive than it used to be.

But seriously, while I hate to beat a dead horse, almost 40% of the 10th-graders flunked the basic reading comprehension part of the AIMS, and the math results are worse - MUCH worse. And Hal is worried about their emotional intelligence? Can these kids spell "emotional?" Can they count the number of letters in the word? Hal's emotional senses sure seems to be working overtime here in his concern for these kids. While some kids might indeed be "harmed" by tests, my guess is that those who haven't bought into the educrat theory that EI is more important than reading or math skills will come away relatively unscathed.

It worries me that Hal deliberately chooses to say that kids, rather than being discouraged about what they've learned, are instead going to discouraged about "their ability to learn." Please tell me he's not going where he's going with this...

The single-test assessment system discriminates against visually and linguistically limited learners who might otherwise be uniquely talented. History is full of examples of famous individuals who were said to have learning disabilities such as Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, and Albert Einstein. One can only wonder how they would have performed on standardized tests?

Yep, that's where he was going - the sacred space of learning disabilities.

All of you LD advocates who insist that Albert Einstein was learning disabled can just. Stop. It. Now. This claim, invented by LD advocates and repeated by gullible educrats, has been disproven by Einstein's biographers. Einstein was a quiet youngster, to be sure, but was a wonderful student from day one and was reading physics books by age 12. The only tests he ever flunked were ones he didn't bother to study for. He was not dyslexic. He would have been bored out of his gourd by the AIMS, I'm sure, but if he'd shown up for it he would have passed it.

What is it with LD advocates and these great history figures? All three of the great men mentioned above have been "diagnosed" with learning disabilities well after the fact, by those who have a political axe to grind. Was Winston Churchill learning disabled? Even the sketchiest biography mentions that he was shy and had a speech impediment, but notes that as soon as he discovered his passion (the military), he was a whiz-bang student. Does this mean we should conclude that all LD students are just bored, and goad them to work harder? Or should we follow Winston's example and send them all to military school?

The practice of wholesale versus individualized testing is also psychometrically unsound and it violates the ethical codes of professions whose members have been principally responsible for the evolution of the testing movement, such as the American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. The standards of these professions remind practitioners that assessment should be highly individualized and that educational and counseling decisions should never be based on single test scores alone.

Buried within this mound of edublather is this, the one valid criticism of testing in this article. I've written about this before. Note that the AERA qualifies its own claim, though, by saying that if only one test score is used for a high-stakes decision, there should be ample validity evidence, and the students should be allowed multiple chances to pass, and given remedial education if they fail. For example, all schools that use exit exams follow these rules, and they often provide alternatives (or loopholes) for students who don't pass the exit exam. What Hal wants you to believe is that the AERA's own statements forbid the use of standardized exams in high-stakes situations, which is not true.

Most importantly, the results of any test must be interpreted in light of many other factors including gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability, language acquisition, and socioeconomic status.

The document that Hal is allegedly getting this from is the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, and I've got my copy right here. The standards state quite clearly that:

* Overall passing rates need not be comparable across groups for a test to be considered fair
* Validity evidence should be presented for all subgroups
* Differential item functioning should be examined for all subgroups
* The test items should be examined for biased or offensive content
* Mean group differences should be investigated to ensure that the differences are not due to contruct-irrelevant skills
* Separate prediction lines should be used if the test is found to have differing predictive validity for different subgroups.

This is all from the section on "Fairness in Testing and Test Use." Note what Hal didn't mention in his "summary" of these standards? He doesn't mention that group mean differences are not in and of themselves unfair, and that if all validity and correlational evidence suggests it, it's perfectly okay to hold both Group A and Group B to the same passing score, even if the result is that 20% of Group A flunks while 80% of Group B does. No demographic information about the two groups is a priori of importance.

It's simply not true that the test results must be interpreted in light of gender, race, etc. Not if the test has been found to be unbiased. It shouldn't be assumed that the test is biased without empirical evidence, either.

[Devoted Reader Laura points out that students with organic disabilities who are unable to progress beyond a certain point, such as those with Down's Syndrome, should not be held to the same testing standards as other students. I agree, but I understand why NCLB demands that schools test these students. It's to discourage the schools from fudging their averages by placing non-disabled students into special education. There's a solution here that takes care of both problems, but I don't know what it is.

