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Is the SAT About to be Abandoned? If So, Will Standardized Tests Follow?

October 15, 2019 Leave a comment

A recent PBS New Hour segment reported that many colleges are giving serious consideration to abandoning the use of the SAT as a primary metric for admissions. Why? Here’s one reason:

Critics of the tests have long argued that they reflect income more than ability, a chorus that is growing louder. And this year’s notorious Varsity Blues admission scandal — in which parents, through an intermediary, bribed test administrators to change test scores or let students cheat — reinforced the idea that the tests can be gamed, legally or illegally, by families with enough money.

My hunch is that there is another reason: the SAT score, viewed as a proxy for “academic excellence”, is the basis for lawsuits contending that colleges who use the test as the basis for entry are screening out many Asian-American students who attain higher scores on the tests than either African-American or legacy students.

The so-called “competitive colleges” have many high scoring students to choose from and, in some cases, more than ten times as many applicants as they need in order to sustain themselves. These schools have the luxury of picking and choosing who they want and, consequently, they select based on “diversity”. In many cases “diversity” provides a means for the colleges to avoid affirmative action challenges from African-Americans by accepting students-of-color with SAT scores that are below those of rejected Asian Americans. But “diversity” also provides a means of appeasing graduates who are large donors and whose children SAT scores are middling, a means of fleshing out orchestras, athletic teams, and a means of “creating” geographic and economic diversity in each class.

As the PBS report indicates, when “competitive colleges” ignore SAT scores it does not dilute the academic strength of the school. It DOES, however, undercut any argument that these schools are denying access to “less qualified” students at the expense of one group who consistently scores high on those tests. For Asian-Americans this abandonment of tests is, arguably, bad news. But for those who are born into poverty, who attend public high schools outside the affluent suburbs or college towns the abandonment of the SAT as a basis for entry is good news… for it forces college admissions officers to look at their applications and determine if they have what it takes to succeed in higher education.

From where I sit, the faster SATs are abandoned the better… and with any luck at all those who measure the “quality” of public schools based on standardized test scores will follow suit. If that happens, instead of defining individual “excellence” based on a single test 8th grade students seeking entry to NYC’s “competitive” public schools will be examined in a more wholistic fashion. If that happens, instead of schools receiving a “grade” based in any way on a standardized test they will be carefully assessed using a wholistic accreditation process, one that involves a self-assessment as well as an external one. Would such a system cost more money? Yes— but it would be fairer, more focussed on each student’s individual needs, and would greatly expand the opportunity for students to engage in creative activities. Here’s hoping it happens soon!

The Florida Legislature’s Solution to School Shootings: Collect Data on Children Instead of Limiting Access to Military Grade Weapons

October 12, 2019 Leave a comment

The title of a CNBC report by Kate Fazzini is chilling:

Florida is scooping up huge amounts of data on schoolchildren, including security camera footage and discipline records, and researchers are worried

The reason for collecting this data is not revealed in the headline but IS revealed in the second bullet point at the beginning of the article:

  • Florida schools are now required to collect, store and crunch data on students in the name of predicting a school shooting.

This bullet point was elaborated on later:

Florida schools are now required to collect, store and crunch data on students in the name of predicting school shootings. The Florida Schools Safety Portal, or FSSP, executive order was issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year in response to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Along with this caveat,drawn from research done by the Aspen Institute:

No evidence-based research has demonstrated that a data-driven surveillance system such as the FSSP will be effective in preventing school violence. In addition, no information is publicly available about how the database was designed, developed, or tested,” according to preliminary findings by researchers.

Researchers from the Aspen Institute DID offer some details, though:

The law requires Florida school districts to store huge amounts of data in one database, including thousands of hours of video footage, grade cards, student disciplinary records and teacher memos. It also includes information on children collected through “social media monitoring, local law enforcement agencies, the Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Baker Act admissions, and the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting System, which aggregates data on crime, violence, and disruptive behaviors.

There’s a massive amount of data going into this database, but they still haven’t been transparent about what algorithm they are using. Using administrative data to predict future behavior, it’s not evidence-based.

