Archive for September, 2013

More Money = Higher Test Scores

September 30, 2013 Comments off

The SFGate ran an article by Paul Reide from the Syracuse Post Standard comparing the scores on the high stakes tests of public and non-public schools in NYS. The findings were not surprising: public and non-public schools finished in a virtual dead heat for both 2012 and 2013.

In both years, the non-public schools across the state did better on average in ELA than the public schools, but the public schools did better in math. That statewide pattern held true this year in every grade level.

But… as the article dug a little deeper, it came up with another unsurprising finding (at least to readers of this blog):

Those numbers are somewhat deceptive, though, because the regional averages for public schools smooth over the stark differences between high-scoring, relatively wealthy districts like Fayetteville-Manlius and Skaneateles and the low-scoring, poverty-stricken district of Syracuse.

Taking F-M alone, 67 percent of fourth-graders passed the math test. That’s better than all but one of the 21 area non-public schools that took the test. The top scorer was Trinity Catholic School in Oswego County, where 74 percent passed.

In English language arts, F-M’s 55 percent passing rate in fourth-grade would rank it ninth among the local non-publics.

One area where I wish Reide had probed a little deeper:

While all of New York’s public schools are required to take the exams, private and parochial schools are not.

The school district of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse has its students take state tests, including Regents exams, and has embraced the Common Core standards, Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Canfield said.

On average, schools in the seven-county diocese outperformed statewide public school averages.

My questions:

  • Which private schools DIDN’T take the test?
  • Did any for-profit charters take the tests? How Did they do?
  • How about non-Diocesan religiously affiliated schools? What were their scores like?
  • How do the demographics of the diocesan schools compare with those of public schools?
  • If you omitted Syracuse’s scores from the mix how would public schools fare on the tests?
  • It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to determine that non-parochial schools must have scored LOWER than public schools if the parochial schools scored higher but ALL schools nearly matched the public school performance. Why didn’t the headline read “Public Schools Outperform Non-Parochail Private Schools on State Exams”?
  • And last, but not least, how many decades will we give the same kinds of tests and expect to get different results? We’ve proved that money makes a difference: let’s work to fix the poverty problem!


The RIGHT Way To Test

September 29, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s recent New Republic article, written in response to Penn Provost Ezekial Emanuel’s assertion that testing is good and more testing is better, probably stunned her critics because in the article she agrees that more testing is needed: more testing by teachers instead of the standardized tests Dr. Emanuel and his fellow “reformers” advocate.

Ravitch’s opponents have done a good job of persuading the mass media that she is anti-testing, but she points out that her issue is not with having teachers test children regularly and systematically. She is a firm advocate of regular testing using tests written by the teacher because those tests provide both parties with fast feedback on how well a lesson was taught and learned. She is opposed to using standardized assessments written by contractors as the primary means of measuring student, teacher, and school performance. She wants the responsibility for testing to rest with the teacher… because the teachers will then “…(know) by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. (They) could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what (the teacher) thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not.” 

This is the RIGHT way to test… with standardized tests used in a limited fashion to measure the learning of large groups of students and school-based administrators and/or department heads periodically reviewing the tests teachers use to see if they are helping them gain insights into student learning.

The Crazy-making Testing of Five Year Olds

September 28, 2013 Comments off

Yesterday I posted an article about the standardized preschool tests that elite private schools use for entry and public schools use to identify so-called gifted and talented  students. Today’s installment reacts the appalling practice of a school district in FLA, where children begin learning how to take tests as part of their Kindergarten experience.

A reader of Diane Ravitch sent a message describing her daughters first experience at test taking in Palm Beach FLA that included this passage:

Each student was separated by a cardboard wall of blinders around them and they were given a five page test on numbers one through five. They had to write the number, the word for the number and draw how many dots represented the number. At a local union meeting, I asked a Kindergarten teacher from another school if she…surround(ed) each student by blinders. She nodded in affirmation, (saying she was) told “They have to be prepared to be tested in first grade.”

This is the meta-message we are sending our children from the time they are born: they need to be prepared to pass a test and they need to work independently to achieve anything.

