Computer use widens writing gap

group elementary school students in computer class Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study.  Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.

The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.

Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

NY asks more on algebra test — and more fail

“If the percentage of students passing the Algebra I exam falls to 63 percent from 72 percent, and the passing grade is scheduled to increase by 9 points in coming years, should the test be made easier?” That’s the question facing New York state education officials, according to the New York Times.

In 2013, the State Board of Regents decided too many high school graduates were unprepared for college. They revamped English and Algebra I exams required for graduation and made plans to raise the passing score to a “college-ready” level.

Pass rates have fallen on new Core-aligned exams. Statewide, less than a quarter of students met the “college-ready” level in Algebra I. Here are sample questions, which seem easy to me.

It’s even worse in New York City, where “only 52 percent of students passed the 2015 exam, down from 65 percent the previous year on the old exam,” reports the Times. “Just 16 percent reached the ‘college-ready’ level.”

Among the ideas the city is considering: having fifth graders take math with a specialized instructor instead of one teacher for all subjects; teaming up with local universities to get more sixth- and seventh-grade math teachers certified in math instruction; creating summer programs for middle- and high-school students who are struggling in math; and training middle-school and algebra teachers in how to address students’ “math anxiety.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged that all students will have access to algebra in eighth grade by 2022, and all students will complete algebra by the end of ninth grade.

At Park East High School in Manhattan, most students enter doing math below grade level, yet 91 percent of students who took the Algebra I Regents this year passed it.

Ninth graders have two periods of algebra each day, which crowds out art, music and health.

Overtested? Not really

“The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” says Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher

Analyzing PISA survey data from more than 70 countries, Schleicher concludes that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the frequency of standardized tests, writes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

High-performing Asian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium test often, he said. “More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month,” reports Barshay. “In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test.”

Only 2 percent of U.S. students take standardized tests every month, while the OECD average is 8 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said they took a standardized test once or twice a year. That’s “about the same share as in Finland,” writes Barshay.

Perhaps Finnish schools spend less time on test prep.

From No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds 

The newest proposed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — this one’s likely to become law by year’s end — has been released. Ed Week’s Politics K-12 has the details on what’s, unfortunately, named the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). Did we learn nothing about overpromising from No Child Left Behind?

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

States and districts will have to use locally-developed, evidence-based interventions, though, in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate.

Deciding on teacher qualifications will return to state and local control.

“ESSA doesn’t come close to getting it all right, but it’s a vast improvement on NCLB and the status quo,” concludes Rick Hess. “ESSA retains the big thing that NCLB got right for students (e.g. transparency) while stripping away ham-fisted dictates that created problems for students and schools.”

Massachusetts abandons Common Core tests

Massachusetts will redesign its state exam instead of using PARCC’s Common Core tests, the state board of education has decided. The new MCAS will be aligned with Common Core standards, say officials.

“Only 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, are currently scheduled to continue with PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests aligned with Common Core standards,” reports Molly Jackson for the Christian Science Monitor.

High-scoring Massachusetts “was considered a crucial supporter for Common Core tests and now, a crucial breakaway,” writes Jackson.

The Common Core was supposed to allow state-to-state comparisons, but states are “tweaking the language used to report results” so that “a score that counted as ‘approaching expectations’ in one part of the country might be labeled ‘proficient‘ somewhere else.”

“It may be a little too premature to declare it a failure,” Massachusetts Secretary of Education James A. Peyser told the New York Times, “but for sure it’s in retreat.”

Motivation

The search for a ‘fair’ math test

The Quixotic Search for a “Fair” Math Test ends in tests cleansed of “idiosyncrasy and irregularity,” writes Ben Orlin on Math With Bad Drawings.

We want our tests to be objective. So we stop testing fuzzy, hard-to-measure things like creativity, insight, and broader perspective.

We want our tests to be consistent. So we stop asking questions with any degree of novelty or surprise.

We want our tests to be fair. But deep and authentic understanding is hard to measure fairly — much harder than procedural fluency — and so in the end we abandon that, too.

A colleague believes “every math test is, at its heart, a Turing test.”

Is there a thinking intelligence behind those answers? Or are they just the mechanical replies of a robot, blindly executing an algorithm? Can the test-taker really reason about mathematics, or can they merely fill a few pages with the right symbols?

Scottish students protested a question about a crocodile’s best strategy in stalking a zebra was too hard, Orlin writes. At least, they didn’t say they were too upset by the zebra’s fate to do the math.

Accountability worked — for some — in Texas

Texas’ test-based accountability system, introduced in 1993 under Gov. George W. Bush, improved academic performance and earnings (by age 25) for students in schools at risk of a low-performance rating, but hurt students in higher-scoring schools, according to a study reported in Education Next.

. . . pressure on schools to avoid a low performance rating led low-scoring students to score significantly higher on a high-stakes math exam in 10th grade. These students were also more likely to accumulate significantly more math credits and to graduate from high school on time. Later in life, they were more likely to attend and graduate from a four-year college, and they had higher earnings at age 25.

These schools increased math courses for students who’d failed the eighth-grade exam and boosted staffing and instructional time, the analysis found.

However, higher-performing schools seeking a “recognized” rating were likely to more low-scoring students to special education to exempt their scores from lowering the school’s overall rating.  These students were less likely to complete college and earned less at age 25.

“High-stakes testing creates strong incentives to game the system,” conclude the authors.

Core support erodes, right and left

Common Core support is eroding on the left and the right, according to two new polls, writes Rick Hess in National Review.

Depending on how the questions are phrased, “it’s possible to argue that the public supports the Common Core by more than two to one or that it opposes it by more than two to one,” he writes.

“Support on the right melted away between 2012 and 2015, but Democratic support has also steadily softened,” writes Hess. In that period, “the share of Democrats opposed to the Common Core has increased about fivefold — from 5 percent to 25 percent.”

“New York was one of the first major states to implement Common Core state standards,” writes Casey Quinlan on ThinkProgress. Now Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who backed linking test scores to teacher evaluations, has launched a task force to review and revise the standards.

Statewide, 49 percent of New Yorkers do not support the standards, with more downstate suburban voters and Upstate New Yorkers opposing them, according to a Siena Rsearch Institute Survey.

. . . (Cuomo) “refuses to admit he was wrong to demand test-based teacher evaluations during this sensitive time. He is unwilling to level with parents about the need for higher standards and more honest assessments,” Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio wrote in Newsday.

Core-aligned test scores are very low, especially for disadvantaged students. “A growing number of states across the country are walking back their commitments to the tests and even to the standards themselves,” reports U.S. News.

Learn to teach knowledge

Julius who?

Julius who?

For decades — long before No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing — elementary teachers have focused on reading and math, spending little time science and social studies, writes Natalie Wexler in a New York Times commentary.

That’s because teachers believe their students need reading skills and strategies, such as “finding the main idea,” she writes. They don’t realize that reading comprehension requires a broad base of knowledge about the world.

Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next, flitting among subjects.

. . . For students to understand what they’re reading, they need relevant background knowledge and vocabulary.

Common Core calls for “building knowledge systematically,” writes Wexler. But the standards “don’t specify what knowledge students should learn in each grade, because they’re designed to be used across the country.” So most educators are still focusing on skills.

In a comment, Emile, a professor at a “mid-tier university” for more than 25 years, calls for K-12 schools to forget “about instilling love of learning.” Instead, schools should “provide the basic scaffolding for knowledge, and let students take it from there.” Professors won’t have to teach about Enlightenment ideals to students who’ve never heard of the Roman empire.