November 21, 2006

You've been flim-flammed

This WaPo article focuses on the plight of hapless students who've been lied to by their schools.

Sylvia James hardly considers herself clueless in mathematics. After all, she finished sixth grade with a B-plus in the subject and made the Honor Roll, which she saw as a victory in a challenging year of fraction conversion and decimal placement.

But what happened when she took the state math test?

She flunked it.

Sylvia dear, I have bad news, you've been lied to. Bamboozled. Your well-meaning teachers are pretending to teach you sixth grade math, but they're not. They're teaching you fourth grade math, maybe even third grade. They're probably not even doing a very good job either. Worse still, they're covering their incompetence by giving you high grades. It's a scam from top to bottom.

"I was kind of shocked," said Sylvia, who attends Herbert J. Saunders Middle School in Prince William County. "I just thought I was going to pass it because I always usually pass everything else. I guess I went through the test pretty quickly."

Yes, you usually pass everything else as long as it's a test given by someone at your school which is just interested in passing you through the system until you reach the end of 12th grade. Then you're someone else's problem. They don't care if you learn anything during those 12 years, just behave yourself. They've developed an elaborate web of deceit to mask their inability to teach. If you don't learn and do poorly on their simple classroom exams, it's not their fault; it's your fault. You're "learning disabled." Can't read? Your dyslexic. Can't do your homework? You lack parental support. You get the picture.

Many students in the Washington region are suffering from academic split personalities. Driven by the federal No Child Left Behind law and tougher state diploma standards, the testing blitz has left these students in a curious limbo: They pass their classes with B's and C's yet fail the state exams.

These cases surface frequently, with one local high school reporting, for example, that a quarter of students in beginning algebra passed the course but failed the state test.

A quarter of algebra students can't pass a test which not only doesn't have much algebra on it, but what little algebra it has, should have been taught in week one. These algebra students are failing tests that include mostly math questions that should have been learned in elementary school.

The discrepancies have emerged amid fierce debate over the role of testing in public education. Supporters of the federal law say standardized exams are the best way to raise academic standards and the only way to hold schools accountable for results. Critics complain that time spent on test preparation saps classroom creativity and that test scores are just one indicator among many of student achievement.

Yeah, that's what poor Sylvia needs, more creativity. State tests indicate that Sylvia really needs more math, but that's only one indicator. Another indicator, classroom grades, indicates that everything is sunshine and lollipops. Let's use that one instead and just hope that Sylvia never has to calculate a tip at a restaurant.

Don't worry, Sylvia, you're not the only one robbed of a decent education. Fancy college boy WaPo journalist can't even recognize a simple logical fallacy, like the false dilemma he put in the previous paragraph.

I'll spare you the litany of lame excuses false-dilemma boy lists in the next few paragraphs. Let's move on to our next education victim--Brittanie Morris.

Brittanie Morris, 14, a freshman at John F. Kennedy High School in Montgomery County, is taking a catch-up math class after school because she did not pass her Maryland exam last year.

"I got a B for the total year in algebra last year, but this makes me feel uncomfortable . . . and you feel kinda slow," Brittanie said. "It feels weird to be in the class because it makes you feel like you didn't pass, when you did."

Better that you learned the deception now, Brittanie, than in year one of college. If you've landed in the remedial math classes in college, you're chance of graduating is virtually nil. You could always transfer over to one of the soft majors in the liberal arts or education schools that practice the same deception, but then your chances of landing a decent job are virtually nil.

Brittanie's mother, Kay Morton, was befuddled when she opened the mail and saw the results of her daughter's standardized math exam.

"It's hard to understand a situation where you can have an Honor Roll student who doesn't pass the test. She's been an Honor Roll student since the sixth grade," she said. "I can't say I really hold her teacher accountable. . . . I just accepted the fact that Brittanie may not be a child that tests well."

Oh. My. God. What. An. Idiot.

The data available on these "pass/fail" students -- most of whom apparently are getting C's or better in their courses-- vary across the region. But a glance at local schools shows that the number of such students is sizable.