We like to think we are a country where we don’t sort kids based on test scores. We would be appalled at the notion of adopting some kind of system where one test given at age 12 or 17 determines your lot in life. Instead of designing schools to inculcate a love of learning we are designing utilitarian schooling that prepare students for an endless battery of tests that will follow them through life.

We like to think we are a country that requires teamwork and interdependence yet our schools are increasingly competitive and learning is done in isolation.

If public schools continue down this path of joylessness and uniformity more and more parents who seek creativity and free-spritiedness in education will abandon our schools. Watch… it’s happening already.


The Fruits of Privatization and Standardization

September 28, 2013 Comments off

An article in today’s NYTimes describes the slipshod corner-cutting that resulted when the US Government decided to privatize background checks in the 1990s, the era when the notion of privatization took root. The toxic combination of standardization and underfunding led to “ghostwritten” background checks by employees of the USIS, the private firm that assumed responsibility for the background checks of civil servants and military personnel. Here’s a brief and sad history of the USIS:

Once an arm of the federal government, USIS was spun off into the private sector in the 1990s as U.S. Investigations Services. Former employees said it became aggressively focused on meeting revenue goals after it was bought in 2007 by Providence Equity Partners for $1.5 billion.

“It all became extremely numbers-intensive,” said a former executive with top-level management responsibility. “There would be a crisis situation when you were off by 2 percent” from a revenue quota.

A spokesman for Providence declined to comment.

Between 2005 and 2011, Congress held 14 hearings to bring attention to the problem of the security clearance backlog. A White House official in the Bush administration, Clay Johnson, was named chairman of a task force to tame the backlog. “We paid a lot of attention to it,” he said. “There was no excuse.”

Part of the solution was as simple as switching to online questionnaires. Another was enabling the personnel office to rapidly hire more field investigators, which it did by outsourcing 75 percent of the work to the private sector.

The time to close a file shrank from an average of 145 days in 2005 to 36 this year, according to the Federal Investigative Service, a bureaucratic triumph celebrated by Republicans and Democrats.

Hm-m-m-m… the time taken to close a file– the metric used to determine compensation– was shortened and everyone was happy…. but the QUALITY of the reviews and the files was diminished. Of course both political parties were happy: they didn’t have to raise the money needed to staff an office that did the kind of time consuming comprehensive background checks that typified those done previously by government agencies…. and now that it has come to light that the shooter in the US Naval yard murders had a slipshod background check they can shift the blame to the private agency who, while underfunded by the government managed to make a tidy profit for shareholders.

I’ve linked to this article because this sounds like the privatization movement in public schools. The privatization and quantification of complicated tasks is the result of the magical thinking that everything can be standardized. When background checks for secrecy clearings are counted like widgets it is no surprise that employees become heedless. When the quantification of schooling is reduced to a single test given at the end of the year, is it any surprise that teachers and administrators cut corners to get test scores higher?

Government leaders should be explaining to the public that some complicated endeavors require time and the only way to reduce the time needed is to add personnel which, alas for politicians, requires the raising of revenue. In background checks this means more people to complete thorough and comprehensive background checks. In schools it means more teachers to work with students individually to ensure their unique needs are being met.

The Crazy-making Testing of Four Year Olds

September 27, 2013 Comments off

A recent articles on testing four year olds to get into private schools illustrates the adverse and perverse consequences of high stakes testing and the negative influence it is having on children who haven’t even started school yet.

NYTimes article following up on the recent decision of elite private schools to abandon the ERB (see earlier post on this topic) reported on the fact that anything less than a score in the 99th percentile was demoralizing to parents. The Times rightly attributed these high scores to coaching but missed a chance to explain to readers WHY this happens. Standardized tests base their scales on the raw scores of cohorts of prior test takers. In the case of a test like the ERB, where the content of test items remain relatively fixed, coaching test-takers to master the content for the test can yield higher raw scores which, in turn, translate to larger number of students achieving higher percentiles. Furthermore, since tests like the ERB don’t have hundreds of questions, the difference between scoring in the 99th percentile and, say, the 95th percentile could be the result of missing one question. By explaining this to readers the Times could help them see the absurdity of using a standardized test to distinguish “Gifted and Talented” children from those children who are nominally “Ungifted and UnTalented”. If you don’t think that is happening to the four year olds who score in the 95th percentile instead of the 99th percentile, read this article or eavesdrop on conversations at the playground.

