Rhee: Opting out of tests is wrong answer

Opting out of standardized tests is the wrong answer, argues Michelle Rhee in the Washington Post.

Stepping on the bathroom scale can be nerve-racking, but it tells us if that exercise routine is working. . . . In education, tests provide an objective measurement of how students are progressing — information that’s critical to improving public schools.

“Test-crazed districts need to be reeled in,” Rhee writes. But urban students spend just 1.7 percent of class time preparing for and taking standardized tests, according to a Teach Plus study.

 Tests are just one measure, of many, that we should consider when determining how well public schools are serving kids. Let’s gather every piece of information available, and let’s not forget that standardized tests are meant to be objective, unlike other indicators such as peer reviews.

We need better tests, writes Rhee. “Well-built exams can tell us whether the curriculum is adequate. They can help teachers hone their skills. They can let parents know whether their child’s school is performing on par with the one down the street, or on par with schools in the next town or the neighboring state.”

Rhee doesn’t think much of the argument that testing is stressful for kids. “Life can be stressful,” she writes. “The alternative is to hand out trophies just for participating, give out straight A’s for fear of damaging a kid’s ego — and continue to fall further and further behind as a country.”

Why I opted my child out — of test prep

I opted my child out—not of tests, but of test prep, writes Matthew Levey on Chalkbeat.

My wife and I won’t refuse to have our children tested. Taxpayers spend $25 billion a year on K-12 education in New York City. Someone needs to check not just that the money is not wasted, but more importantly, that children’s lives are not wasted.

Tests aren’t the problem, argues Levey. It’s the time-wasting test prep.

If we instead committed to building our students’ background knowledge through a comprehensive, coherent, and sequenced curriculum that includes foreign language, arts and music, we’d make our children’s education more meaningful, and the lives of their teachers far less stressful.

And students would do fine on tests.

Until then, he and his wife have asked that their children be given  extra independent reading time instead of test prep. “Their teachers have been uniformly supportive,” Levey writes.

Teachers: New tests are ‘soul crushing’

Teachers say New York’s new Common Core English exams are “stressful,” “exhausting,” “confusing” and “soul crushing,” reports Chalkbeat. Teachers posted their reviews on an online forum, Testing Talk.

With questions calling for “close reading,” students ran out of time, many teachers complained.

“When I announced there was only ten minutes remaining, more than half my class had not even started the extended response!” one teacher commented

“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher lamented. “Today the objective was speed.”

The eighth-grade test featured a Shakespearean poem that was “extremely difficult,” one teacher said.

Third graders faced “obscure vocabulary and unapproachable plot line” in a reading passage drawn from a 1950s book, another teacher wrote.

In affluent Park Slope, known for excellent public schools, a principal e-mailed parents to complain about the “terrible test,” reports New York Magazine.

“There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages,” wrote (Elizabeth) Phillips. “Our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability.”

“I have never felt more devalued and outraged about a statewide test,” a Brooklyn teacher told parents in a separate recruiting email. “I really need you to help make a vocal stand against these high stakes tests.”

April madness

Forget about March madness, writes Pia de Jong. April is the craziest month for high school students and their parents. College admissions is an insanely stressful game, she writes in the Washington Post.

De Jong and her husband moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 2012. Their 15-year-old son is being courted by colleges already. Friends urged them to visit a private college counselor, who asked the sophomore about  his goal in life. He doesn’t have one.

His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox.

Afterward, the consultant said: “Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life.”

De Jong wants her son to have a chance to drift, “mess around, make mistakes” and enjoy himself. “The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training,” she writes.

The Dutch do it differently.

When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools.

. . . if you’re on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. . . . There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.

De Jong admits the Dutch system “closes off opportunities early.” Late bloomers can try to switch to the university track, but it’s not easy.

Determining children’s futures based on a test taken at age 12 . . . That’s not a minor glitch.

All U.S. high school graduates can go to college, if they wish. Nearly half go to low-cost, open-admissions community colleges. Another large group go to unselective or not-very-selective colleges and universities. Only the best students — perhaps the top 20 percent — are competing for places in very selective colleges and universities. They may not get into a top-choice school, but they get in somewhere. (Can they afford it? Good students usually can get scholarship aid.)

For those trying to get into elite colleges, the system may favor “cautious careerists” over mistake-making drifters. But at least non-conformists aren’t put on the trade-school track at 12.

New SAT won’t kill test prep

However the SAT is changed, test prep isn’t going anywhere, writes James S. Murphy, an SAT tutor, in The Atlantic.

David Coleman, the president of College Board, thinks companies that offer SAT prep services are “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.”

It’s not the test prep companies that make students anxious, writes Murphy. It’s the test.

