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Archive for the ‘Testing’ Category

With a tip of the hat to the Hard Deadlines blog down in Portsmouth for catching something I missed in the papers:

Yesterday’s (March 19) New York Times has a story on a new development in No Child Left Behind.

nclb.jpegThe Bush administration, acknowledging that the federal No Child Left Behind law is diagnosing too many public schools as failing, said Tuesday that it would relax the law’s provisions for some states, allowing them to distinguish schools with a few problems from those that need major surgery.

The Dept. of Ed’s new initative, which will be available to up to 10 states, is called “Differentiated Accountablity”.

Under the new program, the federal Department of Education will give up to 10 states permission to focus reform efforts on schools that are drastically underperforming and intervene less forcefully in schools that are raising the test scores of most students but struggling with one group, like the disabled, for instance.

Right now, schools that miss 100% of their targets can wind up with the same “in need of improvement” label as schools that miss only 1 target. As I have previously noted, RI’s application of NCLB sometimes ends up condeming a school even when it reaches more than 90% of its targets. Sometimes the targets are simply unrealistic.

The story points out that some critics have attacked the proposal as an attempt to patch up a failing program. NCLB is due for reauthorization this year.

Other critics have called the plan the “the Suburban Schools Relief Act.” Suburban schools, with less minority students and students in poverty are more likely than urban schools to be failing the standards in only one or a few categories. Currently, schools with less than 45 students in a category do not have to report that group’s scores separately.

I confess to being torn about this, but I guess I’m not alone. The NEA supports the change and the AFT opposes it.

I’ve previously expressed my astonishment at the mindless way NCLB turned Nathanael Greene into a non-performing school because, and only because, students with IEP’s, many of them very severe disabilities, did not reach the same level of proficiency on the test as the rest of the kids. Even if giving these kids the exam were reasonable in the first place, responding to their predictably lower scores by simply stamping the negative label on the school creates a false impression about the school as a whole and takes the focus off the group, where it belongs. Moreover, a school with less than 45 such students would pass, even if those students were “failing to meet the standard”, as long as the school average was high enough.

On the other hand, this proposal will likely magically turn suburban schools into “successful” schools, even if gaps increase between advantaged and disadvantaged populations. If that means schools will be freer to ignore those gaps, it strikes me as the wrong approach.

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icon-81.jpgThe previous post on low 11th grade math NECAP scores was meant to suggest that some of the reaction to them might have been a tad histrionic. (I posted after hearing that one local talk show host suggested the appropriate response is to “hang the teachers”). That was not to say that there is no problem, or that we don’t need to take action. Here a couple more pieces of information I found helpful in thinking about this.

Vermont has just released its NECAP results this week. The percent proficient in math in VT was 30%, compared to New Hampshire’s 28% and Rhode Island’s 22%. RI lags, but it doesn’t seem as though any of these states has anything to crow about. Are these poor results a consequence of poor education or an especially difficult NECAP test? How significant is RI’s lag?

Another way to look at RI’s performance is to look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Since the NAEP is given nationwide, it allows comparisons. Unfortunately, the last grade for which NAEP mathematics data are available is 8th grade. RI students scored an average of 275, points or 5 points below the national average of 280. Vermont’s score was 291, and New Hampshire’s was 288. Vermont was 4th in the nation, New Hampshire 7th, and Rhode Island 40th. (MA, which doesn’t take part in the NECAP was first on the NAEP). Clearly, Rhode Island has a problem in mathematics education, and it starts before high school.

As to the cause, I previously mentioned the “Math Investigations” curriculum as one possibility. Today’s Providence Journal has an letter to the editor from a math teacher who argues that teacher preparation (not teacher effort) is the source of the problem. The author states,

Memo to parents: If your son or daughter’s algebra or geometry teacher has only a B.A. in education (a content-deprived college major weighed down with onerous requirements) and not a B.S. in mathematics or a related science, your son or daughter is probably being taught by someone who is clueless about core math concepts and who cannot instruct without the use of the teacher’s edition of the textbook.

I did a quick check of the requirements for a secondary education-math degree at Rhode Island College, which supplies a large number of our teachers. That degree requires 9 math courses, in addition to education courses and student teaching. The BA in mathematics requires 12 courses. I’m not in a position to say whether that difference is significant from the point of view of preparing teachers.