Brittanie's mom, how does your theory explain that your daughter is passing the classroom tests, but not the State test?

He said. She said time.

Defenders of standardized testing say the exams function like audits, revealing gaps in the curriculum that must be filled if the students are to reach high academic standards. Critics say that the differences between scores and grades show the fallibility of the exams, which provide only a snapshot of what a student knows.

And those grades weren't based on a bunch of snapshots? Not to mention the whole subjectivity problem which we learn about a few paragraphs down.

Teacher Nancy Hencken said she thought Bilal was an articulate student who easily demonstrated his knowledge of the subject matter in class. During class exams, Hencken noted, Bilal and other students could ask her for guidance. That wasn't allowed under the state's strict testing format.

Yes, cheating usually isn't allowed. We want the student to demonstrate she knows what's being asked on the test, not what she knows with the teacher's help. Ms/ Hencken won't be around the next time Bilal has to figure out that idiomatic expression he's just read in real life.

I can't even bring myself to write about the next two paragraphs; it's just too painful.

And, the next one's not much better.

Schools take several approaches to help students who fail standardized exams. In the District, some schools may offer special remediation classes, said William Wilhoyte, a regional superintendent. But in general, he said, schools prefer to help students in their regular classes. They do so by grouping students by ability, based on their performance on certain test questions.

Maybe if they grouped by ability before the tests, they'd have less kids failing the tests.

If they were really serious about improving the passing rate, they'd have mandatory teacher remediation for all the teachers with too many students failing the test. We'd have a lot less child-centered nonsense being practiced if teacher smith had to attend mandatory teacher training after school. Incentives do matter.

Of course, you could always blame the unmotivated students:

Some students placed in remediation appear more than eager to proclaim their academic credentials. During a recent catch-up math class at Saunders Middle School, seventh-grader Lexie Hunt wanted to share some good news with teacher Pamela Childress.

"Ms. Childress, I made Honor Roll!" Lexie said. "In this school, do they give out bumper stickers for that?"

Damn lazy kids.

Update: Dr. P (who needs to blog more) stops by in the comments and reminds us that schools just as often are prematurely covering above grade level material before students have mastered the underlying material. The tests are showing this lack of mastery.

Update two: Eduwonk nails the issue. As does Kevin Carey.


Dr. P. said...

Your well-meaning teachers are pretending to teach you sixth grade math, but they're not. They're teaching you fourth grade math, maybe even third grade.

The problem is that the students get exposed to a lot a math, even math that is well above grade level. They just do not get an opportunity to master any.

This quote sums it up:
I’m always amazed at the pride many schools feel because their middle school curriculum includes topics in pre-algebra/algebra. This sounds like good news until it becomes clear that it’s not pre-algebra that students find problematic: it’s basic arithmetic.

So when the tests reveal that the students are very weak in the basics, then the tests must be in error because the student got good grades.

Critics say that the differences between scores and grades show the fallibility of the exams ...

An alternative is that the the tests reveal the ineffectiveness of the instruction and the meaninglessness of the grades.

Instructivist said...

"Critics complain that time spent on test preparation saps classroom creativity and that test scores are just one indicator among many of student achievement."

I am always amazed at these "critics". If the tests test what should be taught anyway, then what's the big deal? "Test preparation" then turns out to be the same as regular instruction.

I also wonder what the other achievements are. The "critics" are usually silent on that one.

Anonymous said...

Well I think it is personally reasonable for Nancy Hencken to provide guidance to her students on tests, as long as she is prepared to provide such guidance at any point during the rest of their lives they want to use those skills.

Of course, given that personally I have used maths on top of Mt Kahurangi (we wanted to figure out how far away the horizon was, it didn't work out since no one was willing to make a stab at the radius of the earth from memory), on a boat between two of Tonga's islands (I was bored and couldn't read because I was sea-sick), while scuba-diving at 30 metres below sea level (I was bored and trying to figure out the differential rate of oxygen use between my buddy and I), and diverse other places, she had better plan on living a long time and being very energetic.

Or has she just never thought about her students using their skills in the future?

Anonymous said...

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