January 10, 2007

Meet Standardized Testing's Poster Boy

Meet Jordan Davis. He's just failed the Washington state exam (WASL) and can't graduate until he passes. Nothing special about that; half the kids in Washington failed the exam. Here's what caught my eye:

He sat for the WASL math test last spring and failed by two points. He retook it in August and failed by 12. This is a kid who has never gotten below a B in math.

And, that, friends, is the reason why we have NCLB. Quality control.

"I've always been good at math. I always liked math. I totally expected to pass the math WASL," he said in a school hallway last month, exasperated.

Poor kid. You don't know what you don't know.

"We're like guinea pigs in an experiment going wrong," said Caroline Stedman, another Mountlake Terrace High School junior taking a third year of high-school math and a WASL-support class. "It's really ridiculous."

Poor Caroline doesn't realize just how right she is. Her entire educational experience has been one big failed experiment. She's been taught under an educational philosophy that's mostly wrong and has been shown to be ineffective with many students like Caroline.

Falck said it's hard to see her students struggling. "Fifty percent of the kids couldn't pass math with their graduation depending on it. It must be something with the test or something going on in the classroom. It's not the kids' motivation."

So, you're telling me it's not their motivation? That eliminates educator excuse number one. Must be educator excuse number two then -- their parents don't love them. Or could it be educator excuse number three -- we don't have enough money. There is no educator excuse number four.

Here's another poster child:

Stedman defies the stereotype of those who failed the math WASL. Like Davis, she loves math and has always gotten As and Bs. In the past, a learning disability meant she struggled with reading and writing and had to have an Individual Educational Plan — specialized instruction and materials to address her problems in processing words.

When educators finally admit that it's not a "learning disability" but a "teaching disability" we might start making some progress.


Anonymous said...

Ken, you have one unstated assumption: that the WASL is a valid test that is linked to appropriate math standards. I'm sure it probably is, but I'd like to see that assumption stated more clearly by more people. It's not a given.

Also, you didn't highlight this: "Those who had taken only two years of high-school math when they took the WASL had a 51 percent pass rate, while 92 percent of students in their third year passed, said Nancy Katims, Edmonds assessment director."

It seems to me that the problem is not the teaching so much as it is insufficient coursework. Require four years of math and things will get better.

Anonymous said...

Gotta agree with Michael on this one, Ken. The WASL is one of those tests that cares more about process than content. Kids that show how they arrived at the wrong answer get more points for being able to write down their thought process than kids who answer the questions correctly, but don't show work because they are good at calculations.

The end result is a question of the chicken and the egg. In order to score well on WASL, many districts have switched to Connected Math and Cognitive Tutor Algebra, and have turned away from traditional math believing the constructivist teaching will pan out better on a constructivist test. But at the same time because a lot of non-traditional, constructvist math is the predominant math curricula in WA, the WASL was designed to measure that BS -- er, knowledge.

Of course you are exactly right about the kids not knowing what they don't know... and you should hear the outcry from the parents who truly are shocked that their A or B math student can't pass the WASL. The parents don't know what their kids don't know either.

WA does have an advocacy group trying to tackle the problem, though. They're called "Where's the Math?" and they're trying to get WA to adopt the CA math standards. It will be tough because now the WA governor and Sup't of Public Instruction are trying to convince the legislature to mandate a single math curriculum -- and you can guess what curriculum that will be. Most likely "Bridges to Algebra" and "Math Investigations".

KDeRosa said...

You guys are opening up a whole 'nother can of worms that I was trying to avoid.

I undestand many of these state tests generally suck. Be that as it may, they are known entities and even though the tests are dopey, the curriculum is aligned to the dopiness. And, I'm sure, there's a lot of teaching to the test going on that specifically covers all the dopiness students might ordinarily encounter on such a test.

In any event, the main point of the post was that the class grades weren't matching up to the WASL performance, something I always find amusing.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I appreciate your comment. What are your thoughts on the two versus three year math results?

KDeRosa said...

Michael, I am suspect of such stats because they don't control for cognitive ability. No doubt, it's the smarter kids who are taking the extra courses. Giving the less able kids more math isn't going to necessaily boost the pass rate up to the existing 3 course pass rate, though you'll likely see some movement at the margin due to the extra instruction.

Anonymous said...

Ken, that's an interesting and reasonable response to the data. I'd say, however, that it's not really possible to know whether you're right without looking at the test and comparing it to the content of the courses at the first, second, and third years. If the test is measuring things learned in all three years, then requiring three years of math is the first step to a higher pass rate. Once that's done, working more closely with students of lesser ability would follow.

Anonymous said...

Your missing the point completely. Teachers are not allowed to fail a class of students in Algebra II when it is discovered by that teacher that the entire class can't calculated a percentage.

You are told to teach the children you were given and grade according to that or quit the job. They will find someone else.

This is a political problem, not an educator problem. Get he admon and politicians to allow us to grade our students honestly and you will never ever again see a child passing a class who fails a standardized test.

But...We don't have the guts. Do we?

Anonymous said...

Teachers are not allowed to fail a class of students in Algebra II when it is discovered by that teacher that the entire class can't calculated a percentage.

Do you mean Washington teachers or all teachers?

KDeRosa said...

That's the reason why I use the term educator and not teacher. I'm interested in the entire education function, which includes teachers and admin. I undertsand that sometimes, maybe often, teachers can't control the grades they give. I know that somewhere in the chain order has broken don't but I don't care exactly where because then we just get a bunch of finger pointing. Ultimately, the admin is responsible for the education of students, so it's probably most fair to look to them.