Take this test, please

Take This Test (Please), writes John Merrow on Taking Note. He lists five test questions that “may explain why American students score lower than their counterparts in most other advanced nations.”

From the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh [1] for high school students:

Jack shot a deer that weighted (sic) 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.  How much more did Jack’s deer weigh then (sic) Tom’s deer?

From TeacherVision, part of Pearson :

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

Merrow wonders whether students will be “distracted by Linda’s cluelessness,” asking “how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river.”

From a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

a. 2
b. 3
c. 4
d. 8

The new Common Core standards expect students to do more than subtract and count on their fingers by high school, notes Merrow.  

From New York state’s sample tests for eighth graders:

Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A’B’C’ is the resulting image.  What parts of A’B’C’ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle?  Explain your reasoning.

No illustration is provided, says Merrow.

From PISA (for Programme in International Student Assessment), here’s a question for 15-year-olds around the world:

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 pm?

The correct answer (11 am) was provided by 55 percent of 15-year-olds in Shanghai and only 9 percent of U.S. students. 

American kids score highest in “confidence in mathematical ability,” despite underperforming their peers in most other countries, PISA reports.  “Is their misplaced confidence the result of problems like ‘Snakes’ and others of that ilk?” asks Merrow.

Coddled kids vs. high standards

Common Core’s critics — “right-wing alarmists” and “left-wing paranoiacs” — have been joined by parents who think higher standards are too stressful, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. Are Kids Too Coddled? he asks.

Stress is “an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper,” writes Bruni. And school isn’t going to be fun all the time.

Higher standards are traumatizing children, according to New Yorkers at the state’s Common Core hearings.

One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”

A social worker testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.

A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”

“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause.

If children really are falling apart, writes Bruno, maybe it’s because they’ve been protected from blows to their egos. They’ve won trophies for participation. They’ve made “bloated honor rolls.”

“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.” Our global competitors are tougher.  “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”

It’s those white suburban moms.

Duncan disses ‘white suburban moms’

Why the resistance to Common Core standards? “White suburban moms are learning “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told state superintendents Friday.

That’s annoyed Common Core critics.

Duncan believes the alternative is to say, “Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better,” said aide Massie Ritsch in an e-mail to the Washington Post. 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, back the Core, but slammed the rollout:  “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.

Arne Duncan is right, says RiShawn Biddle, a strong Core supporter.

A worksheet for kindergarteners on how to fill in test bubbles –don’t color the pictures! — is for sale on TeachersPayTeachers.com, reports EAG News. Maggie’s Kindergarten charges $5 per download for the test prep practice sheets, which cover Common Core (and non-Core) skills.

Catholic scholars oppose Common Core

More than 100 Catholic scholars have signed a letter to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops urging church leaders to reject Common Core Standards for Catholic schools, reports Education Week. Gerard V. Bradley, a Notre Dame law professor, wrote the letter.

More than 100 dioceses and archdioceses have adopted the new standards, reports Ed Week.

Common Core expects too little of students, charges the letter. The “bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education . . . shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self government.”

Bradley spoke at a Common Core conference at Notre Dame along with other critics such as James Milgram, a Stanford professor emeritus, and Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor. Milgram believes the standards don’t prepare students for college math, especially if they plan math or science majors. Stotsky, who played a leading role in writing Massachusetts’ standards, opposes Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction.

Better than Shanghai

“While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China’s academic gem in the dust,” writes June Kronholz on Education Next.

How do they do it?

“We do an incredible amount of work,” said Alia Gilbert.

Founded in Arizona by economists Michael and Olga Block (she’s Czech), BASIS admits any student — anyone who’s willing to do the work.

Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

Students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score of 3.9 out of 5

BASIS teachers said that they offer slower learners abundant extra help, and that kids rise to meet the schools’ expectations. But at the same time, those expectations may scare off the less-able, less-interested students, which can mean a test-score bump for BASIS. (Sophomore Charlie) Murphy told me that his class had 120 students when they arrived as 5th graders, but the group has dropped to 40, as youngsters have transferred to schools with bigger sports programs, more social offerings, or an easier course load.

The Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the funding for a child in a traditional public school, writes Kronholz. Classes are large. Technology is minimal. With highly motivated and capable students, it doesn’t matter.

A new Washington D.C. school, which enrolls a high percentage of disadvantaged, poorly prepared students, is struggling to accelerate the curriculum, but test scores are far higher than in district schools.

BASIS teachers, who are expected to be “scholars,” start at about $40,000 and peak in the “mid-80s.”  They receive “bonuses based on the number of their students who pass AP exams—$200 for each student who passes with a score of 5; $100 for a 4—but schools must raise money themselves for other performance bonuses.”