The Guidelines do note that test developers should make exceptions for disabled students, and this is the only group that is singled out for special treatment. But my comments above still hold for when Group A and Group B differ in a way that is not being directly measured by the educational assessment, such as race, sex, income level, etc. There's no reason to label a test as automatically unfair if fewer female students pass it, or fewer Hispanic students pass it, or fewer poor students pass it.]

Many empirical studies have shown that there are strong correlations between test scores and such factors as family income, education of parents, single-parent families, and school enrollment. Simply put, children who have two educated parents who are economically secure are much more likely to do better on tests than children who do not have the same assets.

And they're likely to do better in school; they're less likely to have run-ins with the law; they're more likely to have better health, and to go on to college, and to do well in life. This is a statement that supports marriage, not one that invalidates testing. Every measure of academic achievement correlates positively with family income and parental education; that's not a reason to believe those measures aren't assessing a valid construct. Grades correlate with income, too; does Hal believe we should abolish those?

This is the same old tired argument that, "It's just not fair that some kids have more advantages than others." Ironically, it's being used here as an argument against an act that is trying to ensure that kids from poor homes still get a good education in school.

Or, put another way, one can predict with astoundingly high probability that children from neighborhoods of poverty, many of whom are children of ethnic minority, will achieve poorer results on the tests than their affluent counterparts, irrespective of the quality of teaching.

But it's not irrespective of teaching, you see. These kids are more likely to go to bad schools, but if they come from poor homes or uneducated parents, they're more dependent on those schools for everything they learn. And those schools are less likely to hire good teachers and less likely to hang on to the ones they have. The good schools that don't buy this argument - the schools with outstanding achievement despite high levels of minority or lower-income enrollment - do so, in part, by relying heavily on testing. They don't tolerate poor test scores any more than they tolerate bad teaching.

It is for this reason that the National Association for Multicultural Education called for an end to the misuse of standardized and state mandated testing because it only creates more barriers to equal opportunity for large numbers of Americans.

Not true. The barriers are already there. A kid who can't read a weather map in 11th grade is at a disadvantage whether we test that or not. The tests are not the barriers. They're showing us which schools are the barriers. And when this many people are steamed about them, I know the tests are showing us something we should be looking at.

Assessment results should be interpreted only in relation to other behavioral data and the socioeconomic and cultural background of learners. They should take into consideration the diverse learning style and varying developmental capacities of all children. The best kind of assessment is ongoing, within each classroom, and geared toward teaching each child better in terms of his/her genuine needs.

Not true. This kind of claptrap is what allows educrats to believe that it's okay if a child of a certain "cultural background" can't read at grade level, or that "diverse learning styles" are what prevent well over half of Arizona's 8th-graders from passing the math portion of the AIMS. Good teachers instinctively tailor their approach for individual students, and to use tailored teaching as an excuse for letting kids flunk is an insult to their intelligence, and to ours.

You know, Hal is a retired principal. His school, Mingus Union High, seemed to do okay, despite a nauseatingly PC mission statement. This report card even brags about the high number of Flinn Foundation Scholars they've produced (which are chosen, in part, on SAT scores). But the school recieved only a "Maintaining Performance" rating this past year. Could that be the ultimate cause of this outpouring of seemingly-well-intentioned yet sadly-misinformed testing criticism?

Posted by kswygert at 03:33 PM | Comments (3)

Informing the business crowd

The NCLB Act is "hard work," educators tell business leaders. Imagine that:

Superintendents for the Gainesville and Hall County school systems paired up Thursday to talk to area business leaders about the federal No Child Left Behind Act...

By 2014, every student in the nation, no matter their language or educational limitations, must meet or exceed state standards for academic achievement, with the standardized test pass rates increasing every year until then.

"There's a lot of things we've got to change in our school and our communities before we can achieve 100 percent of anything," [Gainesville Superintendent Steven] Ballowe told the group, gathered at the Georgia Mountains Center. "... Schools have become the lightning rod of all that's wrong in society."

[Hall Superintendent Dennis] Fordham said that the nation's educational direction has shifted.

"If we look at public education today, the goal of universal access has been achieved," he said. "No Child Left Behind is the first federal act aimed directly at the goal of universal proficiency."

