Category Archives: Graduation

Merit or Popularity?

A small town school in Washington State (Bridgeport) has reached the final round for the possibility of having President Obama speak at its graduation. Bridgeport’s excellence in academics despite having the proverbial deck stacked against them has earned it this distinct honor.

However, instead of narrowing the decision based on merit and some set of criteria the schools must meet, a popular vote will help narrow the field. A small farming town of 2000 people must compete in a popularity contest with schools in Memphis, Newark, San Diego, and Pittsburgh (as well as Goldsboro, N.C.).

How is this even a consideration? Besides the obvious disparity in populations, why would an honor supposedly based on one’s laurels be decided on a popular vote? I guess education is becoming no different than NBA All-Star weekend.

No matter which schools lose the vote, they will have to live with the idea that they did not get chosen because they weren’t popular, not because they were unworthy. And that may hurt most of all.

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Testing and Classroom Assessment

Two terms I’ve often heard people use incorrectly–and noticeably absent from any national conversation about standardized testing–are validity and reliability. No, they aren’t the same and not interchangeable. Here are my (simplistic) definitions of the two terms:

Validity is the extent to which a test or other assessment measures what it purports to measure. If a teacher gives an assessment to gauge the students’ abilities to draw inferences, but the test consists of main idea questions, it’s not a valid measure. A test of inferential thinking must contain inference questions.

Reliability is the consistency of a test or assessment. An assessment given of a common population, covering common content, and during a common time frame should yield similar results. If I give all of my 10th graders of the same demographic in my classes the same exam on the same day, I would expect the results to be fairly similar.

“Why is this important?” you may ask. Well, it’s critical. Giving a reliable and valid assessment is fundamental when assessing students. We have to trust and depend on the assessment given. If I want to find out what my students can do or what they know, I have to use assessments that will provide the data I need in a reliable manner. I try to ensure that every assignment that goes into the grade book has both reliability and validity.

However, this really isn’t the point of my post. What I really wanted to say is that the Washington State test (the HSPE, the High School Proficiency Exam) is neither valid nor reliable. Yet, we base so much on this test: graduation, remedial classes, teacher effectiveness, program offerings, and more. It may help us see weaknesses across the state or in a single school system, but its use for individuals is inappropriate.

How can the HSPE be a valid exam with only one or two questions over a specific skill. For example, the students are asked only one or two questions about geometric sense. How many questions need to be asked to gauge accurately the students’ skill in this category? I would probably suggest 6-10, but that’s just me. Of course, this would mean a very, very long state test.

I’ve seen a student get 7 out of 8 questions correct on one of my exams on author’s purpose, which would tell me the student understands the skill. Let’s pretend my eight questions are the bank of questions on the state test for that one skill. If the student missed the only question asked in that category on the state exam, the state assumes the student does not know it. If I gave the same student the other 7 questions, he could get them all correct. We have now ended up with an inadequate and, in my opinion, an invalid assessment.

A couple years ago we had an excellent example of the test’s lack of reliability. The state’s average dropped significantly across the board on the reading portion. It wasn’t only one or two schools or regions; it was the entire state’s average that dropped. With that much variance in the state scores from one year to the next, we have to assume all of the state’s students struggled one year more so than their peers before or after them, or the problem rested with the test. Which is more likely: tens of thousands of students or a single assessment?

Even if we want to say the test was reliable, then the difficulty increased, which threw off the results; yet, we still base AYP (adequate yearly progress) on the test, and schools fell into or deeper into trouble with the state because of the test’s results. Students are placed into remedial classes because of the test, and programs may be cut or created because of the testing results.

The way the state uses the HSPE now is to look at the 10th graders’ scores from one year to the next; this means the results of a different group of students taking a different test are used to judge schools, systems, teachers, and students.

If we want to use the state tests in any capacity whatsoever, the only proper way would be to watch a cohort group over time. How did the same students do year after year? What were the students’ scores in 6th grade, 7th grade, 8th grade, etc.? We would be able to see the students’ progress over time in a school or in a district. The same students would be assessed together; we would be able to see how our schools are doing in moving students along a progression of skills.

My examples may be a bit rough (but it’s Saturday and Spring Break), but my message remains: the state test isn’t a valid or reliable measure for individual students, and it is being misused.

