Are you smart enough for kindergarten?

Are You Smart Enough to Get Into Private Kindergarten? asks DNAinfo.com. Some of New York City’s most elite private schools will require four-year-olds to take a new, harder admissions test.

ERB‘s Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners  (AABL) costs $65, rather than $568 for the old test, because the new test doesn’t require a trained examiner. Kids take it on an iPad. But “experts believe many parents will shell out even more on classes and books to prepare their toddlers.”

“The AABL is supposed to identify a child’s ability and achievement,” said Emily Glickman, president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. Achievement for preschoolers? That’s “totally new,” she says.

Here are five sample questions from the test. All seem to be measuring intelligence rather than knowledge. I got 100 percent — but one answer (see below) was a 50-50 guess. I still don’t know why my answer was correct. If I’d seen this when I was four . . .

Which completes the pattern?

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Core tests spark revolt

Common Core testing revolt is spreading across the nation, reports Politico.

The Obama administration put more than $370 million in federal funds into the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia. Forty states signed on — but at least 17 have backed out, including New York, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Louisiana, Missouri and New Jersey may go too.

Opposition is coming from all directions. Even Common Core supporters aren’t happy about the tests.

PARCC estimates its exams will take eight hours for an average third-grader and nearly 10 hours for high school students — not counting optional midyear assessments to make sure students and teachers are on track.

PARCC also plans to develop tests for kindergarten, first- and second- graders, instead of starting with third grade as is typical now. And it aims to test older students in 9th, 10th and 11th grades instead of just once during high school.

The new tests will cost more and the online exams will require states to “spend heavily on computers and broadband,” notes Politico.

Meanwhile, teachers in many states don’t know what sort of test their students will face.

In Michigan, second-grade teacher Julie Brill says she and her colleagues are expected to spend the coming year teaching Common Core standards — while preparing kids for a non-Common Core test that measures different skills entirely. “It’s just so crazy,” she said.

And in Florida, which broke with PARCC last year, third-grade teacher Mindy Grimes-Festge says she’s glad to be out of a Common Core test she believed was designed to make children fail — but she has only the most minimal information about the replacement exams.

“We’re going in blind,” Grimes-Festge said. “It’s like jumping from one frying pan to another. Just different cooks.”

Only 42 percent of students are slated to take PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests — and that’s certain to drop as more states go their own way.

Good riddance to Common Core testing, writes Diane Ravitch.

All accountability testing is at risk, writes Jay Greene. “The Unions are using Common Core not only to block new tests, but to eliminate high stakes testing altogether.”

The unfairness of education

Today (or, rather, within the next half-hour) I am going to take up the idea that education is at least somewhat unfair at the core. In the many discussions I have heard about “education for all,” those who say “education is never for all” end up playing the role of lone heretics. So my purpose here will be to take examine this claim and follow it where it might lead.

Let us define fairness as the principle of giving to each according to his or her deserts. Let us also assume that each student deserves a good education as much as the next. (Each of these assumptions could be contested, but let’s leave them for now.) Thus, fairness in education would consist of offering each student a good education.

Already, there is a complication: education is not only an offering; the student must also participate in it. More about that shortly.

Consider this basic truth (forgetting for the moment about qualifications): Any given lesson, no matter what it contains and how it’s taught, will be more helpful, appropriate, interesting, or accessible (physically or intellectually) for some than for others.

You can mitigate this unfairness by “differentiating” instruction or by dividing students into homogeneous groupings. Each of these solutions brings its own drawbacks, its own kind of unfairness. Differentiating can fragment instruction; tracking can result in limited opportunities for those in the lower tracks.

As a student, you can mitigate the situation by altering your own situation. For instance, if your class isn’t challenging enough, you can seek out additional challenge. If it’s too difficult, you can seek assistance.

None of these adjustments takes away the basic unfairness of the setup. This unfairness has a hidden good: although not all students receive the same thing from a lesson, it remains an offering; in other words, there is something to be received from it. In addition, quality and “reach” are not always at odds with each other; a course can begin by reaching only a few students and end by reaching the majority, simply because of the influence of the instruction.

