Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Standardized Testing And NCLB: A Case Study of Absurdity

It was reported today in the NYT that several schools are cutting back on classes and focusing on math and reading. This news is paired with protests in California over its exit exam (which we have previously discussed on this blog) and news of scoring errors on SAT tests as well as several state exams.

I wanted to devote a little space to this because I happen to know a lot about it and I have grave concerns. There are several things that are being left out of the standardized testing story and that policymakers may or may not get.

First: The Testing Movement

The tendency is to see testing either as a panacea for all things wrong with education or the cause of them. The testing movement really gained steam under Bush Sr. He was pushing what became known as Goals 2000. The idea was for each state to have solid state standards of what students should be able to do and then to periodically administer tests that were based on those standards. Teachers’ unions were 100% behind the idea. All 50 states had educational standards, however, most of those were weak, minimum competency requirements. And the tests that measured “progress” were one-size-fits all, norm referenced tests like the Iowa Basic Skills or the Stanford 9 which were purchased by states along with text books. The idea of Goals 2000 was to raise the bar all around. It was voluntary; however, a certain amount of federal funding was tied to implementation. Back in 1994, when I was working in educational issues, the firm I worked for was trying to evaluate the strength of state standards under development. What we learned is that something like 48 states were participating in the program. All were planning to build tests around the new standards by 2000. Overall, the quality of the standards ranged from poor to good, but not great.

By 1996, states were starting to contract with the big test companies to build custom tests for their state. These tests took 2-5 years to develop, cost millions and millions of dollars in development, administration, and scoring. Testing was usually done in 3rd or 4th, 6, 8, and one high school year, usually 10th or 12th and they covered math, science, English Language Arts (ELA), and Social Studies. Goals 2000 was a good, middle of the road type of program.

By 1999, a disturbing trend was starting up. Teacher pay was being linked to student performance on these tests. Thus was born the “high stakes” test. Testing specialists advised against this. For starters, standardized tests like polls and surveys are not a science in the true sense. They can be “scientized” (my term) by analyzing trends in field test results, but like all statistics, they are utlimately based on what is often problematic data. Like judges, statististians can only analyize and make judgements based on the data they recieve. Furthermore, psycometricians can design algorithms to do just about anything to smooth out undesirable results. I mention this because testing specialists do NOT design tests to be used in carrot-stick- scenarios. They know the limits of standardized testing.
Psychometricians point out that much more piloting should be done to insure that the tests are valid. States don’t want to pay for this. So the warnings and the cautious statements of test specialists go ignored and test developers and researchers have no leverage to stop states from improperly using tests. The aspirn bottle tells you to just take two, but that doesn't stop you from taking 10. This is a prime example where researchers are counseling policymakers correctly and policymakers ignore the counsel. And it is creating huge problems.

Two: The Industry

With the arrival of NCLB I was expecting a gravy train for testing companies like McGraw-Hill, Harcourt, ETS, etc. It has turned out to be only partially true. Companies as well as states are facing shortages in qualified people, cost over runs due to inefficient operation and constantly shifting demands from state policy makers. These companies have a terribly fickle clientele. The states often change requriements half way through the development process, stiffen up drop dead dates, etc. And the companies accept this without much complaint because they have to make the customer happy.
It is estimated by Eduventures that in the 2005-2006 academic year, NCLB cost states $517 mil. We are talking tests with a shelf life of maybe 2-3 years depending on the state policy regarding public release of the test items and the size of the item pool developed.

The NCLB has been like a tsunami for the testing companies. They can’t handle the demand. These were companies that mainly developed shelf-products and custom contracts were very limited and largely for license exams in various professions. In the past, a company could build a shelf test for $5 mil and then sell it for several years earning $15 mil. About 70% of their business was shelf-product. Now 70% is custom contract work and they haven’t yet adjusted. Custom tests can cost 4-5 times the amount to develop as shelf products. Profit margins are a lot lower and competition is pushing companies to bid lower and lower on contracts and make bigger and bigger promises. States are increasing penalties, sometimes $100K a day for a late deliverable. ETS lost $18 mil on a 3-year $175 mil California contract. It has since won a bid for a second 3 year term, and let's hope it has learned something.