Standardized tests do "better at finding out what you can remember, (such as) dates and facts," Fordham said. "But when it comes to deeper understanding, they're not as good as they claim to be."

Actually, standardized tests can be as good as they claim to be for measuring "deeper understanding," if the items are well-written and the subject material is well-integrated. There are a few guidelines out there for writing good test items of this type; this manual, by Case and Swanson, is adaptable to many item types, is used in many item-writing workshops, and is considered to be somewhat of an industry standard. But that's a lecture for another day.

I'm not sure why this speech needed to be given to the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce's board of directors. Perhaps some of you readers can enlighten me.

Posted by kswygert at 02:26 PM | Comments (0)

September 22, 2003

Defending NCLB in Tennessee

Tennesseean Senator and Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R) sticks his neck out to defend the No Child Left Behind Act in front of a most-likely-skeptical audience of educators:

''I firmly believe it would be a tragedy to not hold schools accountable for all students in that school,'' Frist, R-Tenn., told about 400 people at the Education Leaders Council conference in Nashville. ''We will not turn our backs on any single child.'' Because he is the Senate majority leader, Frist's support is a strong indicator that President Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige are not planning to back down from the tough standards imposed on schools by the law.

The 2-year-old law went into effect this year with a roar after standardized test results showed that thousands of schools failed to ensure success for students in one or more eight subgroups, including ethnic origins, special education and limited English proficiency. In Tennessee, 47% of schools failed to meet all the standards...

Frist countered what he called a ''myth'' that the law could ultimately ruin public schools because of its tough sanctions on schools that repeatedly fail to meet standards. Those sanctions could include conversion to charter schools or school takeover by the state.

''The intent is to strengthen, to strengthen the public school system and to make sure all children learn,'' Frist said. ''It's as simple as that. By holding the school accountable for results, we force schools to pay attention to students that have been ignored for far too long.''

Posted by kswygert at 10:40 AM | Comments (1)

September 16, 2003

diversity - at a price

John of Discriminations sent an interesting article my way about the stumbling blocks that NCLB has placed in the path of some diverse Delaware schools. Delaware is proud of its diverse student body - one of the most diverse in the country - but has discovered that when it comes to federal education reform, this diversity can be a liability:

...many Delaware schools and districts failed last month to make the grade under the No Child Left Behind Act...Though intended to make sure subgroups of students - black, poor, special education, non-English speaking - succeed in school, the law is counter-productive...

"It does a lot of very bad things like undermine integrated schools," said Gary Orfield of Harvard University, an expert on school desegregation who has worked for the state on desegregation issues. Under the law, the more integrated a school or district, the more subgroups it has. Hence, the more proficiency targets or benchmarks to meet because each subgroup has targets in math and reading, as well as overall targets in social studies and science. Some Delaware districts have as many as 34 targets.

In a mostly all-white or all-black school or district, there can be as few as five. Miss one target and the school or district fails to meet the federal standard.

One professor concludes that the more integrated the school, the higher the failure rate will be, simply because there are more targets to meet and less students who contribute to each target. But the subgroup targeting plan in NCLB is there for a reason. It's to prevent schools from raising student achievement as a whole while leaving the performance of certain student subgroups unchanged. Does the subgroup target plan make it more difficult for a school to get a good score? Yes it does - but it also prevents schools from ignoring any of their subgroups.

One solution would be to relax the law so that schools would still need to show growth by subgroups, but only a certain percentage of the subgroups would need to show significant improvement. This would reduce the occurrence of absurdities such as schools with 20 subgroups, and 19 passing scores, that receive a failing grade.

What's more, Delaware's administrators insist that their school are already performing well, and that they shouldn't be punished simply because they have more targets to meet:

Weeks earlier, test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal measure of how well students are doing, showed that Delaware had moved from the bottom third to the top third of the states academically. And it led the nation in overall point gain in the test scores.

Moreover, those test results also show that Delaware's test scores for black, Hispanic and low-income students are higher than the national averages for those groups on both the reading and writing tests...But No Child Left Behind makes no room in its rating system for that kind of success...And because of No Child Left Behind, most states are just starting the state accountability testing that Delaware has had for six years, another anomaly that could make its situation difficult. Test scores rise more quickly in the first years of school reform than in the later years.