If only the decision-makers ran the state like many of us run our classrooms…with validity and reliability.

“We’re Mediocre! We’re Mediocre!”

Critics of education often tout the idea that the U.S. was once the greatest nation in the world in math and science, and that might be true in pockets, but as a nation we really haven’t topped many lists. Consider this statement which is included in a study of international test results since 1964:

“The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter. It is more accurate to say that the United States has always trailed the world on math tests.”

The U.S. has remained economically, socially, and militarily powerful no matter the education rankings and the perceptions about American education. Tom Loveless, at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, says this about America:

If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.

Loveless went on to say that Shanghai, often mentioned as one of the most successful nations in the education world, is not all it’s reputed to be. He mentions that 83.8% of Shanghai’s high school graduates attend college, but only 24% of its total population does. 66% of Americans do. For a nation that educates all of its citizens this is an impressive number. Imagine how many students in Shanghai are not even graduating high school.

In short, the United States does quite well educating its citizens. The system isn’t “broken” but does have pockets of problems around the country. I have faith in our system and have watched it work very well for most of our children; plus, we continue to innovate. It’s the American way: no matter what others say or do, we persevere and succeed.

The State of Education Today

Washington State, like many other states, is hurting financially. No one questions this; however, the recovery methods and suggestions do cause me to pause and worry about the state’s and nation’s education futures.

One column’s composer basically says teachers should be able to overcome all odds to create student success. Granted, the author states that parents are the most difficult group to involve in education, and he also thinks that schools should focus on what they can control (as if that hasn’t been happening for years). However, he concludes with the lazy argument of getting rid of “weak teachers” and “better compensating” the better teachers as if these two ideas are novel and haven’t been a part of the educational landscape.

Ironically, at a time when so many call for this better compensation and merit pay for effective teachers, the state is looking to cut the stipends for National Board certified teachers and freezing pay for all. Once again the highest striving and most vulnerable in the profession are being hurt by the cuts. Those who were promised extra pay for achieving what is perceived to be the most prestigious teaching accomplishment and those who are in the early stages of their careers are losing pay–up to 10-20% depending on years of service and NB certification. Broken promises and hypocrisy are not helping the debate.

The state is still fighting the case it lost when a judge ruled that the state is failing education. Instead of increasing funding or services to education, the state is wasting money fighting the ruling.

Still, legislative leaders and the media are calling for the raising of standards without clearly thinking through what is happening with those standards. The mess of higher standards, testing, and holding kids accountable has created a quagmire of regulations and inanity that threatens the graduation of students caught in the middle.

All the while the state and nation call on educators to raise those standards, expect more of our teachers, and pay them less. “Highly qualified” has been a major focus of the so-called reform and ensuring that a minimum standard is in place…until a private industry wants the standards lowered to allow their people in, despite having no shortage of available and qualified teachers. And then, to make matters even worse, the feds agree that trainees should be deemed “highly qualified” even with no experience. The question seems obvious: why not let people into classrooms who have taken a 5-6 week training course instead of people with education degrees, a 3-6 month internship, and (normally) multiple endorsements or degrees (I wrote on this topic here.)? Besides being an issue of sensibility and professionalism, it’s a civil rights issue!

Oh, but let’s not forget the “blame everything on the unions” crowd. Their flags fly just as high. Even though the article means well, look at this title: “How a teachers’ union actually helped kids (not just adults).” Or, how about this one? A writer calls on the public with his editorial to “Professionalize the teaching profession” by treating teachers as professions and “not union workers.” How did professional and union worker become mutually exclusive? In fact, in Washington State, about the only group truly advocating for living wages and research-based education initiatives is the union. This second article writer, of course, blamed less effective teachers being in the work force on the unions–a group with no power to terminate its own members (and why would it?)–instead of placing the blame where it should lie, on those with this power, the administrators.

In an era of blaming the teacher, cutting teacher salaries and incentives, raising standards, increasing testing, devaluing the profession, and demonizing the unions, what do we do? How do we effect change? How do we protect our profession and our kids?

I know Brian from Stories from School is advocating talking to legislators. I know many of my colleagues are writing and visiting legislative offices.