There is growing side industry of small start ups. Now there are firms that will deliver the test; others will adminisiter it; others will score it; some will provide innovative score reports, etc. So now big companies can co-bid on state contracts. So McGraw-Hill will take the lead on the project and run the psycometrics and scoring and say Riverside will write the content or visa versa. The idea of "onestop shopping" is coming to an end because big companies are loosing too much money.
Firms like Dell, XEROX, and Microsoft are also benefiting because testing companies need large numbers of printers, computers, copy machines, software licenses, and test processing equipment. The companies are having to expand rapidly and they have to quickly restock their equipment. These represent huge capital costs for the industry. In the last 10 years, McGraw-Hill's CTB in California has had to expand its office space first by building a state of the art building and then renting additional office space off-site. It has even moved some of it scoring to Sacramento to deal with the demand for space. This mounts the costs for these companies and shrinks profit margins. Companies then have to save in other costs. Result: armies of temp employees working as such for years at a time, never being offerd regular positions, thus not requiring medical insurance, 401K, and the like.

The actaul company employees are doing double shifts under big time pressures. Many are overworked and burnt out. They all have to criss-cross the country visting clients and the squeeze to save on travel budgets is on, thus the accomodations, which weren't great in the past, are even worse now. All that travel takes a toll on employee health and morale.
States used to test once a year and so the work of scoring was seasonal. It made sense to use temporary employees for that work. Now they states are testing year around partially because schools are in session year-around. States want score reports back before the next school period and thus, turn around times are very tight. They want say 3 million test graded and score reports delivered in 1 month time. This means mistakes get made and there is little oversight over the testing companies. In short, states often ask these companies for the impossible.

The state departments of education and their assessment and accountability offices aren’t in any better shape. They are severely understaffed thanks to budget cuts. Qualified personnel are hard to keep. Private industry pays more and the politics are a lot less messy. But even private industry is having hard time paying big salaries when the bottom line is getting thinner.

Three: The Problems and the hypocrisy: What no one wants you to know

A. Test developers are told to design tests that measure student performance on state standards. So you have to have clear, comprehensive, and cogent state standards to begin with. That is a key element to your blueprint. Absent that, test developers, like architects, are left to interpret and design things to the best of their abilities. Many states still do not have proper standards.

B. State testing programs are run by policymakers who may have once been educators but who are now politicians. Politicians earn votes by promising to “fix” education. Thus, they have a tendency to be either over-confident about the skills and abilities of their students and teachers or over-ambitious in their goals. So they come to one of the 5 big testing companies wanting a tough test. Then they start building policies in order to incentivize teachers and punish “low performing” schools. There are no stakes for students . Telling students to do well so that teacher earns more money is as stupid as it is useless.

Once the tests come out, teachers (who were part of the test development process. In some states, they actually write the test questions and the testing companies have to review and edit those- a miserable task let me tell you), parents, unions, school administrators are all yelling. The politicians are now in a tough spot. So they come back to the company and ask the psycometricians to mess with the statistical data, develop algorithms to smooth over edges, etc. while the company faces huge penalties for late product delivery. And politicians either start developing new policies or altering older ones in order to re-adjust to reality. They fiddle. They want the tests dumbed down. They extend implementation dates, they develop new programs to prepare students or train teachers. the empanel committes of "neutral specialists" to "advise" them. And then in the end, when the statistics show improvement, they stand up and claim that NCLB works!
This is a massive scam and an even bigger cover up. And it isn’t happening just in public education. It happens anywhere high stakes tests are used. Education is not improved because expectations must always be re-aligned to fit reality. The bar is never raised.

C. Despite the importance of these tests, states spend less than one quarter of 1% of their edu. budgets on testing according to one Harvard study. Industry insiders say that states spent on average $10-$30 per student for the tests. Eduventrues says they spent twice that amount on test-prep materials.

NCLB was a bold attempt to use testing to push overall educational improvement. It seemed like a good idea on paper. In practice however, it is another story.