I did notice, however, in Education Week’s 2008 “Quality Counts” reports, that Rhode Island is one of only 8 states nationwide, and the only state in New England, that does not require a test of subject matter knowledge to receive a teaching license. A degree is sufficient. If education departments, and the accreditation agencies that review those departments, are doing their jobs well, we should have good teachers. But when 42 states require these tests, it’s an important question why Rhode Island does not.

We’re spending a lot of time and money testing our students. Might we do as well or better by testing our teachers, at least before we give them a classroom? I’m not sure I’d suggest regular content examinations for experienced teachers, but it is also worthy of note that RI is one of only 7 states that does not have state-required teacher evaluations. Districts have their own procedures, but many of them are far from rigorous.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, RI is one of only TWO states that do not have standards for licensure of school administrators. There are a lot of areas in which Rhode Island is justly proud of its independent traditions. I would suggest that this should not be one of them.

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With all the recent attention on the new 11th grade NECAP, I was moved to take another look at the 3rd through 8th grade scores, with the particular goal of seeing how Providence schools are doing. The RIDE website has data from the 2005, 2006, and 2007 administrations of the test.

Providence schools have shown progress as measured by the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) examinations for grades 3-8. In the Fall of 2005, 30% of Providence students were “proficient” in reading under the NECAP standards. In the Fall 2007 NECAP, that number had increased to 39%. This 9 point increase was considerably larger than the 6 point statewide increase. Likewise, the percentage of Providence students proficient in mathematics has increased 5 points, while Rhode Island as a whole increased 4 points. While Providence’s writing scores declined 1 point, the statewide average declined 3 points. Thus, in reading, mathematics, and writing, Providence Schools outperformed the state as a whole in improving NECAP scores.

To be sure, Providence (and all of RI’s urban areas) lag significantly behind state averages, but the good news is that the gap is being narrowed.

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icon-82.jpg[note: This week, I’m trying to catch up on posting about recent stories related to Providence Public Schools. This is the first of these posts. I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video and try to solve the math problem below!]

As reported in the ProJo and elsewhere, on Monday March 3rd the Rhode Island Department of Education released the results of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) examinations give to 11th graders in the Fall of 2007.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or proficient with distinction were as follows: Reading: 61%, Writing: 37%, Mathematics: 22%

The results, particularly in math, are discouraging and have excited quite a bit of public comment. The reading and writing scores are approximately consistent with the scores for 8th graders, but the math scores represents a substantial drop (from 48% proficient or proficient with distinction in 8th grade).

Providence’s top scores were at Classical High School (Reading 92%, Writing 62%, Math 40%). Those Reading and Writing scores were on a par with, and in some cases better than, the other top schools in the state, Barrington and East Greenwich. Classical’s math scores, however, were 14 points below E. Greenwich’s and 20 points below Barrington. The worst news is that only 10% of Providence’s 11th graders were proficient in math.

While nobody will say this is acceptable, there are some caveats to consider. First, the exam was given to 11th graders for the first time this year. The test is generally regarded as significantly harder than the test previously given to 10th graders. (For an example of the questions, see below). New Hampshire, which also uses the NECAP, also saw a dramatic drop. There, 28% were proficient, a fugure not much higher than RI’s. It may be that we need a year or so to know how much of the problem is due to the testing instrument, as opposed to the students’ knowledge.

Second, while some are quick to blame teachers, it is not clear that this is appropriate. The math test covers algebra and geometry. The school department, however, steers many students into general math courses (sometimes called “math to nowhere”) and out of algebra and geometry, so that students are being tested on concepts they have never been taught. This, of course, is a matter of school department and school board policy over which teachers have little say.

Finally, it is probably time to look closely at the general math curriculum. Providence uses the “Math Investigations” curriculum, which was introduced by a previous superintendent. “Math Investigations” has been widely criticized as being unsuitable for developing the skills necessary for higher mathematics. For a nifty video demonstration, see the video link below.

Sample NECAP math problem:

The manager of a music store ordered 20 new violins. She ordered some of two different models- the standard and the deluxe. Each standard violin costs $500, and each deluxe violin costs $800.

If the manager spent exactly $11,500 on these violins, how many deluxe violins did she order? Show your work or explain how you know.

Answer in the comment below.

Here, with a tip of the hat to Rhode Island Regent Angus Davis, whose blog “Passing Notes” covers education reform issues, is a brief video comparing traditional math with “Math Investigations”. I was quite astounded.:

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