Aspen expressed concerns that the data gathered would “disproportionately affect students with disabilities and African American males, two groups that have traditionally received disproportionately higher disciplinary actions than other students” while noting that “…there’s no evidence that students who have discipline problems in school go on to become school shooters.”

What neither CNBC nor the Aspen Institute did say was that the Governor and the Legislature had a choice: they could go after military grade weapons owned by a handful of gun owners or they could compromise the privacy of tens of thousands of school children. The choice from where I sit would be easy… but then the NRA isn’t underwriting my blog.

Another Article on Gifted and Talented Programs in NYC… Another Case of Acid Indigestion

October 11, 2019 Leave a comment

I just finished reading another article lamenting the proposal to end Gifted and Talented programs in NYC public schools. In today’s NYTimes Eliza Shapiro describes a highly successful program for elementary aged children in East Harlem, one that has “only” 64% of its students drawn from Asian and white students. The problem with this success story is that 31% of the total school population is Asian or white. I was immediately skeptical of the so-called “racial balance” of the “model school” since it did not reflect the city at large. I was even more skeptical when I read that standardized tests remained as the primary “gate” for determining who was “gifted”.

Too many gifted and talented advocates and parents seek acceleration instead of breadth. They want to teach three year olds how to read and third graders algebra and trigonometry. This acceleration on a narrow path limits “giftedness” to those skills and “work products” that can be readily measured and omits skills that defy easy measurement and divergent thinking. Whenever a single test is used, Campbell’s law will kick in and parents seeking to have their children identified as “gifted” will spend precious time and money for test prep programs. The result is that many 4 year olds are missing art, music, athletics, nature… and day dreaming.

The net result is what Neil Postman called “The Disappearance of Childhood” several decades ago when parents began to interpose themselves more and more into the lives of their children. When kids lose the opportunity to explore information on their own, explore their environment on their own, and play games they invent with their friends they learn much more about life than when they are coached to take tests and only engage in sports that are overseen by adults.

The solution for NYC might be to adopt Joseph Renzulli’s enrichment model that broadens that curriculum for all children instead of accelerating a narrower curriculum for those who can learn quickly. Renzulli’s ideas about giftedness are broader than those of Terman— the father of standardized testing. He believes that many children are gifted in ways that cannot be readily measured by a pencil-and-paper test and that it is pointless for children to move quickly through a narrow curriculum that is based on skills and work products that are readily quantifiable. But in our “meritocratic” system where standardized tests have displaced teacher recommendations when it comes to identifying “gifted” students and where statistical artifacts like “reading at the ninth grade level” are viewed as important by parents there is no room for “slow learners” with creative skills.

 

My Niece’s Son’s Picture on FaceBook Begging for Money at a Street Corner Worth a Thousand Words

October 7, 2019 Leave a comment

From everything I’ve witnessed on family vacations and FaceBook posts over the year, my niece’s son is a very gifted athlete. He’s a strong cross country runner, plays soccer well enough to make traveling teams, and seems to be a natural at every sport he takes on.

Like any student-athlete he has a full schedule with practices, homework, and family commitments. But because he is a student-athlete, he has one other responsibility: he needs to stand on a street corner to collect money to pay for his activity. Meanwhile, the state he lives in, Ohio, has lowered the support it receives from businesses though various tax sources and, because of lost revenues that resulted, not increased school spending in real dollars for over a decade.

I find his begging at intersections infuriating and demeaning. It appears to me that teaching children to beg at traffic signals now part of the hidden curriculum at schools just as subjecting themselves to surveillance cameras, metal detectors and shooter drills are part of the curriculum.

I guess Ohio voters think it’s more important for billionaires to get tax cuts than it is for x-c teams (and other organizations) to beg at street corners. More important to reward shareholders than it is to provide time for student-athletes to do their homework.

To paraphrase an old aphorism: it will be a good day when billionaires have to have bake sales to increase their wealth and schools receive largesse from the State governments…. and student-athletes no longer have to beg on street corners.

Silicon Valley’s Therapy Apps a Review of Counseling’s Future?