This high-stakes testing of four year olds has a perverse effect on preschool children. From the time they are born many parents track their physical and intellectual growth monitoring when they learn to walk, the size of their vocabulary, the complexity of their thought patterns, and their ability to perform mathematical calculations. The children are relentlessly compared to their peers and drilled, tutored and enrolled in a host of enrichment programs designed to increase their performance on standardized tests. And this test preparation is hardly limited to those preschoolers seeking entry to elite preschools. In districts like NYC tests are administered before children enroll in school to see if they are eligible for entry into magnet elementary schools and, once in school, they are immediately groomed for the next sequence of high-stakes tests to qualify them for magnet middle schools.

The coaching for entry level test also has the perverse effect of limiting the number of children raised in poverty from gaining access to the public magnet and charter schools in NYC or any other district where “gifted and talented” testing takes place. The children of parents who have the time and resources to prepare for tests will do far better than children whose parents are working two jobs to make ends meet or spend several hours in day care centers or homes that do not offer intellectual stimulation. This has the effect of perpetuating and exacerbating the class divides in place.

At some point parents will see the senselessness of placing their children on the testing treadmill and take back childhood. In the meantime, let the tests continue and ignore the consequences.

Competition vs. Participation

September 25, 2013 Comments off

An op ed article in today’s NYTimes titled “Losing is Good For You” discusses the purported consequences of giving everyone a trophy. In the article, author Ashley Merriman specifically singles out AYSO for scorn, which led me, as a former AYSO coach, to submit the following comment:

AYSO is not about sorting winners and losers. I was an AYSO coach in the late 1980s and support their “everyone plays the same number of minutes” ethos that was in place at that time. The purpose of AYSO soccer was to bring children together to teach them soccer fundamentals and teamwork… not to sort them into “stars” and “bench warmers”. If a child loved and excelled at soccer they could progress to “Lightening Soccer” where they would get better coaching (I only played intramural soccer) and a higher level of competition. AYSO is based on the premise that pre-teens are at widely divergent phases of physical growth. If we give MVP trophies to 8 year olds we are often rewarding the most physically mature child and when we give “most improved” we reward the child who just experienced a growth spurt over the past year. When everyone gets a trophy or ribbon in developmental activities like AYSO soccer, it emphasizes the importance of teamwork, a lesson a child cannot learn shooting the soccer ball in their back yard.

Merriman also makes the following assertion:

It’s accepted that, before punishing children, we must consider their individual levels of cognitive and emotional development. Then we monitor them, changing our approach if there’s a negative outcome.

This may be “accepted” in psychology texts but we clearly don’t practice it in schools where students are effectively punished when they fail to have the “individual level of cognitive development” that matches their age peers. Instead of “changing our approach” or questioning our traditional age-based grade-level system we identify them as failures. As one who taught in an urban middle school and worked in two high schools where children struggled to succeed academically I’ve witnessed the downside to academic competition: by the time a struggling student reaches eighth grade they’ve been told for seven consecutive years that they are failures and, having heard that message repeatedly they drop out of school as soon as they can.

The bottom line: Competition is destructive to children when their “individual levels of cognitive and emotional development” are not taken into account. Losing is only good for you if you have the resilience needed to deal with it.

This Just In: Teachers Work as Hard As Students!

September 24, 2013 Comments off

A Facebook friend posted an article from The Atlantic bemoaning the fact that his 8th grade daughter has a massive amount of homework. While another post is needed to address that concern, I was troubled by the fact that the writer, Karl Greenfield, overlooked the fact that teachers are working every bit as hard as the students…. which led me to make this comment:

Here’s what Karl Greenfield fails to acknowledge: the teachers work as hard as the students! They put in a full day of work and then go home or spend time on weekends grading papers and preparing lessons for the next day. Oh… and some of them coach, or attend school events, or (gasp) work a second job to help pay their bills.

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