So I will posit that the unfairness of education should not be eradicated across the board; to the contrary, educators should consider which aspects of the unfairness to preserve, and which to discard or mitigate.

Let us take the controversy over the “specialized” high schools (that is, elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant) in New York City. There is currently great pressure on these schools to increase their racial and ethnic diversity. This brings up a dilemma.

On the one hand, there’s good reason for them to retain their admissions standards. The entrance exam does test math and reading proficiency and mental stamina–prerequisites for the academic work that the schools require. Granted, any single test is an imperfect measure, for a variety of reasons–but once you get into “multiple measures,” you risk lowering the standards for admission. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly intelligent, competent, and focused African American and Hispanic students. It’s worth asking what could be done to admit more of them to the specialized schools.

(For instance, Brooklyn Latin had a practice–and maybe still does–of working with students who just barely fell short of the cut on the test. Another option would be to adopt a double measure: the test and a piece of academic work, for instance.)

In other words, there are several kinds of unfairness at work here. Some kinds are essential to the nature of the specialized schools; other kinds could be eradicated.

In short, certain kinds of unfairness in education are inevitable, even good, while other kinds are not. Making education completely fair will destroy its essence; complacency with all unfairness will make it brittle and cruel. One must sort out the different kinds of unfairness and decide which ones should stay and which should go.

Unpacking epiphany

What “big ideas” do people discuss at ideas festivals? At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival (which runs through tomorrow), some people are discussing how to measure imagination and creativity. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Imagination Institute, we are  failing to identify creative students; some get labeled as learning disabled.

Before continuing, I must admit to two things: serious doubt that “big ideas” ultimately carry the day (I generally favor medium-sized ideas, though I consider the quality of an idea more important than its size), and occasional fascination with some of them. Overall, I favor pursuing these ideas but not jumping to conclusions about their applications and implications.

For instance, this passage (from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) struck me as interesting, though not revelatory, since it meshes with my own experience:

Meanwhile, Mark Beeman wants to unpack epiphany. One thing Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found is that, before a sudden insight, people show increased activity in several parts of the brain including an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. Also, before an insight, people tend to be focused on something other than the problem they’re trying to solve, like playing with their kids or taking a shower.

But I would be wary of a pedagogical approach that involved steering students onto another topic in order to produce an insight about the topic left behind. “Ok, everyone, stop what you’re doing and draw a tree!”

Identifying creative students is a worthy goal, but creativity comes in many forms, and I doubt one test, or even a “battery” of tests, could detect them all. The Chronicle article notes the limitations of current creativity tests:

The tools that we now have to measure creativity are fairly crude. A researcher might ask someone to list alternate uses for a bowl and then count the number of ideas he or she comes up with. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t get at the deep creativity necessary to become a brilliant physicist or a mind-blowing sculptor. Something else is going on there, and it’s worth figuring out what it is.

Amen. Too often I have seen creativity equated with brainstorming, and they are not the same.

One possibility–not mentioned in the article–is that “deep creativity” has something to do with deep involvement in a particular subject or medium. That is, you aren’t “creative” in a vacuum; it’s your relation to the subject that draws your creativity out. Also, there’s a doggedness that goes with creativity. It isn’t a static trait.

Thus, even if we had better creativity tests, there’s still a good chance that people would get mislabeled. It’s one thing to show some traits that are generally associated with creativity; it’s another to do something with them.

There’s much more to say on this subject–but since I’m traveling today, I’ll leave it at that.

Of widgets and failure

What’s a school to do if it looks like students just aren’t doing so well this year?

EXTRA CREDIT FOR EVERYONE!

Report cards for Montgomery County’s 151,000 students were mailed Friday after a three-day delay that followed a mass recalculation of final exam grades for Algebra 1, according to the school system.

Schools officials said late Friday that they added 15 percentage points to all Algebra 1 exam scores after they became aware that already-high rates of failure had risen markedly.