Although more schools than ever are making SAT scores optional for application, good test prep will remain important as long as high-stakes, time-constrained, multiple-choice exams are being used to determine who gets admitted to the most selective colleges and universities. Since most of the metrics these colleges use to determine who to accept are based on indelible aspects of a person’s identity or long-term accomplishments like GPA and extracurricular activities, it would be foolish for a student not to try to improve the one thing that can be improved in a relatively short amount of time.

Tricks don’t make much difference, he argues.

Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it, “Competence breeds confidence.”

College Board is partnering with Khan Academy, which will offer free SAT test prep online. That validates the test prep companies’ contention that test prep is helpful.

SAT correlates with family income because more-educated and affluent parents  develop their children’s vocabularies and general knowledge, pay for homes near good public schools or pay for private school tuition, hire tutors if their kids need help in elementary, middle and high school, etc. The advantage is huge long before the student thinks about how to prep for the SAT.

If you don’t have a clue, guess. The new SAT eliminates the penalty for wrong answers, observes Walt Hickey on FiveThirtyEight. That adds “noise” to the results.

Homework horror? Not for most kids

Homework horror stories are true for a small group of students, but most U.S. students aren’t working harder than in the past, according to Brookings’ 2014 Report on American Education. Nine-year-olds are more likely to have homework — usually less than an hour’s worth — but the workload hasn’t changed much for older students. Only 7 percent of 13-year-olds and 13 percent of 17-year-olds say they spent more than two hours on homework on the previous day. Studying is not a top priority for collegebound seniors, reports UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Asked about their senior year in high school, more than half of college freshmen say they spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends (66.2%) and exercising/sports (53.0%).  About 40% devoted that much weekly time to paid employment. Homework ranks fourth: Only 38.4% say they spent six or more hours a week on their studies. “The survey is confined to the nation’s best students, those attending college,” notes the report. “And yet only a little more than one-third of the sampled students, devoted more than six hours per week to homework and studying when they were on the verge of attending college.”

Most parents say their children get the right amount of homework. Of those who disagree, more say their kids get too little than too much. “The homework horror stories . . .  seem to originate from the very personal discontents of a small group of parents,” Brookings concludes.

The homework burden is heavy at high-performing schools in affluent neighborhoods. Students competing to get into elite colleges work very hard. But the average student is not studying very much.

Too much homework

Homework Can Turn Your Kid Into a Stressed-Out Wreck, writes J.D. Tuccille on Reason‘s Hit & Run. But the homework burden falls much more heavily on affluent students.

At high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class communities, students average more than three hours of homework a night, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education.

Students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school but also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives.

My daughter went to a high-performing Silicon Valley high school.  She averaged three hours of homework a night.

Test prep explains only a small part of the large gap in SAT scores between rich and poor kids, writes Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution  Perhaps, in addition to being the children of better-educated,  smarter parents, affluent kids go to schools that make them work harder.

Despicable SAT

Save Us From the SAT, writes Jennifer Finney Boylan, an English professor, in the New York Times.

The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.

The problems with the test are well known. It measures memorization, not intelligence. It favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses. It freaks students out so completely that they cannot even think.

Boylan wants college admissions officers to consider what applicants’ “schools are like; how they’ve done in their courses; what they’ve chosen to study; what progress they’ve made over time; how they’ve reacted to adversity.” That’s very expensive — and very subjective.

The new (sort of like the old) SAT

The Onion lists upcoming changes to the SAT:

In response to accusations of cultural bias, all questions to now only refer to 13th-century Mongolia

Reading comprehension section will test students on their ability to differentiate between the foolhardy Goofus and his more responsible brother, Gallant

Eliminates stress by reminding test takers that whatever college they’re admitted to, they still won’t be able to get a job

Also from The Onion:  The parents of 20-year-old Patrick Tobin have advised their son to devote himself to pursuing an improv comedy education. “Remember, this is an investment in yourself, one that will pay you back many times over,” said his mother, Rhonda.

Hard working, high scoring — and creative

“Let others have the higher test scores” on international exams, says anti-reformer Diane Ravitch. “I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people.” 

It’s a false tradeoff, argues Brandon Wright on Flypaper. Those hard-working, high-scoring Koreans and Japanese could be just as innovative as Americans.  

Bloomberg News lists the most innovative countries in the world based on factors including R&D intensity, productivity, high-tech density and percentage of researchers. The U.S. is third, but look at who’s number one.

  1. South Korea (score: 92.10)
  2. Sweden (score: 90.80)
  3. United States (score: 90.69)
  4. Japan (score: 90.41)
  5. Germany (score: 88.23)

Yes, it’s those cram-schooled, stress-crazed Koreans who’ve built a thriving economy out of the ruins of war.

South Korea — often ridiculed for working its students too hard and robbing them of creative, independent thought — might be the most innovative country in the world. Japan, subject to similar derision, slides in comfortably at number four.

“Rigid” Germany — one of only three countries whose PISA math and equity scores have improved since 2003 — is number five on Bloomberg’s list.

“No trade-offs between academic performance and innovation are obvious,” Wright concludes.