Testing fail

Steve Rasmussen, an education consultant, has written a devastating critique of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) math tests that will be administered to more than 10 million students in 17 states.

Citing test items, he concludes that many violate the standards they’re supposed to assess, can’t be answered with the technology provided, use confusing and hard-to-use interfaces and will be graded “in such a way that incorrect answers are identified as correct and correct.”

Parents are right to boycott the SBAC test, Rasmussen writes.

As you’ll see as you look at these test items with me, a quagmire of poor technological design, poor interaction design, and poor mathematical design hopelessly clouds the insights the tests might give us into students’ understanding of mathematics. If the technology-enhanced items on the Smarter Balanced practice and training tests are indicative of the quality of the actual tests coming this year — and Smarter Balanced tells us they are — the shoddy craft of the tests will directly and significantly contribute to students’ poor scores.

Teachers will need to prep students on how to use the confusing tools, he adds.

Elizabeth Willoughby, a fifth-grade teacher in Michigan, has posted a video of her tech-savvy students struggling to figure out how to enter numbers on a practice test.

PARCC, the other federally funded testing consortium, also has produced a confusing, poorly designed exam, according to Save Our Schools NJ. “In the early grades, the tests end up being as much a test of keyboarding skills” as of English or math competence, the group argues.

As a farmer, Colorado State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg uses math to analyze “cost, production and profit, and quite often, loss,” he wrote. He got the right answers on the PARCC practice math test, but failed because he didn’t “show my work” in the approved way, he complains. Sonnenberg also struggled with the software.

Florida dumped PARCC and scrambled to create its own exam. The rollout of the computerized test created a “catastrophic meltdown,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Miami Herald.

The education of Jeb Bush

In Testing Time, The New Yorker’s Alec MacGillis looks at Jeb Bush’s approach to education reform as governor of Florida.

In 1995, Bush joined the board of the Heritage Foundation, “which was generating papers and proposals to break up what it viewed as the government-run monopoly of the public-school system through free-market competition, with charters and private-school vouchers,” writes MacGillis. He became a fan of school choice.

Bush worked with Willard Fair of the Urban League’s Miami branch to push a state law authorizing charter schools. It passed with bipartisan support in 1996.

Bush and Fair founded Florida’s first charter school in an impoverished, largely African-American section of Miami.

Bush brought his mother in for classroom visits and dropped by unannounced to make sure that things were running smoothly. If he found wastepaper lying around, he’d leave it on the desk of the principal, Katrina Wilson-Davis. The message was clear, she recalls: “Just because kids are poor and at risk doesn’t mean that their environment shouldn’t be clean and orderly.”

When he made a second run for governor, in 1998, he chose Florida’s education commissioner as his running mate and pushed the A+ Plan to hold schools accountable for their students’ performance. He won easily.

(The plan) provided additional funding to schools with good grades and stipulated that students at schools with poor grades would receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.

. . . By the end of Bush’s second term, fourth-grade reading scores in the state had improved sharply, though eighth- and tenth-grade scores were more middling.

Bush is a strong supporter of the Common Core, which he’s called a “clear and straightforward” path to “high, lofty standards.” That’s hurting him with conservatives, writes MacGillis.

How many testing days?

States Listen as Parents Give Rampant Testing an F, reported the New York Times. “In Florida, which tests students more frequently than most other states, many schools this year will dedicate on average 60 to 80 days out of the 180-day school year to standardized testing.”

Can that be true? asked Alexander Russo.

No, it’s not.

Sixty to 80 days “turned out to be the total number of days during which testing could be conducted,” rather than the number of days students spend testing, writes Russo.

The figure didn’t refer to an “every kid, all day situation,” concedes the New York Times Miami bureau chief, Lizette Alvarez.

That’s a huge difference. It deserves a correction, not just a tweet.

Florida drops special-ed diploma

Florida’s special-ed students must take college-prep classes required for a standard diploma, reports The Ledger. A new state law has abolished the special diploma alternative. .

At Roosevelt Academy, a school for learning-disabled students in Lake Wales, ninth-graders were transferred from intensive math to Algebra I two months into the school year to comply with the law.

The special diploma is not accepted by state universities and may not be accepted by state colleges, technical centers, employers or the military.

But at Roosevelt Academy, teachers don’t encourage their students to go to college.

“We tell them that if you want to go to college, don’t come to our school,” said Phillip Miles, a life skills math teacher. “We’re preparing you for work, not college.”

Miles’ students are way behind in math. His class taught practical skills such as how to make a budget or calculate sales tax.

About 80 percent of Roosevelt Academy graduates have jobs by the time they collect their special diploma. That’s goal they and their parents set when creating an Individualized Education Plan.