Between the large number of targets and the higher overall performance on test scores, I agree that Delaware's administrators deserve a break.

Posted by kswygert at 10:31 AM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2003

One California school under the gun

Some Californian schools are facing sanctions if their students don't improve on standardized tests this year, which leads to a "do-or-die" atmosphere where some teachers complain of feeling "under attack." Given that some of the action against teacher seems to be related to their union activity, perhaps this is not surprising:

For those who work in schools facing sanctions, this is a "do or die" year. If students do well, schools might exit the programs that threaten to punish them. If schools don't meet growth targets on standardized tests, they might be taken over by the state or closed down completely.

At Curtis Middle School in San Bernardino, teachers say they would like nothing better than to see the school improve academically. When the school was first subjected to federal scrutiny, they were optimistic that things might turn around. However, since the principal decided to transfer teachers against their will - as well as urge teachers to seek work elsewhere - without legal justification, morale is now dropping much faster than test scores...

Auditors from the state, working under the auspices of the federal government, first visited the site last October to observe and interview staff. The auditors reported that the school lacked "strong and effective leadership." Shortly thereafter, the principal was replaced. They also said Curtis lacked a positive climate for learning and needed a "consistent and effective" approach to managing student behavior for a safer school environment. Teachers, who had decried a lack of discipline at the school, did not disagree...

Apparently, though, negotiations between the union and the school broke down, and the teachers who have been reassigned think it has nothing to do with teaching abilities. Curtis Middle School has the lowest possible Annual Program improvement scale, and last year the standardized test score means dropped nine points. The teachers feel the school is the problem; the school seems to think the teachers are the problem. With morale plummeting, it seems hard to see how the students are going to benefit from any of the changes.

Posted by kswygert at 12:21 PM | Comments (2)

September 08, 2003

NCLB: A summary

On Joanne's blog - and on Jewish World Review - you can read more about the No Child Left Behind Act, Joanne's comment on the law, and the Education Gadfly's comments. EG also provides a link to the Slate article: "Flunking Out: Bush's Pet Education Bill Is In Serious Trouble."

EG's summary is quite good (the road rubber and Canadian geese metaphors are particularly descriptive), and the meat of the article is his clearly-defined separation of the real problems from the meaningless honking. Bureaucracies are hard to change, even from above, and the American public is ambivalent enough about this that poll results can easily show support for or opposition to NCLB. Some parts are managed too closely; others, not closely enough. Fine-tuning is definitely needed. Finally, the EG comes to the same conclusion about NCLB that I have made about many of the standardized testing errors that have come to light:

...much of the current squawking has to do with start-up difficulties and confusion, the friction of changing familiar practices and the pain of stretching long-idle tendons. Another year of experience will see some difficulties resolving themselves, states and districts (and schools and educators) beginning to grow accustomed to doing things differently and, perhaps, more imagination in resolving implementation problems. Mainly, though, it's important for everyone to recognize that a new day has dawned in American education and that it simply won't do to go back to sleep.

Much of the current squawking about errors in standardized tests is, I believe, due to startup issues that would be present in any endeavor - but also because there are still those out there that wish the whole testing business would "go back to sleep." That isn't going to happen.

Update: A Friendly Neighborhood Psychometrician sent an email my way because one paragraph in the Slate article seemed particularly full of "illogical statements and non-sequiturs":

NCLB was supposed to improve schools by holding them to higher academic standards and letting students transfer out of failing schools. Instead, over the past few months especially, this massive education law has generated little more than bad news, indifference, and increasing resistance. The hard-to-imagine numbers of failing schools in California and elsewhere have worn down the public's confidence in the law. Low-income and minority parents have failed to show strong interest in the transfer option that was supposed to help them escape dysfunctional schools. Congressional Democrats and some of the nation's largest education groups have already begun working to stop it in its tracks. The law seems to have few friends and many enemies.

As the FNP puts it,

Isn't the bad news and resistance exactly the result of identifying and holding schools to higher standards? If it was expected that most of the news would be good, there would have been little reason to enact the law. And who is it that finds the number of failing schools unimaginably large (other than administrators and teacher's unions, who are the main source of resistance)? The bill, and the standards weren't intended to make friends. Why doesn't the author instead look into the motivations of those resisting?

Posted by kswygert at 02:45 PM | Comments (0)