The Losers: Everyone

Federal funding and teacher salaries are contingent on student performance on these tests regardless of other challenges such as ESL, special needs students, or other systemic problems. And in the end everyone looses. States can always find the money to pay testing companies, but they can’t fund PE classes, art, music, vocational or business classes. Everything gets directed at the lowest performers at the expense of the middle and upper range performers. The lowest performers don’t get the type of education they need or the types of opportunities that the better off get to explore what fires their curiosity. It is an attempt not just to standardize testing, but the student as well.

It is a prime example of bringing a business model to bear on a social program. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t attack the root of the problem. The root of the problem, in my view, is a culture that does not value education. It is over-worked a parents who don’t sit with their children at night a help with homework. It is a culture that thinks the only thing that counts is math, science, and reading and fails to see that if a kid loves music, the math becomes more relevant to his world. Or if he loves to paint, then suddenly reading or maybe learning a foreign language isn’t so hard. It is a culture that fails to place any responsibily for success square on the shoulders of the students.

Tegardless of what we do, not everyone will succeed . We should fail people who don't keep up and accept that as a "cost of doing business". That said, however, everyone should have the opportunity to succeed. And that just isn't the case. Separate but equal? Tell that to an inner-city youth who's Jazz band just lost its funding.


Anonymous said...

I concur with so much of what USWest said. I want to add that yet another reason the testing is such a poor indicator is that children and teens have little incentive to do well on most of the tests. Abstract concepts like school funding and teacher's hounding are relatively unimportant to them, particularly in impoverished areas.

Also, many of the tests are not just dumbed down, but dumb. Tests with poorly written questions are common. Bad tests lead to bad performance.

In addition, I think the whole idea of testing is misplaced. Schools and teachers should be the enforcers of standards, not nationwide lowest-common-denominator test machines. Each teacher should grade his or her own students based on all work done and the year's experience. Each school should have expectations for how grading is done, and for what should be covered in classes. Failing students should happen regularly, if they cannot meet minimum standards in classwork.

Worse, testing can't teach students how to read and write, which is the real problem most students end up with. Even at the universities, it is appalling how few can put together grammatical sentences in coherent paragraphs.

Finally, I think the emphasis on giving everyone a pre-college education is a mistake. Schools need music, art, drama, languages, shop, home ec - all of that. Let students find something they like, and they will become good at something. Get them intellectually activated in some fashion, and intellectual growth will occur. They will read books about woodworking or learn how to calculate in auto shop. Real world math and writing skills can be incorpporated in other areas, and flow from them. Anyone who has ever taught a class will tell you that if students are excited, you can teach almost anything. If not, little can be done. 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

What a long, thoughtful, comprehensive post, USWest! Thanks... you opened my eyes to the problems of testing on all levels. I had no idea it was that complicated! And while I had always suspected that the "improvement" shown on tests was never backed up with adequate statistics, I did not realize how widespread the finagling was. (How sensitive is the test? how much does it change year to year? what is a statistically significant change? what is the error rate... etc. We are never told.)

I think USWest is also right that the testing mentality is part of the failed "business" model of education. It's an attempt to have a simple "bottom line" that anyone can measure. But as any statistician could tell you, simple metrics for a complex process tell you little.

I also agree with LTG that we should do more to give students what interests them at the secondary school level. I agree with the principle that igniting intellectual curiosity in any field is perhaps the best way to encourage intellectual development in general.

And to the extent that the laws of supply and demand function in education, the lack of "demand" on part of the students is surely due not only to the general devaluing of intellectualism in our society, as USWest mentions, but also to the lack of interesting courses. The retreat to the basics has pared away all the joy of education. As though the purpose of learning music were merely to play scales, people teach mathematics as though it's all about reciting multiplication tables. The real excitement comes when you can take those basic skills of math and see the music. (Is that a mixed enough metaphor for you?)

In a way, the issue of grade inflation (discussed elsewhere on the blog) is related to the issue of testing. In our society, good grades are valued because they get you to a big-name college, but actual achievement is not. A big-name diploma is valued, but the broad education that institution should provide is not. Education is valued because you need a degree to get a job, but intellectual pursuits are disdained (by people who could not spell "disdain.") USWest is right that this is a root problem. I fear it can never be addressed, though.