I’m thinking of advocating a new tactic: accepting a couple furlough days. I know, I know. It costs the teachers money. That’s true. But it costs everyone money: teachers, support staff, administrators, the district, and–most importantly–the parents. If we continue to absorb the effects of these cuts quietly, no one will care or listen.

But, by sending Timmy and his pals home for a few extra days and by forcing parents to deal with the problem, we might just see some change. Make the public deal with this mess too. Let the public outcry arise not just from the educators but those at home. They outnumber us any way. Plus, I have seen very little to alter the glacial rate of change more than angry parents.

Here’s another idea: instead of considering strikes, consider getting everyone to work their hours and go home. Show people what their money gets them.  No more extra tutoring sessions, no more recommendation letters, no more enrichment sessions, no more grading and planning at home, no more meeting parents outside the work day, no more calls home at night, no more independent research, and so on. Until the public feels the effects, the public will not advocate for us during these times of unjust cuts.

“Waiting for Superman” Got It Wrong

According to Rick Ayers in a blog post on The Answer Sheet (a fantastic daily must-read), the filmmakers got it wrong in Waiting for Superman.

Here is his list, and you can check out his full explanations at the source.

  1. Waiting for Superman says that lack of money is not the problem in education.
  2. Waiting for Superman implies that standardized testing is a reasonable way to assess student progress.
  3. Waiting for Superman ignores overall problems of poverty.
  4. Waiting for Superman says teachers’ unions are the problem.
  5. Waiting for Superman says teacher education is useless.
  6. Waiting for Superman decries tenure as a drag on teacher improvement.
  7. Waiting for Superman says charter schools allow choice and better educational innovation.
  8. Waiting for Superman glorifies lotteries for admission to highly selective and subsidized charter schools as evidence of the need for more of them.
  9. Waiting for Superman says competition is the best way to improve learning.
  10. Waiting for Superman says good teachers are key to successful education. We agree. But Waiting for Superman only contributes to the teacher-bashing culture which discourages talented college graduates from considering teaching and drives people out of the profession.
  11. Waiting for Superman says “we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country anymore. . . This means we are not only less educated, but also less economically competitive.”
  12. Waiting for Superman promotes a nutty theory of learning which claims that teaching is a matter of pouring information into children’s heads.
  13. Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world.
  14. Waiting for Superman says federal “Race to the Top” education funds are being focused to support students who are not being served in other ways.
  15. Waiting for Superman suggests that teacher improvement is a matter of increased control and discipline over teachers.
  16. Waiting for Superman proposes a reform “solution” that exploits the feminization of the field of teaching; it proposes that teachers just need a few good men with hedge funds (plus D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee with a broom) to come to the rescue.

Please read the full article. It details the reasons educators become frustrated with the slanted debate and preconceived agendas of the people in power. Education is being taken over by businessmen and profiteers, and the media war is only beginning.

Must Pass To Advance

Idaho is now requiring that middle school students pass 80% of their 7th and 8th grade classes to advance into high school. I say this is a valid decision, and I’m curious to follow the results. As a high school teacher, I see too many students entering well below grade level, essentially placed in a position where they are doomed to fail.

According to the article:

“Students understand that middle level doesn’t count,” said Rob Sauer, the state Department of Education’s deputy superintendent for innovation and choice….”It’s an issue because you hear from these students who are very capable, but they don’t think school counts until ninth or 10th grade,” [state Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa] McGrath said.

Idaho must prepare for a bit more crowding in the middle schools, but I think this is worth it. Waiting until 9th grade–10 years into the system–to hold students accountable is way too late. I wish them well in this venture and look forward to seeing the results over the next 7-10 years.

Falling Test Scores

My school’s state test scores dropped. No surprise there. We have larger class sizes because of staff decreases, less instructional time because of yearly schedule alterations, and a push to reduce the amount of work assigned in our classes.

However, the good news that will be celebrated is that our graduation rate is up. (My personal feeling is that this is the real goal, not student achievement.)

Now, I’m not one who believes state test scores are all-encompassing, and I don’t believe they are even the most important measures we use. Still, the drop in the last two straight years is starting to concern me, especially if it happens a third year in a row. It has to indicate some type of change.

The start of the drops coincides with the first time the school changed its schedule and its instructional time.

Maybe the canary is dying in the coal mine.