Archive for August, 2013

This Just In: Public Schools are Good… Tests Are Bad

August 29, 2013 Comments off

After years of reading that our education system is falling, it should be headline news that recent polls are showing increased support for public schools. Alas, as noted in a post last week the AP chose to bury this finding from its headline story and by the time you read this post you will probably NOT read about the annual Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) poll results, which show increasing support for schools.

A year ago I wrote a post on this topic titled “PDK results: my school is good, public schools are bad”… and to a degree that finding still holds as described in the lead sentence of the article: “Americans remain largely critical of the US education system as a whole, but parents, especially, are increasingly pleased with their neighborhood schools…” As one who has railed against testing mania, the second half of that sentence was especially heartening: “…(Americans are) more displeased with the rising use of standardized, multiple choice tests to evaluate, and potentially punish, teachers,” 

The PDK poll is not an ad hoc poll like the AP poll. It is done annually by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators, and is carefully crafted to inform decision makers in education about the public’s sentiments toward schools. The AP poll released in late August was funded by the Joyce Foundation, a group interested in “school reform”, and it reported that the public supported “high stakes testing” though it never used that term in any of its questions. The PDK poll, on the other hand, asks the same questions year after year and, consequently, can identify trends in emerging public school policy issues… and here’s what they found regarding the use of standardized tests (emphasis added):

In the most dramatic shift in the annual poll, a majority of Americans – 58 percent – oppose using student standardized test results to explicitly score teacher performance. Last year, 52 percent in the same poll said they support using those kinds of tests to evaluate teachers.

Teacher unions have long said that focusing on standardized tests to judge schools and teachers is a political gambit aimed at vilifying poorer, struggling schools to corral support – and resources – for schools in middle-class communities, a scheme known in the education world as “educate the best, forget about the rest.”

I don’t agree with the “teacher unions” on this point, because I don’t believe the testing regimen is an effort to “corral support” of ANY kind. Rather, the testing regimen is designed to convey the message that ALL schools and teachers are failing and schools need to be “reformed”— which means stripped of “highly paid” teachers and focussed exclusively on passing tests administered to age-based cohorts of students. The general public– and parents in particular— are waking up to the fruitlessness of this pursuit and looking for other changes in their school. I would like to see PDK as parents if they want more individualization in their schools… or more personal attention for their child… or more sensitivity to their child’s unique needs. It would be interesting to compare the parents’ response to THOSE questions to a question that suggests that schools spend more on standardized tests to be used to judge teachers.

The Folly of AP Testing

August 28, 2013 Comments off

The Baltimore Sun recently published an article reporting that AP course grades in Baltimore City far exceeded AP test results:

Too often, students who haven’t been prepared in earlier grades flounder in AP classes, or are awarded A’s and B’s in the courses and then fail the AP exams.

The high grades for course work can lull students into a false sense of security, said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and a former dean of admissions at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Many students arrive at college with AP courses on their transcripts, but with skills so low they must take remedial classes.

As Superintendent in a Western MD public school system in the 1990s I had lengthy discussions with Principals on the issue of AP tests. At that time, the notion of using AP enrollments as a proxy for “quality” was emerging and we offered a minimal number of AP courses in our seven HSs in the district. We wanted more kids to go to college (the rate was under 30%) and wanted to make sure that kids we were sending to college were prepared. Our initial plan was to administer the local community college screening examination to all 10th grade students so they could see for themselves whether they were ready for college and, if not, have two years to prepare themselves. This idea was impossible because the local college felt their examination was “proprietary”. Our back up plan was to offer the PSAT to any sophomore who aspired to college on the notion that the PSAT would serve as a proxy for college readiness. This was ultimately deemed too costly and arguably would not provide the specific skills students would need to succeed in college. Finally, we determined that offering more AP courses would accomplish our intended goal. After 2 or 3 years, however, we found that too many students were enrolling in AP courses but not taking the tests because they wanted to have “AP” on their transcript or, in some cases, they could not afford the test. Our solution was to budget for AP tests and tell students they had to take the test if they wanted to have “AP” appear on their transcript.

Fast forward ten years to Hanover NH where I served as 7 years as Superintendent and entered into the other end of the AP debate. Hanover HS is more comparable to a private school than any pubic school, routinely graduating several National Merit scholars and sending over 90% of the seniors to college. Hanover was not rated among the best HSs in NH, however, because it determined that AP courses were not worthwhile for students and far too prescriptive for teachers who wanted to offer a wider range of instruction than the AP syllabus allowed. The best and brightest students in Hanover did not need “AP” on their transcript and were applying to schools that would not waive freshman courses even if students earned a 5 on the tests. Yet the Washington Post’s rating scheme and the US News and World Report values AP enrollments and, consequently, Hanover High does not rank as highly as other HSs where AP courses are valued.

I remain convinced that the best measure of college readiness is how students fare on the community college screening examinations and that those tests should be administered to ALL HS sophomores and used diagnostically to place students in course their final two years of school. Will this ever happen? Not until tests are seen as a tool for individualizing instruction and not as a tool for measuring and punishing schools and teachers.


Beating Obama’s Rating System

August 27, 2013 Comments off

As oft quoted in this blog, “What Gets Measured Gets Done”… and with Obama’s new plan for rating colleges Business Insider writer Walter Hickey contends you can be certain that colleges will do whatever it takes to get their ratings higher. Hickey uses  examples of how colleges manipulate the complex US News and World Report algorithm to illustrate that small tweaks like paying for entrants to take additional SATs can increase the ratings. When everyone is playing the same game, the differences in ratings eventually become inconsequential… but their seeming precision (after all they ARE based on complicated formulae) leads journalists and the public to believe that a change in ratings is cause for either celebration or concern.

As indicated in an earlier post on this issue, the unintended consequences are my biggest concern. If low costs are a premium, adjuncts and MOOCs will increase, compensation will stagnate, and the quality of instruction at colleges will inevitably suffer. If earnings of future graduates is a premium, humanities departments, social science departments, and education departments will wither while business, health, and STEM departments will flourish.

A final unforeseen consequence of cost containment: administrative and support staff will be diminished at colleges at the cost of quality. As a public school administrator for 35 years, 29 of which were as Superintendent, I envied the administrative staff that the local private boarding schools, Community Colleges, and State colleges and universities had and initially thought their staffs were bloated. But as public schools added de facto 24/7 responsibility for students and more reporting requirements it became clear that more Deans, more support staff, and more administrative firepower was needed in the offices of public education if we ever hoped to achieve the kind of accountability the public desired. Adding administrative and support staff, however, was challenging even in the best of times and was the first thing to fall by the wayside when budgets tightened. The need  for these services NEVER diminished, however, and as a result a vicious cycle was created where schools could never meet the public expectations of low cost and personal support for students. As colleges strive to reduce overhead and “game the ratings”, look for more and more of these “superfluous” positions to be eliminated. The services they provide cannot be measured as easily as dollars and cents.