In high school, an English and philosophy teacher I had did his best to explain that literature, intellectual discourse, and education in general were valuable not because they were a means to an end--although they are--but because they were inherently worthwhile, and because an unexamined life was not worth living. His words had a profound impact on me. (There never will be a substitute for a great teacher.)

And I will never forget his wonderful advice for me when I went off to college. "Remember that grades are not inherently worthwhile. But get good grades."

Anonymous said...

I cleaned up my post a little and added a few things. Sorry about the errors. I was multi-tasking and getting distracted.

I just wanted to address the vocational issue and the student responsibility issue.

I don't blame teachers for the problems in schools. I blame the system they teach in and the kids they teach. Students fail to see why school matters and they have no guidence about how to manage their educations in order to create the greatest opportunities for themselves.

My niece starts high school next year. She is a very bright young lady who is university bound. She wants to take all the college prep courses, but she also wants to take auto mechanics. At first, I though she was kidding. But she kept insisting. We had a long discussion about that this evening. And I realized several things.

The first is that our local high school, to its great credit (I wish I could tell you all which one it is, but alas, identity protection) has a ton of vocational courses. Everything from drafting to website design, fasion design and cosmotology. It has all the AP course, all the honors courses, etc. I was pleased to see that none of that has gone away since I have been out of high school and in fact, several things were added and updated. It is evident that there has been a policy decision to serve as many types of students as possible. And here is the kicker- a lot of those courses are not available to Freshmen or sophomores. You can take a very introductory course in say Artistic principles, but no photography until grade 11. In fact, they do it on purpose because they want these kids to get a solid academic education before jumping into vocational classes that require, say a lot math they can't do. I don't object that really. I know kids who suffered for 2 years in boring art classes because they wanted the golden ring of that photography class, or kids who knew they would need good math skills to do drafting and architecture. So they took dreaded math classes.

Second thing is that there is no reason why my niece shouldn't take auto mechanics. Her arguement is that along with French and honors English, she needs to know how to change her oil and fan belt. And she is absoloutely right. And this lead me to lesson 3.

Her mother and I discouraged her idea at first not because we were against the idea itself, but because we didn't want her to sacrifice say Honors Biology for auto mechanics. My point was that she had to start planning for graduation now. What college system did she want to enter? To get into AP classes (and thus cheap college units) she had to start the honors classes now. And with all the UC requriements, she wasn't going to have a whole lot of electives. My sister was nearly as lost because this is all foreign to her. But she has been to every orientation offered, taked to every teacher who would explain it to her, etc. In other words, despite working 40 hours or more a week, she skill finds the time to pay attention.

Here is the thing, I was here to give her that advice and her mother was there to care. Left to her own devices, she would have taken what sounded "fun" or "right" without realizing the ramifications. Before I knew it, she was actually taking notes on what I was telling her. "What are honors classes? Explain this AP thing once more. Wait, I have to write that part down." How many kids have someone around who can tell them that? How many kids are in a position to listen and take it seriously? I didn't have anyone to tell me all about that stuff. I had to figure it out on my own. And I don't think most people are able to do that on their own. I also got lucky in that I fell into a good peer group.

If you are poor and Latino in East LA, who is going to give you that sort advice? Who is going to look at you as if you have a future worth planning? Are you going to have parents who, never having been educated themseleves, know how to value education?

In the end, we had a 4 year plan laid out for my neice that included summer school so that she had extra electives. The result is that she can afford to take auto mechanics. (damn! There isn't a standardized test for that!) She needs to be in classes with people besides the "elite" kids. She has to socialize with them all, see that intelligence isn't just in books, and that everyone has value. Besides, I need someone to change my oil on the cheap.


// posted by UNwest

Anonymous said...

I also agree with much of what has been said here. And I appreciate US West's personal account of the advantage her niece has because she has college educated relatives who have blazed the trail and can give practical advice.

I'd like to ask a practical question: If all grading and assesment were left up to local schools, what would prevent local teachers from inflating grades to get their students into better colleges? How should colleges determine which schools' grades are honest reflections of student performance and which are strategic inflations designed to manipulate the system?