You’re not misreading that. Scores were too low. So they just gave everyone an extra 15 points on the final.

Now I’m not wholly against shaping grade outcomes to meet a predetermined distribution. Fixed curves are better at differentiating, and the competition they breed tends to really push students to excel. (Unfortunately, they have the side effect of making those on the bottom end of things feel like giving up.) This happens in the hard sciences and math all of the time, where a 40% on a final is often a B+.

But this is something different.

Erick Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said the main cause of the failure spike appears to have been a loss of instructional time in the spring semester, as teachers prepared students for state exams required for graduation.

The preparation for state exams took two to three weeks out of the semester, he said.

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Lang said that officials added the extra points so that students would not be penalized for a problem they did not create.

So let me get this straight. I’m trying to be charitable here, and assume that the district isn’t just inflating grades across the board to cover up their own failure (which very well may be the case).

The district has an Algebra I course that covers, let’s call it A1, where A1 is the set of Algebraic topics {1,2,3,4}. And the district also has a test which covers A1. But the state has a test that covers A2, which is the set of topics {1,2,3,5}, let’s say.

So the teachers teach A2 as their algebra class, sacrificing the time that would have been spent teaching topic 4, and instead teaching topic 5. Because it’s a state test and presumably there are money, jobs, and other things at stake.

So then they give the district test, and a huge number of students are unprepared to be tested on topic 4, because they never learned it. Because the teachers weren’t teaching it. Because they were teaching A2 instead of A1.

And… wait for it…. wait for it…

APPARENTLY NO ONE REALIZED THAT THE STUDENTS WEREN’T BEING TAUGHT TOPIC 4 UNTIL THE DISTRICT TEST RESULTS CAME BACK. If the district is to be believed.

Does that about sum it up?

This is what happens when you treat youth education like a mass-scale industrial process and not like the series of interpersonal relationships that it’s supposed to be. You get product defects that affect production runs of hundreds and thousands of widgets. Except those widgets are students. And no one is paying attention because they’re all trusting the system.

You know who should be an absolute authority on what sort of test is given as a final to an Algebra class? The Algebra Teachers. If you’re a teacher, and you’re letting someone else design your final exam (a questionable situation in the first place), and you don’t know exactly what’s in that final exam, then you’ve failed at your job.

And if you do know what’s in that exam, and you don’t teach it? You’ve failed at your job. And if you agree to teach a subject knowing that you can’t teach it in the time allotted? You’ve failed at your job. And if you don’t take a few hours at the beginning of the term to get a handle on exactly what you need to teach and how much time you’ll have to teach it? You’ve failed at your job.

And if you do all of the things you have to to succeed at your job, and you recognize the $#!+storm coming down the tracks, and you recognize that you are not in fact going to be teaching your students something on which they will be tested by the community, and you take the community’s money knowing that you can’t possibly do what’s being asked, why then you’re a fraud and a coward.

Now my purpose isn’t to rag on teachers, here. My purpose is to explain that the district seems to be putting out a story in which the best-case scenario is that every single one of their Algebra I teachers is entirely unfit for his or her position as an Algebra I teacher.

In the first case, I hope that the teachers realize this, and object. In the second case, I doubt it’s true. I smell a rat.

UPDATE: Fixed an effect/affect error.

Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.

Moats: Core fail

Common Core standards are appropriate for the “most academically able” students, says Louisa Moats in a Psychology Today interview. At least half of students will not be able to meet the standards. A nationally known expert on teaching reading, Moats helped write the standards.

Students doomed to “fail” core-aligned tests need a “range of educational choices and pathways to high school graduation, employment, and citizenship,” says Moats. Notice she doesn’t mention college.

The standards call for the use of “more challenging and complex texts,” which will benefit older students, she says. But that may hurt younger students.

Novice readers (typically through grade 3) need a stronger emphasis on the foundational skills of reading, language, and writing than on the “higher level” academic activities that depend on those foundations, until they are fluent readers.

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach the new standards, says Moats.