Till now, special-ed students could earn a special diploma by mastering the “employment and community competencies” in the IEP and completing a semester of successful employment.

Now all students will have till age 22 to pursue a standard diploma — or settle for a certificate of completion.

Teachers are supposed to make college-prep courses accessible for disabled students.

In geometry, for example, a student who has trouble writing or speaking might point to an equilateral triangle rather than draw one or explain why it is equilateral.

. . . “They have to fail for four years before they even get a certificate of completion,” said Henry Smith, vocational teacher and career placement coordinator for Roosevelt. “I guarantee you the dropout rate is going to be astronomical.”

Seventeen states offer only a standard diploma, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Remediation rates plummet in Florida

Remedial enrollment has dropped by half this year at Broward College. Students aren’t any better prepared. A a new state law lets Florida high school graduates skip remedial courses, if they choose, and start at the college level.

Common Core will make your kids gay!

Common Core hysteria has hit a new high — or maybe a low. Florida’s Common Core testing company, American Institutes for Research, is trying to “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can,” charged Rep. Charles Van Zant at an anti-Core conference.

Later, he repeated that AIR is“supportive” of gay agenda reports Think Progress. In addition to its education work, AIR researches ways to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “two-spirit” youth, the Republican legislator complains.

$10K degree isn’t impossible after all

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged public universities to craft four-year degrees costing no more than $10,000, many said it was impossible. Three years later, 12 Texas universities have announced $10,000 bachelor’s degrees and the idea has spread to Florida, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Core English in action

At a Florida middle school, the Common Core doesn’t just mean new standards, educators believe. It calls for”a package of teaching techniques – such as students working in small and large groups,” writes John O’Connor on the Hechinger Report.

Dawn Norris plans lessons for her sixth graders, but has given up some control. “It’s up to students to question, challenge and prod each other toward the goal written on the classroom whiteboard.”
A classroom chart explaining the differences between claims, claim evidence and commentary. Hillsborough County schools are teaching the Three Cs as the building blocks of student writing. (Photo: John O'Connor)
Norris breaks the students into groups to write about how different cultures tell the same fairy story.

Two girls discuss Chinye, a West African version of Cinderella.

“And that’s your claim, which is your topic sentence,” one boy tells another. “This is your thesis, the central claim.”

“Supporting ideas with evidence from a text is a central pillar of the Common Core language arts standards,” writes O’Connor.

“In Christina Phillips’ sixth-grade classroom, students learn about the “three C’s – claim, claim evidence and commentary.”

“This pig made his house of bricks,” reads Phillips. “Is that factual evidence from the text? Or is that my opinion?”

“That’s evidence!” a student says.

Ready or not, here they come

Ready or not, most  Florida college students are skipping remedial classes under a new state law that lets unprepared students start at the college level, if they wish.

Algebra II or welding?

 States are dropping college-prep-for-all requirements  in a school standards rebellion, writes Stephanie Simon on Politico

Florida students no longer need chemistry, physics or Algebra II to graduate from high school. Texas just scrapped its Algebra II requirement. And Washington state has dropped its foreign language mandate.

. . . They’re letting teens study welding instead of Spanish, take greenhouse management in place of physics and learn car repair instead of muddling over imaginary numbers.

The college-for-all idea is elitist, say career-tech proponents. With rising college debt and more film studies graduates working as bartenders, there’s growing interest in “middle skill” technical jobs. 

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been talking up vocational education recently, but they want all students to have college-level skills, writes Simon. “Especially worrisome” is “the risk that low-income and minority students, as well as children with disabilities, could be pushed into the vocational tracks.”

New Mexico state Rep. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat, has introduced a bill to drop the Algebra II graduation requirement. “We are supposed to be doing college and career readiness, not college and college readiness,” Stewart said.

Indiana State Rep. Wendy McNamara, a Republican, wants to design a vocational diploma with input from local employers.

College prep has crowded out vocational options, argue The Jobs for Texas Coalition. “For 20 years, we’ve been ratcheting up the rigor required to get out of high school, and we started to see unintended consequences,” said Mike Meroney, a spokesman for the coalition.

Letting kids opt out of college prep doesn’t mean they’ll spend a lifetime flipping burgers, Meroney said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists two dozen fast-growing occupations that don’t require higher education and pay $35,000 to $55,000 a year, including heavy equipment operator and car mechanic. “What is the real purpose of education if not to prepare your students for jobs?” Meroney said. “Seriously. That’s what we keep asking.”

While Texas has dropped the Algebra II requirement, Minnesota and Connecticut are phasing in Algebra II mandates, writes Simon. 

New York set new college-ready benchmarks, but won’t expect graduates to be college ready till 2022. Louisiana is aiming for 2025.