Of course testing is proving just as easy to manipulate as grading. And the abuse of AP course credit in our high schools is at epidemic proportions. Schools offer a myriad of "AP" courses designed to boost GPAs and exagerate college preparedness. I heard that the average GPA at some UC schools was over a 4.0 on a "4 point scale." HOw can this be? AP courses get weighted grade point scores so if you take a lot of AP courses your GPA can exceed the maximum value. It's like the scene in Spinal Tap...our grades go up to 11.

Anyway, I fear that there is no simple way to solve this problem. Any criteria that universities (or employers) impose on applicants will get manipulated by the students and their teachers. And there are just too many high schools for people to use reputation as guide. Universities however can be held to account through reputation - at least a little - because there are fewer of them. Perhaps that is the only real check on all this. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree that you aren't going to do away with grade inflation. but I am not sure how wide spread that really is. Again, there are some costs you just have to bear.

Minnesota is has been experimenting with an odd assessment program that uses portfolios. Portfolios are also used in France. They are labor intensive and subjective. This is always the problem. Grading is subjective. That is why states are turning to standardized exams. They want objective measures. But objective measures are based on subjective standards. So it is a cyclical thing.

As for AP: I agree that inflating the GPA is stupid. But I think AP courses are useful. I am biased, though because I benefited from them.

The AP courses I took were a lot tougher than the regular courses and you still have to pass qualifying exams before you get any type of credit. But here is the really odd part: CSU offered me 6 units for each AP exam passed. At the time my school offered 3 AP exams, I took 2 and passed. I ended up with 12 units. In my opinion then and now, that was excessive when classes were 3 units a piece. But if CSU is dumb enough to do that, their loss. It was the cheapest tuition I ever paid. And from a student with little means, I was all for it. In addition to this, the first 2 years of college, at least in California, are all required GE courses. so you get out of High school ready to tackle challenging courses in a concentrated area, and discover that you can't until you've had all the libearal arts stuff done. A poli-sci major suffering through classes on the human genome. And professors at univerisities aslo inflate becuase they know that redoing high school classes or making kids take astronomy when they really want to study US foreign Policy in Latin America, is a waste of their time and that of the students. As I told my niece, why pay tuition to re-take courses you have already had? I had American history and government in grades 7,8,11, 12. And I had to take it again in college. Why?

If that was the university's response to grade inflation, it wasn't just. I earned every AP grade I got. I didn't get any free ride. And AP students tend to be over-achievers. So why punish 80% because of the 20%.

What high end colleges like Stanford and Yale need to do is re-instate real entrance exams rather than using things like the SAT.

California state universities need to send remedial students to Jr Colleges, where they belong.


// posted by UNwest

Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with using AP exams to test out of GE credits. But there are districts out there where kids take an AP version of most of courses they take and never even attempt the exams for many of them (in other words, they took them just to boost the GPA).

I don't think we should ban AP courses or anything like that. I just wanted to point out that while the tests are flawed, so is relying on GPA - in particular because the AP thing is out of control. The best way to handle admissions is to personally interview every applicant but when you need to change tens of thousands of applicants into a few thousand new students, that's not a reasonable solution.

I really don't have a clue about how to set up a workable admission system that would be proof against self-interested manipulation by students trying to inflate their preparedness on paper (and their schools will help them).  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

It seems that total applications to the whole UC system (all universities) for freshman slots and transfers are around 100,000 per year (80,000 freshmen). This is a broad summary of the official statistics. Is it crazy to try to conduct 100,000 interviews? Perhaps for "admissions professionals" but perhaps they shouldn't be doing the job. How about farming the job out to 10,000 academic employees? Or 20,000? There are 53,000 academics at the UC system. This doesn't count the tens of thousands of administrators. If it were a priority to interview each student, even this massive system could handle it. I know many professors, who think their only job is to do their own research, would hate interviewing as much as they despise teaching undergrads, but it could be a job requirement easily. What if the interviews were for students whose grades etc. were above a certain line? Quite do-able.


// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

I have an interesting perspective on AP exams (and I ask your pardon in advance for my lack of modesty). When I was in High School back in the late 1980s, I took at least eight (!) AP exams and ultimately received at least one semester of college credit for each of them.

