Fudging grad rates via ‘credit recovery’

Owensmouth High  students received their diplomas on June 8. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Only 54 percent of Los Angeles Unified seniors were on track to graduate in December, due to new (absurd) requirements that everyone complete the college-prep sequence required by state universities.

By the end of March, 68 percent were on track, reports the Los Angeles Times. In June, an estimated 74 percent received their diplomas. What happened?

Online credit recovery courses enabled thousands of students who failed regular classes to qualify for a diploma, reports the editorial board. But did they learn anything?

LAUSD: English Language Arts 11A, which is supposed to be the first semester of junior-year English, could take 50 or 60 hours, reports the Times.

The reading excerpts come from fine and often challenging literature — “Moby-Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” great poetry and the like. Video lectures give the background of the works and teach lessons about tone, setting, vocabulary choice and so forth. There are four writing assignments during each semester.

But students can test out of much of the course, including the writing, by passing a 10-question multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of each unit.

With a score of 60% or better — six of the questions — a student passes the unit, without having to go through the lectures, read the full materials or write the essays. Opening up other tabs on the computer to search for answers on the Internet is allowed. That’s not really cheating: The questions aren’t about straightforward facts. Students must interpret passages, for instance. But there’s plenty of help online via Sparks notes and other resources, and a full hour is given to answer the 10 questions.

Students aren’t asked to read a full book in the first semester; the second semester requires one book.

“I’ve seen students make up a semester’s worth of credits in a school year’s final month and then miraculously earn their diplomas,” wrote teacher Mario Gonzalez in response. “I’ve seen kids who don’t even know their multiplication tables or how to reduce a fraction pass algebra (on paper, at least).”

He asks: “What’s the point of patting ourselves on the back for improved graduation rates if the diploma itself is highly devalued?”

Fudging graduation numbers is a lot easier than educating students, concludes the Times editorial board. “Under pressure to produce better numbers, school officials in California and nationwide have often done whatever it takes to get to those numbers, including lowering standards while pretending to raise them, and reclassifying students instead of educating them. These students then go on to college or the workplace, mistakenly thinking they have the skills they’ll need.”

Pure math > ‘real-world’ math

Teaching kids to solve “real-world” problems is supposed to motivate students to learn math. It’s all the rage.

However, students taught abstract math — solving equations with x’s and y’s — do better in math, concludes a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They’re even better at solving real-world problems, reports Hechinger’s Jill Barshay in the Washington Monthly.

Furthermore, higher-income students are more likely to learn pure math, while teachers focus on applied math in teaching low-income students, according to Equations and Inequalities:  Making Mathematics Accessible to All.

In 64 countries and regions around the world, “the difference between the math scores of 15-year-old students who were the most exposed to pure math tasks and those who were least exposed was the equivalent of almost two years of education,” researchers found.

When students have a strong foundation in math, “they can apply that knowledge in another context,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director of education and skills development.

Many teachers who stress applied math, “teach students tips and tricks, how to solve small everyday problems,” he said. Students “know how to solve those problems, but they’re not good at transferring that knowledge to another context.”

SF: No child gets ahead in math

San Francisco public schools don’t teach Algebra I or Geometry to even the brightest, most math-loving eighth graders writes Ben Christopher on Priceonomics. Why? he asks.

The new mathematical course sequence “ensures that all students enter high school with the same mathematical foundation,” say SFUSD officials. No child gets ahead.

Common Core recommends that only the strongest math students take algebra in middle school. Nearly all districts let some middle schoolers take algebra. But not San Francisco.

California’s old math standards called for all eighth-graders to take algebra. Some districts placed nearly all or most students in algebra, while others only let well-prepared students take algebra.

Early algebra was linked to a significant decrease in average math scores within a given district, a University of North Carolina study found.

However, individual students almost always are “better off in a more challenging class,” says researcher Thurston Domina. The problem is that schools changed the curriculum and staffing to push all or most kids into algebra.

“Now, when you . . .  put a lot of kids in algebra, you change the peer environment, you have teachers who have never taught algebra teaching algebra, and you’ve got this problem in the classroom where you’ve got to figure out whether you’re going to teach algebra at all, because a bunch of the students don’t know fractions.” 

SFUSD isn’t dumbing down math, STEM director Jim Ryan tells Christopher. Common Core’s Math 8 includes algebra topics such as linear equations, roots, exponents, and an introduction to functions. 

Likewise, the course called “Algebra I” that students will now take in their first year of high school introduces a number of the concepts we all associate with introductory algebra (quadratic equations, say), but also delves deeper into modeling with functions and quantitative analysis.

Advanced students will be encouraged to “delve deeper” rather than accelerate, says Ryan.

However, those who want to get to AP Calculus in 12th grade will have to catch up in summer school or take a “compressed” course that combines Algebra 2/trig with pre-calculus.

Gifted classes almost always are “disproportionately white and Asian and relatively affluent,” writes Christopher. But it’s hard to teach “one-size-fits-all” math “without boring the math nerds to tears.” 

Elite public high schools aren’t diverse

Elite public high schools for high-scoring students aren’t very diverse, reports Spencer Michels on PBS NewsHour.

It depends on how diversity is defined. San Francisco’s Lowell High School, which is 57 percent Asian, is 14 percent white. The school also is short on Latinos (10 percent) and blacks (2 percent).

District enrollment is 35 percent Asian-American (nearly all Chinese), 23 percent Latino, 11 percent white and 10 percent black. (There are lots of “other” and “decline to state.”)