October 6, 2019 Leave a comment

Those of us of a certain age (and those who are Stanley Kubrick aficionados) recall the character HAL 9000 in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000 was the sentient computer who provided support for the crew members on the space mission until it learned that the human passengers intended to disable him. It was chilling when Dave asked HAL to “Open the pod bay doors” only to hear the reply: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”. The 1968 vintage movie envisioned a future when a computer might control the destiny of a human, a notion that seemed far fetched in an era when powerful computers took up a city block and we had not landed on the moon.

Fast forward to today where nearly everyone in the world is transfixed by the information streaming from their cell phones and billionaires are contemplating offering private trips to the moon within a few years. Fast forward to today where, according to a recent NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs are developing apps that provide therapy. Fast forward to today where cash-strapped schools are seeking counseling help while spending millions on technology and it is not hard to envision a marriage of convenience between the tech entrepreneurs and public education, one where students will be able to get advice from an app whose algorithm is designed to provide the kind of support that world class therapists offer.. and get that help at an affordable rate!

How would this work you ask. Ms. Bowles uses Kip, a new therapy app, as an example. Kip uses information gleaned from “world class providers” to develop “smart software tools” designed to offer “a seamless experience for both clients and providers.”  The Times article offers this description of the program:

Traditional therapists scribble notes and review them later, possibly with a mug of chamomile. In the Kip system, notes quickly turn into data. Weeks of therapy are broken down with quizzes to determine exactly how happiness and anxiety levels are progressing, and how quickly.

Kip offers an app that encourages clients to record their moods in real time, prompted by questions that a therapist can choose to have pop up throughout the day. “That way they’re not subject to recency bias,” said Ti Zhao, the company’s founder.

Kip effectively uses the same kind of algorithms as dating services to pair a client with a therapist and provides the therapist with a trove of data that enables them to quickly determine the best course of treatment for their client.

While Ms. Bowles believes that “the new data could provide insights that typical therapists would not come up with on their own”, she also offers several cautionary notes, not the least of which is the possibility that the data gathered by Kip might be sold to others.

The overall tone of the article is somewhat sardonic, with Ms. Bowles calling out the technology industry for its belief that any problem can be solved by gathering enough data and developing a good algorithm. But it overlooks the possibility that there is a large market to be tapped: public schools who have an increasing demand for mental health services and a limited budget. It is not hard to envision an app students could use to match themselves with school counselors or psychologists… and app that would cull out garden variety teen angst from mental distress that requires professional intervention. And as that culling occurs, many stressed students could avoid seeing a counselor altogether, settling instead for something like the Clam Down app described by Ms. Bowles where:

“…a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.”

Eventually, many counselors who work with college bound students could be replaced by an algorithm that would provide students with feedback on their proposed choices. It’s not too difficult to foresee an app that would gently tell a student who aspires to get assistant applying to an ivy league college to hear a disembodied voice say: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

Fanfare Over Business Roundtable’s Commitment to Responsible Leadership Undercut by Investors

September 29, 2019 Comments off

This morning’s NYTimes features an article by business writer David Gelles titled “The Week CEOs Got Smacked“, a recounting of the decision of boards of directors to fire some of the leaders from the Business Roundtable who advocated corporate responsibility. I read this article on the heels of watching the Netflix Documentary “American Factory“, a clear-eyed look at the trade-offs necessary if our country hopes to re-enter the manufacturing marketplace given the current political and corporate governance structure. That governance structure is controlled by a small group of plutocrats who explicitly set government policy in China and Russia and have an increasingly large voice in setting government policy in our country. I have long believed that both economic systems are regressing toward a mean where a small group of shareholders of borderless corporations and autocratic governments control the remainder of the global workforce. This perspective makes me want to strengthen democracy in hopes that our elected officials will create a government that will develop regulations that assure corporate responsibility.

China’s de facto form of economic control is best described by the term “command capitalism”, which is defined in a 1998 book by J. L. Porket here,  The current US economy is best described as “state capitalism”, which is defined by Wikipedia here. Neither of these systems has a place for corporate responsibility and neither has a place for democracy.