Because I had taken AP tests in a broad set of subjects, I discovered I had already satisfied nearly all of my GE requirements. Perhaps most egregiously, I managed to graduate from UC Berkeley without having to write a single paper.

But I still stayed in college for four years and earned the full number of units to graduate all on my own, by taking actual Berkeley courses. And because I was not required to take the kind of GEs that USWest complained about, I was able to complete a double major in unrelated fields with a normal workload.

While I am also biased by my personal experience, I believe my experience represents the best use of AP courses: waiving GE requirements, not getting units. Furthermore, I think a fair compromise on grading for AP courses is this: high schools should never weight AP classes differently when computing GPA, but colleges should weight AP classes higher when computing GPA if the student in question also passed the AP test.

As for the idea of individual interviews, I disagree with RbR and LTG that a personal interview is a feasible or even desirable way to handle college admissions. 10,000 different people evaluating students for college admissions? Talk about subjectivity!

A better solution, I think, would be to offer a range of options and allow students to make their best case for admission. To supplement the SAT and GPA (as computed above), let's allow students the option of taking AP courses, taking an entrance exam, or (in this context) appearing for an individual interview. And let's try to make it less of a gamble: we should let the student suppress any optional test score or interview record if the student feels it is an inaccurate reflection of his abilities. The only way I know to minimize self-interested manipulation of grades etc. is the old balanced scorecard approach: base admissions on a combination of factors, not a single factor.

Oh, and AP tests--as well as college admissions--should be free, and freely available to those who do not take AP courses. And they should never count against you. If a student wants to take a dozen AP tests, let them. Merely taking a test is an education in itself... and who knows--they might just pass.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that having 53,000 professors conduct interviews would good for either the professors or the applicants. Like Dr. Strangelove said, the biggest problem would be subjectivity. Imagine how much like a lotery it would be. If you get interviewed by an engineering prof you get one set of standards but if you get interviewed by a comparative lit prof who doesn't believe in grades or something....?

As for the snide reference to "professors who think their only job is research." Given the promotion citeria, that is their primary job.

As for whether that is a good thing or not...I think it is a good thing that there are major centers for research. Without a large committment within each field to research teaching quality will suffer. Obvious counter examples come to mind - such as LTGs example of Classics. But in fields focussed on ongoing methological, theoretical and empirical debates keeping a strong emphasis on research as a discipline is neccessary. In the US system it is the large universities that do that research. We probably don't need as many research oriented universities as we have.

Students who apply for universities should be aware that there is often a trade off between big research universities with fancy reputations (like the UCs) and smaller colleges that emphasize teaching (like liberal arts colleges, the smaller CSUs and UC Santa Cruz). The trade off is often (but not always) between how up to date the information is and how attentive the instructor is. Younger faculty at teaching oriented colleges are probably the best of both worlds! Big state universities with heavy teaching loads, big student populations, ambivolent commitment to both teaching and research and lax admission standards are probably the worst of both worlds. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

You could also hire full-time interviewers. Say you do 100 interviews. That's 1000 interviewers. But that's just 10 a day for 10 days. Not much work. Now try each does 500 interviews - 10 a day for 50 days. That's 200 interviewers, a much more manageable group. The total number of admissions personnel already exceeds that aomount (mind you, that's 200 interviewers for 9 universities).

If you then limit the interviews to, say, 1/3 of the applicants. Now we're down to under 100 interviewers. How many people do you think do the job today, evaluating applications and essays? Several hundred at least. If they wanted to interview, they could.

I can see interviewing the marginal students, say 10% of the total (i.e., 10,000) which is far more manageable for a staff of 100.

As for AP tests, what Dr. S. has noted is that high school education is so bad that even great universities require a year or so of "GE requirements" - basically the high school you should have had. Waiving those is a good thing. Abolishing them is better.

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

This is all interesting, but the inital post was really about the problems around a quality education at the primary and secondary level. This conversation is mute if you can't deliver quality education from the start. Univeristies wouldn't have such a problem selecting students if the students were all prepared to attend. They could just let them all come and ration them among the universities. But that is dream land.

