Exam schools pushed on admissions

New York City’s elite high schools admit students who excel on a 2 1/2-hour exam. A majority are Asian-American. Only 12 percent are Hispanic or black. The teachers union and a group of Democratic legislators want to use multiple measures, including grade point averages, attendance and state tests in addition to the current admissions exam.

Advocates of the bill say using one test favors students whose parents can afford tutoring to prepare for the test.

However, at six of the schools, at least 45 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the city.

Many of the high-scoring Asian-American students come from immigrant families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Simcha Felder, hopes to add subjective criteria such as essays, community service, interviews and extracurricular activities.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also backed a holistic review. “If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” he said.

Political support is weak, reports the New York Times.

Mayor de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, said last year that the test should not be the only way to qualify for the elite schools. But he hasn’t come out for the bill yet.

Alumni groups are opposed.

While expressing support for increasing minority enrollment, in ways like providing them with more test preparation, Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that the existing system was simple and had “a number of benefits,” including “no favoritism, no bias, whether intentional or subconscious, no politics.”

There may be political support to revive the “Discovery” program, which gave intensive summer help to students who just missed the score cutoff to help them qualify by September. The program lost funding due to budget cuts.

Not everyone hates tests

Test-bashing may be fashionable but two new polls show considerable support for testing by teachers, students and the public, writes Jill Barshay in Hechinger’s Education By The Numbers.
Source: NWEA

Graduation exams are backed by 77 percent of teachers and 86 percent of the public, according to Teachers versus the Public. “Accountability is one of the issues where the public and teachers agree,” said author Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor. (Here’s more on the book.)

Ninety-four percent of students agree that tests are important for understanding what they are learning, according to a survey by Northwest Evaluation Association, a non-profit test designer.

In 2011, 60 percent of teachers said too much time was spent on test prep and test taking. In 2013, only 53 percent of teachers thought too much student time was devoted to testing.

“Formative assessment is shown to have the most positive impact on teaching and learning, yet it’s least understood and not widely practiced,” concludes the report. Only 29 percent of teachers correctly identified a definition of formative assessment. (Checking for understanding in order to modify teaching.) Most could not identify summative or diagnostic assessment either.

Louis CK ignites belated Core debate

The Common Core revolt started with baffled parents who went online to complain about their children’s “core-aligned” homework. Now a parent with 3 million Twitter followers — comedian Louis CK — blames the Common Core for making his kids hate math. 186296970-290.jpeg Louis, we feel your pain write Rick Hess and Michael McShane, American Enterprise Institute fellows and editors of Common Core Meets Education Reform, in the New York Daily News. Common Core defenders think Louis CK really is upset about testing, not about the new standards, write Hess and McShane. The homework “questions he flagged should not be blamed on the core,” defenders argue. But there’s a reason for the anti-Core backlash, write Hess and McShane. Common Core state standards — billed as a “landmark” change in American education — slipped in under the radar. The press didn’t do its job. The issues were not “hashed out in robust public debate.” In 2009, the year the draft standards were first released, a search finds only 453 mentions of the “Common Core.”  That goes up to 1,729 in 2010 when the final standards were introduced and adopted by 38 states and Washington D.C.

That year, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cheerfully observed, “This profound … shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

By 2013, when “the issue exploded into the national consciousness,”  most “states had been implementing the standards for years.”

Some criticism of the Common Core has been hyperbolic and rife with dubious claims. But today’s seemingly “misinformed” pushback may be mostly a case of frustrated citizens waking up to a fait accompli. . . . Stealth is a dubious strategy for pursuing fundamental change in 100,000 schools educating 50 million children.

If Common Core standards had been debated openly five years ago . . . But they weren’t.

Core “supporters cannot claim credit for the adoption of clearer and more rigorous standards and then wash our hands of anything bad that happens in the name of implementation,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper.

Parents don’t distinguish between standards, curriculum and instruction, she writes.  “And what more than a few parents are seeing is confusing curriculum, too much time spent on test prep, and too many days spent toiling on assessments.”

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.

SRI: Khan helps kids learn math

Nine schools that use Khan Academy math lessons are seeing gains in achievement and confidence, an SRI study reports.  

Use of the free online lessons is associated with less math anxiety, reports EdSurge News.

71% of students liked Khan Academy; 32% liked math more as a result of using it;

85% of teachers believe it had a positive impact on student’s understanding of math; 86% would recommend it to other teachers;

Most teachers use Khan videos to supplement their instruction. Only 20 percent used Khan to introduce new concepts.

It’s too soon to say that Khan works in the classroom, the report stresses. “No single implementation model was used across all the sites, and Khan Academy was not used as the sole, or even primary source of math instruction at most sites, making it difficult to isolate its effects.”