Elite exam schools in Boston and New York City also are majority Asian.

Safe and sterile

Free-ranger Lenore Skenazy likes this Doonesbury cartoon about ultra-safe playgrounds and the mothers who insist other mothers play by their rules.

Updating the 1st Amendment

From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Disagreement is not oppression,” writes Nicholas Christakis, the Yale professor accused of not creating a sufficiently safe space for students troubled by insensitive Halloween costumes. “The answer to speech we do not like is more speech,” he writes. Christakis and his wife have stepped down as what used to be known as “house masters.”

At the University of Northern Colorado, two professors were reported to the Bias Response Team for asking students to discuss controversial issues, reports Heat Street.

One professor “asked students to read an Atlantic article entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, about college students’ increasing sensitivity and its impact on their mental health,” reports Heat Street.

The professor then asked his students to come up with difficult topics, including transgender issues, gay marriage, abortion and global warming. He outlined competing positions on these topics, though he did not express his personal opinion.

In a report to the Bias Response Team, a student complained that the professor referenced the opinion that “transgender is not a real thing, and no one can truly feel like they are born in the wrong body.”

The team told the professor to avoid transgender issues.

Another professor told students to pick from a debate topic from a list that included homosexuality and religion. A student complained students were “required to listen to their own rights and personhood debated.”

Supremes say UT can use race in admissions

The University of Texas at Austin can continue to consider race in admissions, thanks to a 4-3 Supreme Court decision in the Fisher case.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said courts must give universities “considerable deference” in “defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission,”  reports the New York Times.

Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin, lost her challenge to the use of race in admissions. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin, lost her challenge to the use of race in admissions. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In a passionate dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. called the ruling “affirmative action gone berserk” and “simply wrong.”

“We are told that a program that tends to admit poor and disadvantaged minority students is inadequate because it does not work to the advantage of those who are more fortunate,” wrote Alito.

Under the Top 10 Percent program, top graduates at every high school in the state — including many high-minority, high-poverty schools — are guaranteed admission to any state university. That’s increased the number of Latino and black students.

But, unlike most other Texas universities, UT-Austin uses race and ethnicity, and other factors, to fill the remaining seats. The beneficiaries tend to be middle-class blacks and Latinos at integrated high schools.

The Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg said the decision will “give universities more leeway to simply use race as a way to get racial diversity and ignore economically disadvantaged students.”

Alito also noted discrimination against Asian-Americans, who need much higher SAT scores to get a place at UT-Austin. That undercuts the diversity argument, writes Hans Bader. There are fewer Asian-Americans than Latinos at UT-Austin.

As the Asian American Legal Foundation noted, the university’s policy reflected the untenable and racist assumption that “Asian Americans are not worth as much as Hispanics in promoting ‘cross-racial understanding,’ breaking down ‘racial stereotypes,’ and enabling students to ‘better understand persons of different races.’”

Texas A&M more than doubled the percentage of black and Latino students without affirmative action, notes the Texas Tribune. At both A&M and UT-Austin, blacks and Latinos make up 23 percent of enrollment.

A&M strengthened its recruiting at high-minority schools and improved financial aid.

In Australia, kindergarten gives ‘gun’ licenses

Children can play with toy guns, if they have a license, at a Queensland, Australia kindergarten.

Playing with toy guns is OK at an Australian kindergarten — with a “license.” Kilkivan Kindergarten, located in a rural area where many parents own guns, decided to teach responsible gun play, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Australia’s gun control laws make it hard — but not impossible — to own handguns and rifles.

Children must understand and agree to follow the “safe play rules” or lose their gun for the day.

“We don’t allow projectile guns, I think that is one thing that is a little bit risky, but they have handmade wooden guns that Dad’s made for them or a water squirter gun [with no water],” said Anne Bicknell, the school’s director.

Guns are locked in a cabinet when not in use. “When they want to play with it they get their licence first and then come and ask for their gun,” she explained. “They’re not allowed to lend their gun to anybody else; it’s their gun and their licence to use it.”

Game boosts preschoolers’ math skills

Playing a “number sense” math game improves young children’s math skills, concludes a Johns Hopkins study.

Preschoolers were shown a split screen that flashed blue dots on one side and yellow dots on the other.  They were asked to identify the side with more dots.

. . .  kids who participated in the dots activity performed better in a follow-up test of more discrete math skills assessed with questions like: ”Count backward starting from 10.” Or ”Joey has 1 block and gets 2 more; how many does he have altogether?”

Researchers also assessed the children’s ability to say which of two numbers is bigger and to read and write numerals.

“Among the children who practiced with the dots, those who practiced with easier dot problems first and then progressed to harder ones did even better than kids who did the problems in a random order,” writes Lilian Mongeau in Education Week.

‘Informal care’ is popular, inferior

Most infants and toddlers are cared for by babysitters in unregulated or very lightly regulated settings, writes Brookings’ Susanna Loeb.

“Over half of all one- and two-year-olds are regularly cared for by caregivers other than their parents but only about half of those, i.e., a quarter of this age group, are in a licensed formal care setting,” she writes. Four-year-olds are more likely to attend licensed centers and preschools, “but still many primarily experience informal, non-parental care.”

Babysitters spend less time on reading and math activities. Kids spend a lot more time watching TV.

“Four-year-olds in home-based, informal care watch an average of almost two hours of television per day, compared with fewer than 7 minutes in formal care,” writes Loeb.

Children in informal care learn significantly less in literacy and math, she concludes. These differences are not explained by differences in family background.