NCLB is a prime example of what may have been "good intentioned" policies that have gone bad.

Before you even get to the university question, you have to figure out 1) how to create an environment where opportunity to succeed is present for as many students as possible (thus, growing and improving vocational training)
2. How to properly assess student progress in school to make sure they are keeping up.
3) How to build a culture that supports healthy attitudes towards education.

If universities are seen as the only way to get into the job market, then they will continue to get substandard students. We need start changing our attitudes towards vocational studies, which seem to be considered second or third class when compared to academic education. We have to start finding more ways to get parents involved with their children's education. Many private schools have points systems that give parents tuition breaks for participation. Public schools don't have the same advantage. But perhaps they could link other benefits to student preformance- perhaps poor students who stay on the honor roll will get a little extra money set aside by the state for post-secondary education or something like that. Maybe active parents in poor homes can be rewarded with a family computer or gift certificates for necessities or breaks on car insurance. I am just pulling ideas out of my hat, I'd have to think about it all more before coming to a conclusion.

My point it that we have to have stakes for students and their parents to get everyone on board. The culture has to change.Teachers need to be paid more and they must be empowered to dicipline students in the classroom. Social work needs to be removed from the classroom and given back to the proper county agencies.

That would all be a better start, in my opinion, for getting education back on track rather than testing everyone blind. 

// posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that a discussion about universities' admissions is totally moot in this situation. Schools adjust their strategies based on their expecations about university admissions. One of the ways schools advertise their quality is to brag about how many of their graduates go to university.

But yes it is true that as the quality of our schools has dropped, jobs that used to only require a high school diploma now require a 4 year college degree. When I was a kid, store managers and bank tellers had high school diplomas. Now they probably have MBAs. So in that regard, "Point taken" Anonymous.

As for LTG's suggestion of hiring professional interviewers. What if you had teachers from area high schools interview students at high schools in nearby towns? The interviewers wouldn't have a direct conflict of interest and it would allow schools to exchange information about each other. Might it address both the "how to interview 100,000 kids in 3 months" problem and the issue of how to get the best practices in the best schools to spread? 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Sorry gang, I forgot to sign my last post, I am "anonymous" above.

RBR says, "Schools adjust their strategies based on their expecations about university admissions". I beg to differ. University admission is not the sole criteria that High schools or elementary school are concerned about. In fact, talking to administrators in say California, they will tell you that success on the STAR  is the thing that they are concerned about. The top 10% of their students will go to university. The rest won't. The top 10% don't concern them. That is what private schools are worried about. They have the other 90% that they have to deal with. And that 90% is a complex mix of things.

To assume that univserity admission is what drives schools to preform is short sighted. Most schools will tell you that their goal is to develop functionally literate, employable people at any level. This ties into the immigration debate as well. How do you produce functionally literate people when say 30% of your student population comes from illiterate immigrant familes with limited English skills, and a cultural barriers that block education?

That is really what most school in California are struggling with. 

// posted by UsWest

Anonymous said...

I would prefer we not objec to discussions on the grounds that they are "off topic." Let converations develop as they will. A thread will peter out on its own accord if it has led somewhere unproductive. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

I have no objection to things going off topic. My attempt was merely to bring things back full circle.

We have a thread a bit lower down on academia and the changes we would like to see there. No doubt the two are linked. But I think it is a mistake to imply that the only thing that motivates students is college admission or to get so focused on college admission policies and procedures that we fail to see the big picture. Also, I am not sure we can get down to such a micro level and grade inflation among individual teachers. Even if one teacher inflates a grade, another may balance that by being extra tough.

But we can consider somethings at the macro level that might help. I realize post-secondary education is optional in theory. But is it really in today's job market? The necessity of post-secondary education is evident from the sheer dollar amounts in public and private funding options available for tuition assistance.

So is it fair to treat post-secondary education as a priveledge when when it is basically necessary? By assuming that everyone goes to college, are we basicaly hastening degree inflation? I wonder if grade inflation is what we should be looking at or if it is degree inflation. If everyone is getting an AA or a BA, then does that cheapen the degree? An economist might agree that it does if you look at it from the supply ans demand perspective.