Khan Academy will help prepare students for Common Core math testing, Sal Khan announced last week. The web site now includes thousands of math problems aligned to every Common Core math standard in grades K-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.

Common Core-ification of the SAT

In The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, College Board president David Coleman tells the New York Times what the exam will look like in a few years.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. . . . The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer.

All this sounds a lot like the emphasis in Common Core standards, which Coleman helped write.

The math section will focus on problem solving and data analysis, linear equations and the “passport to advanced math,” which will test “the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.”

The SAT revisions are a  big mistake, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country.  Coleman’s initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission.  As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.

The exam will be “dumbed down” to serve a “social justice” agenda, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

Rick Hess is “unwowed.” It’s supposed to be a more rigorous test, but the vocabulary expectations will be “dumbed down,” Hess writes. 

The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the “tricks” that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. . . .  I’d bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach “close reading” and otherwise adjusted to the new test.

Eliminating the mandatory essay is supposed to promote fairness and test validity, writes Hess. Not so long ago,  the essay was introduced to promote fairness and test validity.

Finally, he worries about “the Common Core’ification of the SAT.”  By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board risks politicizing the exam  and disadvantages students in non-Core states.

SAT goes back to 1600

By 2016, the SAT will drop the required essay, bringing a perfect score back to 1600, simplify vocabulary, cover fewer math topics and more closely resemble what students learn in high school, College Board has announced. Students won’t lose quarter points for wrong answers on multiple-choice questions, a policy designed to penalize random guessing.

Khan Academy will provide free test-prep tutorials online, reports the Washington Post.

“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the learning students do over years,” said David Coleman, the College Board’s president.

Students will be able to finish the exam in three hours, if they skip the optional essay section, which will take 50 minutes. (To avoid exhaustion, students can take the SAT II composition test on another day.)

The math section will tighten its focus on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics leading into advanced math. Calculators, now permitted throughout the math section, will be barred in some portions to help gauge math fluency.

The section now called “critical reading” will be merged with multiple-choice writing questions to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Questions known as “sentence completion,” which in part assess vocabulary, will be dropped. Analysis of passages in science, history and social studies will be expanded.

And each version of the test will include a passage from documents crucial to the nation’s founding, or core civic texts from sources such as President Abraham Lincoln or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The vocabulary will focus on “words that are widely used in college and career.” For example, “synthesis” is used in college, said Coleman.

Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who serves on a College Board advisory panel, said the test revisions would “reward students who take high school seriously, who are real readers, who write well.” She said she was loath to drop from the exam a word such as “egalitarian,” which appears in one College Board practice test. But she said: “Maybe we can live without ‘phlegmatic.’ ”

The essay never caught on with college admissions officers, reports the New York Times.  Writing quickly, with no time for research or revision, isn’t a college skill.  

The new SAT will be more like the ACT, which has been attracting more students. However, the ACT includes a science section, while the SAT will have only a science reading passage.

“Obscure” words give us powers of description, clarity and insight, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. “Words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.”

When grownups take the SAT

SAT Taking the SAT as an adult is a harrowing experience, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

She was inspired by Debbie Stier, a 46-year-old mother who took the test seven times in hopes of motivating her son, a B student. Obsessed with earning a perfect score, Stier tried various SAT-prep methods. She ended up with a book, The Perfect Score Project.

Since 2005, the SAT has included an essay. Kolbert had to write on whether progress requires struggle and conflict. From reading Stier’s book, she knew the key to scoring well is a clear thesis. “Declare, don’t waffle,” Stier advises.  “Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog,” Kolbert puts it.

There was no time to argue the premise or question the definition of progress. Kolbert went with “No pain, no gain.”

I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s famous line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier’s advice—“Details count; factual accuracy doesn’t”— I made something up.

Kolbert, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, doesn’t report her scores.

Stier tells all. As a high school student in 1982, she received a below-average 410 on the verbal and a 480 on the math. But she was able to go to Bennington College and build a successful career as a book publicist. Stier didn’t think that would work for her son.

No longer, she’s concluded, can a kid from an affluent suburban community expect to waltz his or her way into a decent college, and from there back into an affluent suburban community.

On her fifth try, Stier scored a perfect 800 on the writing section, 740 in reading and 560 in math.
Her son, Ethan, did well enough on his SATs to get into Loyola University in Baltimore. Test prep taught him to “set goals and work hard,” he believes. “You have to have all the basic skills down before you try to learn any tricks because without a solid base of math and grammar, you won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough on the test.”

Still, his mother is doing test prep differently with her daughter. Before they start test prep, “I’m having her go back and shore up the fundamentals of math, grammar and reading,” Stier says. “I have her read the New York Times every day and we go over all the vocabulary words she doesn’t know, and we discuss the articles, starting with the main idea, which is a great exercise for the SAT reading section.”

It sounds educational.