BASIS Schools, Inc., a for-profit, “secures the charters, employs the teachers and handles centralized functions.” Each school is a nonprofit that owns its building. New BASIS schools use pre-fab buildings that can be assembled in four months for about $8 million, including the land. That’s half the cost of a typical Phoenix school.

SAT: 43% are college ready

Forty-three percent of SAT takers were prepared for college-level work, according to this year’s SAT Report on College & Career Readiness. Overall, scores were the same, but black and Hispanic students improved slightly.

Students who score 1550 or above on the three-part exam are likely to complete their degree.
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Blacks and Hispanics took less rigorous courses and earned lower grades. Only 27 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanics said they’d earned an A average compared to 60 percent of Asian-Americans and 53 percent of whites.

College Board officials aren’t blaming a larger, more diverse testing pool for the stagnating scores, notes CollegeBound. Diversity is an “excuse,” said David Coleman, president of College Board. “It’s time to really consider how to get many, many more students into rigorous coursework that will enable them to break through a performance freeze that is limiting opportunity.”

NY raises bar for future teachers, principals

Would-be teachers will need a 3.0 grade point average and higher test scores for admission to teacher education at the State University of New York. Standards also will be raised for prospective principals.

“The quality of New York’s higher education system depends on having the best and brightest teachers in our classrooms teaching our students,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. “These new admission requirements will help ensure that we are recruiting from exceptional candidates to educate our state’s students.”

A new Education Trust report, Preparing and Advancing Teachers and School Leaders, calls for “requiring more useful information on teacher and leader preparation programs, promoting meaningful action to improve low-performing programs and sparking innovation in how districts and states manage educator pipelines.”

 “Large numbers of educator preparation programs all across the nation are consuming considerable amounts of public dollars and in turn are pushing out teachers and leaders that are underprepared to meet the needs of today’s students,” said Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust.

Ed Trust calls for changes in federal policy. To qualify for federal student aid, states would have to evaluate teacher and principal education programs on outcomes, such as “tying student learning to graduates.”

The American Federation of Teachers’ 2012 report, Raising the Bar,  had similar recommendations, the union says. These include “the need to raise the rigor of teacher preparation programs, support prospective teachers with effective clinical experiences to assure their readiness to enter the profession, and apply standards equally to traditional and alternative programs. Where we differ is on how to hold teacher preparation programs accountable.”

Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage ” from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
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When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

Critics hit remedial ed reforms

States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education to boost graduation rates. But some say remedial reforms will doom many college students to failure.

Instructors are trying to increase the rigor of developmental classes so students will be prepared to succeed in credit-bearing classes.

Common tests lose support

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia are moving forward on Common Core Standards, but support for common testing is eroding, reports StateImpact.

Georgia will use its own exam, instead of the costlier test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Two of Florida’s top elected leaders want Florida to leave PARCC, even though Florida is the fiscal agent for the testing consortium.

Already Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have left the consortium. Oklahoma plans to design its own test, and Indiana isn’t participating in PARCC governing board meetings right now. State education officials say they’re waiting until after a mandatory legislative review of the Common Core academic standards.

That brings the number of states participating in PARCC down to 18 plus the District of Columbia.

Pennsylvania, Utah and Alabama quit the other testing group, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which now has 24 members. (Some states had joined both groups.)

The crumbling of the testing consortia is a “disaster,” writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.

At this point, I won’t be surprised if we end up with 20 or more different testing systems in 2014–15. So much for commonness, so much for comparability. Rigor and alignment with tough standards are likely the next to fall.

Blinded by “technocratic hubris,” common assessment advocates “underestimated how difficult it would be to undo decades of state policy and practice on tests,” writes Smarick. Governors and state chiefs will be reluctant to spend lots of money for a testing system that will make their schools and teachers look bad, he predicted six months ago.

The Common Core sky isn’t falling, responds Checker Finn, also a Fordhamite. This is “right sizing.”

The forty-five-state thing was always artificial, induced by Race to the Top greed and perhaps a crowd mentality. Never in a million years were we going to see forty-five states truly embrace these rigorous academic expectations for their students, teachers, and schools, meet all the implementation challenges (curriculum, textbooks, technology, teacher prep, etc.), deploy new assessments, install the results of those assessments in their accountability systems, and live with the consequences of zillions of kids who, at least in the near term, fail to clear the higher bar.

It’s “better for states to drop out in advance than to fake it, pretending to use the Common Core standards but never really implementing them,” Finn writes. “That’s long-standing California-style behavior (fine standards, wretched implementation), in contrast with Massachusetts-style behavior (exemplary standards and serious implementation—and results to show for it).”

Most of the drop-out states will keep the standards, but write their own tests or sign up with ACT. They’ll give comparability, “one of the major benefits of commonality,” Finn writes. Some may change their minds later “or face up to the fact that (like Texas and Virginia) they don’t really want to use the Common Core at all.”