Porket’s description of “command capitalism, as noted above, was written in 1998— before the advent of Big Data and before China emerged as the economic powerhouse that it is today. One section of Porket’s analysis of the inherent flaws of command capitalism should be re-examined. He suggests that the government cannot exert full control over the economy because “...at least some information received by it is insufficient, incomplete, unreliable, inaccurate and distorted.” With todays trove of data and the ability to synthesize that data to identify consumer tastes and trends, the government may be able to exert near full control over the economy. Moreover, as the American Factory movie illustrated, the lack of opportunities for unskilled labor in the US is compelling our country to accept the wages, hours, and working conditions that exist in China in the name of “efficiency” and profit.

At the same time, our country is increasingly beholden to a faceless group of “shareholders” whose insatiable demand for profits drives corporate and government policy. This section of the Wikipedia definition of “state capitalism” describes my perception of where the US economy stands:

Noam Chomsky, a supporter of libertarian socialism, applies the term ‘state capitalism’ to economies such as that of the United States, where large enterprises that are deemed “too big to fail” receive publicly funded government bailouts that mitigate the firms’ assumption of risk and undermine market laws and where private production is largely funded by the state at public expense but private owners reap the profits.[11][12][13] This practice is in contrast with the ideals of both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism.[14]

Chomsky’s description of the economy is captured in the aphorism that in our economic system today “corporate leaders pocket profits while taxpayers cover the costs of risk”. In the movie, Fuyao Glass received $10,000,000 from the taxpayers in Dayton Ohio to bring 800 jobs to the area, which sounds like a large number until that is compared to the 2000 jobs that GM provided… and sounds even worse when views learn that the new jobs pay $14/hour, roughly half of what GM workers received.

American Factory describes the course we are on… one where the need to reward shareholders exceeds the need to retain a civil democracy where the pursuit of happiness is differentiated from the pursuit of money or, as is increasingly the case, the pursuit of survival.

How can we change direction?

On the governance level, we need corporate leaders to stay the course of the direction of the Business Roundtable and, ideally, advocate that all corporations adopt the B-Corp principles that place employee well being in the forefront of their mission.

On the political level, we have to place a higher value on the “pursuit of happiness” and a lower value on the pursuit of material well being. In the framework described by Arthur Brooks at a recent lecture at Dartmouth College, we need to emphasize endogenous goals and deemphasize exogenous goals.

But the ultimate transformation that is necessary to change our thinking is one of spirit. We need to spend more time and energy helping each other and less time trying to “beat out” the competition.

And last, we might want to examine our compulsion to be as efficient as possible. Throughout the movie there was a relentless focus on efficiency— a focus that was in place in the factory where I worked in Work Standards in Dearborn Michigan in 1966. In the concluding scene of the movie, a Chinese engineer was proudly demonstrating how he would improve efficiency in the Fubayo glass factory: he had designed robots to replace the humans. The ultimate standard for efficiency IS a robot: it will do a job with repeated and uncomplaining precision for hours on end without any interference from life outside the factory. Humans cannot compete with robots if efficiency is the standard.

 

 

 

 

Bernie Sanders Tries to Keep 500,000 Hungry Children in the Limelight

September 28, 2019 Comments off

With everything else garnering headlines in Washington DC and on the campaign trail, I’m glad to see at least one candidate hammering home the importance of providing children with the nutritious meals they need to succeed in school. Common Dreams writer Jake Johnson describes how the Trump administration sidestepped Congress by issuing a rule change that diverted funds intended for school children to… well… who knows?

Congress last year approved a farm bill that excluded SNAP changes sought by the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers, so the president and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have worked to unilaterally slash eligibility for the program, which is widely recognized by policy experts as an effective way to reduce hunger.

As Mr. Sanders notes, the notion of providing food to hungry children hardly seems like a radical idea:

“In America today, one in every six kids goes hungry,” Sanders states on his website. “Instead of addressing this crisis, students with lunch debt are sometimes denied meals, have debt collectors sent after their families, and are even denied their diplomas. Unacceptable. It is not a radical idea that no child in this country should go hungry. We must ensure that all students have access to healthy school meals.”

It evidently is not a radical idea that funds Congress wanted to send to school districts to feed hungry children can be unilaterally diverted for other uses…. We are truly living in an upside down world.