Classroom teachers are confused, lacking in training and skills to implement the standards, overstressed, and the victims of misinformed directives from administrators who are not well grounded in reading research.

. . . The standards treat the foundational language, reading, and writing skills as if they should take minimal time to teach and as if they are relatively easy to teach and to learn. They are not. The standards call for raising the difficulty of text, but many students cannot read at or above grade level, and therefore may not receive enough practice at levels that will build their fluency gradually over time.

Teachers have received no sensible guidance on how to teach students with learning disabilities, she adds.

  What little time there is for professional development is being taken up by poorly designed workshops on teaching comprehension of difficult text or getting kids to compose arguments and essays. This will not be good for the kids who need a systematic, explicit form of instruction to reach basic levels of academic competence.

I’ve been around a long time, and this feels like 1987 all over again, with different words attached to the same problems. When will we ever learn?

This is a devastating critique.

Via DCGEducator.

A 9-year-old faces the Core

Chrispin Alcindor was a star student in the early grades, but he fell way behind in third and fourth grade, reports the New York Times in Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes.

Is it the new curriculum’s shift from rote learning to understanding concepts? (The Times assumes that no teacher tried to teach understanding in the pre-Core era.) Or is it the Haitian-American boy’s subpar reading skills?

A pet store has 18 hamsters. The shop owner wants to put 3 hamsters in each cage. How many cages does the shop owner need for all the hamsters?

Math had always been Chrispin’s favorite subject. Wherever he went, he was counting: Jeeps, pennies and basketball scores. He liked the satisfaction of arriving at a neat, definitive answer and not having to worry about things like spelling and grammar.

But as he worked on practice questions one day, the hamster problem stumped him:

Draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem.

Write a division equation for the problem.

Write a multiplication equation for the problem.

How many cages does the shop owner need?

Chrispin scribbled aimlessly in the margins. He hated word problems, a hallmark of the Common Core. Ms. Matthew had once told him to act like a detective and look for “clue words.” If a question referred to a “border” or “outside,” for example, it was asking for its perimeter. “Math is very, very, very, very logical,” she had said.

But Chrispin did not see any clues before him. After a few minutes of intense reading, he settled on an answer: 6. But he still did not fully understand the question. He could not remember what an array even looked like.

At Chrispin’s school in Brooklyn, producing the right answer isn’t enough. Students “had to demonstrate exactly what three times five meant by shading in squares on a grid.”

The Times prints Chrispin’s letter to Carmen Fariña, New York City’s schools chancellor, about standardized testing. If he only he really wrote this well . . .

They don’t know and they don’t care

Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don’t Give A Shit? asks The Onion.

‘Test and punish’ is a state of mind

Test-and-Punish Accountability is a State of Mind, not the State of Reality, argues Anne Hyslop , a New America Foundation policy analyst.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten want to move from “test-and-punish” accountability to a system built on “support-and-improve.”

President Clinton already tried that, Hyslop writes. “Support-and-improve”  became “do-nothing.”

Even when states and district do something to improve schools, results are meager.

After billions invested in retooled School Improvement Grants since 2010, with more resources and more intensive strategies, many under-performing schools have seen no improvements, and a third declines, under the program. Meanwhile, the research on NCLB-style accountability—with consequences—has found positive effects on student achievement, especially for low-performing students and in math.

Furthermore, the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” has vanished, Hyslop writes. “Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

The accountability moratorium will last till 2017 — or longer.

Most reformers believes states should try new “support-and-improve” approaches “in tandem with meaningful accountability systems,” not as an alternative, she writes.

What is incompatible with the support-and-improve mindset is the choices of some elected officials, school administrators, and educators. If drill-and-kill, or weeks of rote test prep, or a testing week “pep rally” is the best you can come up with in response to a system of accountability, then something went terribly wrong, and it isn’t the test.

Transform the response to accountability, Hyslop argues. The test-and-punish culture is a very bad choice. “There are alternatives that don’t sacrifice high-quality, rich instruction at the altar of test-based accountability.”