So you have a broken public education system, a tangled univeristy admissions system, and a job market complaining that we aren't producing enough qualifed people to do the jobs we need.

It seems too big to be fixed. My proposal:

1.Require graduation exit exams at grade 5 (to move to Jr. High) grade 8th grade (to move to high school) and grade 12 (to move out of high school). These tests can become diagnostic tools to see where you need the most help, and then to make sure you get that help. That is how these standardized tests should be used, not to punish teachers or make schools look bad.

2. I think for high school exits, you need to have different exams for different educational tracks, like some modified version of the BAC in France. In Europe, they start tracking students into either vocational or academic tracks in the 6th grade. I think that is too young. But if you start tracking from their sophomore or Junior year in high school, that may not be so bad. Univerisities only look at GPAs from Sophomore year on anyway. If you are on a vocational track, then you take an exit exam with basic reading, math, and science skills and then something like an AP exam that is specific to your track. This puts you in line for a jr. College, trade school, or CSU type school.

This would make univeristy admissions eaiser by breaking up the admissions pool and it might raise the status of vocational training- the way apprecentiships and unions did.

Then for the academic track, you could implement Dr. S's proposal for AP courses, making sure to dump the GPA inflation that RBR et al object to. 4.0 is 4.0 period. And you can't take a spot in an AP class unless you are going to take the tests at the end.

3. I would never make the mistake of locking people into a track. This is where the European system goes wrong. I think you have to maintain the felxibility that we have here to go back to school and try something new at any time. It is key to work force felxibility, life long education, and the fundamental right to the persuit of happiness.

That would be my modest proposal for alleviating some of our educational woes up and down the system. 

// posted by USwest

Dr. Strangelove said...

[Brief note: I echo LTG's sentiment about objecting to a discussion veering "off-topic." USWest says that was not what she intended... but since I also read it as LTG did, maybe USWest could try to be more careful in the future about how she phrases her attempt to bring the discussion full circle?]

USWest asks whether it is a mistake to treat post-secondary education as a privilege. I do not think that is a mistake. But then, I think driving is a privilege, even though of course I realize most people really need to do it to go to work. I guess I'd say post-secondary education should be a privilege, but one that is fairly easy to attain.

USWest points out that degree inflation is also occuring, and I agree that the profusion of AAs and BAs cheapens the letters "AA" and "BA"... but not the degrees themselves. What I mean is, looking at the level of the degree is now no longer sufficient, since their quality varies widely--employers now really need to look at where the degree was earned. Provided employers do that, my BA from Berkeley would not be noticeably cheapened by a hundred people getting BAs from a local city college.

USWest suggests more graduation exit exams at lower grade levels, as diagnostic tests. Respectfully, I disagree. Individual students already have a heap of information at their disposal telling each of them what they need work on--information that is much better and more tailored than a single, generic test. The purpose of a statewide or districtwide diagnostic test is not to help individual students, because those tests are optimized to provide average statistics--to judge the state or the school as a whole.

As for tracking, I think we should offer more depth in classes--more levels of achievement. Some students learn faster than others and that's all there is to it. To hold them back makes no sense to me. But I do not agree with the idea of different exit exams for different groups. Those who take more advanced courses will have to learn more anyway just to pass those courses. The purpose of a high school exit exam, in my opinion, is to make sure that even students in the lowest tracks attain minimum levels of achievement. Why should those who choose harder classes be penalized by being held to a higher standard?

3. I fully agree that nobody should be locked into a track. But speaking practically, one will be locked in a track so long as classes are demarcated by age. To make the system USWest describes work--and I'd like to see it--we need to make high schools less regimented and more of a marketplace of courses, open to students in all represented age groups.

In the end, USWest is right that the problem looks too huge to fix. Modest proposals are the way to go. But if I may offer some encouragement, I believe all of The Citizens are products of public education. As far as a universal service goes, it's really not that bad.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Let's hear it for the successes of American public education! Most students from public schools graduate and get good jobs or go on to college. We shouldn't lose track of the scope of this success while we - rightly - try to make it better. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

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