Poor scores

Sneaking Suspicions links to a story on Delaware’s battles with stuck-in-the-mud math scores. It turns out that students learn more if taught by highly qualified teachers for longer periods of time.

Washington state is rethinking minimum passing scores on its state tests amid worries about the high failure rate. Last year, only 35 percent of 10th-graders passed the 10th grade reading, writing and math test with a “proficient” rating. By 2008, students must pass the exam — in four tries — to graduate. A state commission wants to raise the pass rate by lowering the standard to the “basic” level.

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  1. “Last year, only 35 percent of 10th-graders passed the 10th grade reading, writing and math test with a “proficient” rating.

    As far as I can tell no attempt is being made to distinguish what the problem is. Is the test badly constructed? In which case, the test should be rewritten. Or are the students performing badly on a valid test? In which case there are more complicated issues that need to be solved. By just assuming the problem is with the test the problem becomes very easy to solve.

    One thing that I don’t see mentioned often though is that if students are doing what is asked of them and making good grades it does not seem fair to me that the students don’t graduate but that the teachers and administrators who are responsible for causing the problem do not suffer any negative repercussions. No Child Left Behind tries to address some of the accountability problems and you can read about how unpopular it is.

    When you have 65% of the students failing the test the problem is not the students though.

  2. Fritz says: Frankly, this News-Journal piece was one of the more infuriating stories I have read in quite a while.

    I specialized in discrimination law through most of the 1980s, with an emphasis on testing issues. During that time I believed and argued that whatever the causes for racial variations in test performance during the 1960s and 1970s, by the turn of the century these disparities would surely be reduced. It certainly looks like I was far too optimistic.

    So, what does he mean by that? I teach in Delaware and administrators are going nuts over this. Is Fritz saying that discrimination is so rampant in DE schools and that this accounts for the racial disparities in 8th grade math scores? If so, he couldn’t be more ridiculously off the mark.

    DE math teachers are so overworked right now due to this state test they’re going bonkers. And yet, instead of having meaningful inservices for them to develop highly effective strategies for their classes, I heard of one district which at the very beginning of the year dedicated the entire day’s inservice to a guest speaker — a black man who proceeded to blame all of the district’s problems on racism, overt and covert.

    There are many facets to black student underachievment in DE, but racism ain’t one of ’em. IMO, poor/no home support and the perception that doing well in school “ain’t cool” or “acting white” are the main culprits.

  3. PJ/Maryland says:

    …after a full review of what’s expected on the test, seven committees staffed heavily with teachers have recommended some tweaks but no major changes in the passing requirements.

    So you would think that Washington state’s tests are generally accepted. But in fact, the decision to skip major changes appears to be the result of averaging together the many opinions on these large committees.

    Vranek served on the 21-member 10th-grade math committee.

    Some committee members voted to raise the math standard, some to lower it, she said. On average, it worked out the same.

    And buried at the end of the article is the news that the The Washington State Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission will decide whether students need to earn a “proficient” to graduate, or only a “basic”. So while the 7 committees with 171 members made minor tweaks to what score should count as proficient, the WSAAAC still has to decide whether proficiency is required. Makes me think of passenger committees voting on how to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic…

  4. Walter Wallis says:

    Better teachers teach better than poorer teachers? An amazing concept. I suggest a committee of learned educators be established to study this and report back within 5 years with their recommendations.

  5. I wish that folks in education would just give up and admit the obvious: Our ‘standards’ are whatever the majority of students ‘feel like’ doing. If I gave honest grades based on reasonable standards, I would have a failure rate (below C) of 75%-80%. My school system will not accept the truth represented by these numbers, therefore I must become a liar when I report my grades. This prevarication is THE major source of stress in my professional life.

    If we has honest, rigorous and reasonable standards, I believe that students would adapt, but it would take a great deal of administrative fortitude to defend the high failure rate that would exist for the year or two it would take for the kiddos to catch on to the reality that WE AREN’T JOKING when we mention standards.

  6. Part of the problem with the WASL is that it is language based, not math based. In a word problem the student must, in numbers, write down how he came to the answer. He then labels all the numbers he used. Next he must number the steps used in gaining his answer. Then he must write an essay on how he came to his answer. In the essay, he may not use any numbers. Each sentence must begin First I…, second, third… If he forgets any of these steps he is penalized. My son is facing this next year in the 4th grade WASL. I pity children who can do math well but have poor language skills, poor penmanship, poor memories to remember all those steps, etc. In my mind, it is not a true test of their mathematical knowledge, but thier ability to remember the hoops to jump through. *sigh*

  7. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    Good comment Sue. The essay is indeed a diversion.

    My daughter went through some math classes in Washington State six or seven years ago, and came for help with homework. The textbook geniuses had constructed the lessons as word problems which combined algebra, geometry and semantic logic in a triumph of confusing blather, out of which the student was supposed to extract the math problems and arrive at numerical solutions. The extraction process cost me plenty of time, and explaining it to daughter was an ordeal, and her eagerness to learn the mathematical principles suffered from it.

    In the 50s we had separate classes called ‘algebra’ and ‘geometry’, which made no attempt to confuse the different sorts of analysis required to understand them. They worked fine to convey the principles involved.

    It appears that modern textbook geniuses think there’s a royal road to learning, where you wander through the verbiage and ‘holistically’ pick up learning, without suffering the indignities of starting at basic principles. Perhaps that’s considered demeaning.

  8. Tony: Well-stated. My failure rates would be higher, too. Too many failures and you’re asked to “reconsider your teaching methods.” Of course, for some, this may need some tweaking. But too often, good teachers “feel the heat” to “accomodate” students. “Teach to their individual learning styles” (right — with 35 kids in a class and 45 min. periods). Don’t give low-SES kids “too much homework” (ie, none). And on and on…

  9. This same thing happened in Arizona: a group of teachers taught students over many (or few) years. Then another group of teachers (and “education professionals”) devised a test to determine whether or not those students had learned whatever that second group decided should have been learned.

    If this was a scientific experiment, it would have been sent back to the drawing board before it began. That most students failed was no surprise (especially since they knew that the test didn’t matter the first time), but since the test wasn’t based on the curriculum (or even presented in a similar manner), the door was open for criticism.

    It was established that the students weren’t learning important things, but the test became the issue. The students are still not learning, but someday there will be a better test to conclusively prove it. Hooray! A victory for education!

  10. Of course “basic” should pass. If everybody has to be excellent, then excellent means average. Leave “proficient” for the top students.

  11. Laura … I hope you are being facietious. Proficient merely means capable of doing what a normal person in an age group “should” be capable of doing. And we’ve already watered down that definition to where it really means being able to do freshman level work as a senior.

    Basic means that you can do math at an elementary school level … and barely that. We don’t need another generation of workers and voters who can’t comprehend the concepts or perform the tasks necessary to succeed in the 21st century. To call “basic” achievement a success will just accelerate our decline as a world leading nation.

  12. Sue and Insufficiently Insensitive,
    I agree with you in regards to the WASL. In addition, it also depends on who is grading the test as to what score is given. It is a grader opinion generated test and it ranks below the level of File 13. Washington educators have only themselves to blame for drafting up this garbage.