So many stories this week including this excellent piece by Joanna Weiss in the Boston Globe. The piece is entitled "PARCC, panic and the perils of the new math", just in case the story gets moved later and the link breaks. Take a look at the article and the actual problem taken from a 5th grade PARCC exam. Ms. Weiss chronicles her reaction, "Stage one: Panic. “Area model what-huh?” Stage two: Frustration. Can’t a poor kid just do long division and be done? Stage three: Extrapolation. Is this the Common Core? The future of education? To the barricades!". As she goes on to say about "new math": "It’s part of a broader philosophy that the Common Core embraces: that kids should know not just the standard algorithms, but the concepts behind them. It’s not just whether you can do long division; it’s do you get long division? Can you explain it in words?". The author asks the most important question, "So PARCC raises a different philosophical question: What should a test be testing? If you understand what division does, how much more do you need to know? ". The Common Core critic in the article points to the fact that straightforward questions make things more fair. Ms Weiss asks "...Jeff Nellhaus, PARCC’s chief of assessment, why it was on the test." and is told that it isn't boring, makes the kids think, and gets them engaged. How many of you agree with those assertions? The author says, "Well, yes, but so does a classic word problem, the kind that doesn’t require a whole new vocabulary. I’m all for encouraging students to think rather than simply regurgitate formulas. But the developers of PARCC need to be careful, and not just because a new-math zinger can scuttle political support for a test that’s largely quite good.". I was left to wonder why about who is in charge of determining what problems reflect the Common Core standard. As we know with books, the standards don't seem to be set by teachers.
Ms. Weiss makes a great point to the expert's rather lame justification. Now remember how Common Core started out, "The Common Core was designed to elevate teaching and learning.". It would toughen up the testing and some "soccer moms" might be upset to find their kids weren't quite so smart and "Duncan has repeatedly said the new Core-aligned standardized tests — being designed by two multistate consortia with some $350 million in federal money — would be light years ahead of the current tests.". We're now years out from those remarks and kinks in the system should be ironed out; those sorts of problems have fueled the backlash against Common Core and has put the supporters on the defensive. You can usually find a recent article of people complaining about Common Core problems--problems that are being attributed to Common Core and as this Washington Post piece notes, "Defenders of the standards have had considerable success convincing the public that those who reject them do so because they oppose education reform, are poorly informed, are under union thumbs, or don’t want to face the fact that their kids aren’t as smart as they thought they were.".
So now think about these questions, some mentioned in the article:
- Why is this question on a test? Traditional word problems work just fine for higher order thinking and I doubt many (if any) felt "engaged" by the problem.
- Does getting the question wrong indicate problems in the student's understanding of math? It doesn't seem to fairly assess a student's math knowledge. So why are education professionals holding it up as worthy test question?
- Should Common Core tests be used to judge teacher performance when some of the
garbagecontent is not "basic"?
- Might teachers waste valuable class time prepping for these types of "engaging" questions rather than concentrating on the basics?
- Who is driving the content based on the standards, teachers or corporations? And how much is the content shaped/influenced by teachers who are actively teaching?
Some blame teachers for 4 ways to subtract, area models, and other mathematical junk because Common Core is just a set of standards to guide the teacher--the teacher decides what is taught and how it is taught. But note that a teacher who teaches who exercises their judgement and avoids the area model in favor of the traditional "old school" methods will have students dropping test points even if they understand how to do division; and if teacher performance is tied to that then the teacher will need to spend valuable time covering that garbage. PARCC's chief of assessment has said that the question is designed to measure a Common Core standard. This is a big part of the problem--Common Core should be measuring basics but the standards, as interpreted by an "expert" fly in the face of common sense. This sort Common Core test seems ridiculous . So the crazy math problems are part of Common Core and much of the ire should be directed at those companies creating the content (textbooks/resources/tests) getting branded as Common Core.
If we want to make this system work why not consider a database of questions broken down by grade level and difficulty level? So, making up some numbers for an example: suppose each grade has 500 problems with 100 problems at each of 5 levels of difficulty. The problems have been assembled by teachers and approved to go into the national database. A student would know the types of problems that would occur on the exam. A computer test would make up a test of 50 problems drawn from the 500 problems--randomized (both problems and numbers in the problem) for each student so that cheating is more difficult. The number of problems from each difficulty level would be decided ahead of time. The problems making up each level would be tweaked each year to retire some problems and introduce others. The problems in the database would be widely disseminated through PDFs and/or websites that let students access the content (create a random test/download x problems with difficulty y, etc). Knowing the potential problems they could encounter lets
- better students work ahead
- students out of school for extended periods of time keep working on content they need
- ESL (English-as-a-second-language) learners to study the word problems so that vocabulary/ grammar/ idioms that might prevent them from understanding the question are understood before the test.
In essence, look to create a transparent testing process and then insist on accountability. Now that's a touchy subject best left for each state to decide. With respect to students it could mean a very poor grade would impact their course (no A or forced to repeat the course) and potentially even the ability to graduate. But accountability needs to be there for teachers, too whether it affects their pay raise, ability to teach a specific class, or in extreme cases getting their license renewed.
Here are some stories that caught my eye over the past week.
- So many test results have come out. Jim Clark of the Sierra Sun has an excellent column explaining Common Core results and the "games" states play: "Common Core charters two assessment consortiums: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College Careers (“PARCC”) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (“SBAC”). States can take their choice.PARCC administered tests last spring in 10 states. The consortium’s mushy scoring system evaluates “expectations”; students score “below,” “nearly meets” or “meets/exceeds.”As reported in the New York Times, Ohio reported two thirds of its students are proficient in math and English; Massachusetts, a traditionally strong performer, reported only about half its students are proficient; and Illinois reported only one third proficient. What happened? (Enter, center stage, politically correct politicians) Ohio, California and North Carolina regarded “nearly meets and “meets/exceeds” as proficient. Massachusetts and Illinois only counted “meets or exceeds” as proficient.""
- Washington state has released preliminary data, according to Connecticut News Blogs, "Only 29 percent of Washington High School students passed the SBAC math test. Put another way, more than 50,000 Juniors failed to pass this unreliable and unfair SBAC test.". New Jersey also has some splainin to do. According to NorthJersey.com, "A majority of students across New Jersey in all grade levels failed to meet expectations in math, and no more than 52 percent of them in any grade level met them in English.". NJTV reports, "Education Commissioner David Hespe says statewide percentages for PARCC math results are the most troublesome. More than half of the students tested failed to meet expectations or grade level. “For example, one third of our students – not yet on track – in geometry and that really causes some concern because that is unusual,” said Hespe.". Meanwhile, The Town Talk says "About 30 to 40 percent of Louisiana students showed a “mastery” command of English and math skills, according to state data.". Over at MyFoxBoston we learn, "The figures show 60 percent of students who took PARCC in grades three through eight met expectations in the English Language portion of the test, and 52 percent met expectations in math.". Now that's disturbing: Massachusetts is typically one of the best states in the US for education. But take a look at the mind shattering number from Fresno, California. From the Fresno Bee, "Only 2 percent of Fresno Unified students are considered college ready...Fresno Unified officials say the alarmingly low number is skewed because this is the first year the Common Core standards are a factor, but even before then Fresno Unified lagged far behind the state average....In 2011 ...Fresno Unified had 11 percent ready for college English and only 4 percent ready for math...Trustee Carol Mills said the number doesn’t correlate with other factors the district uses to determine if a student is “college ready.” For example: nearly 50 percent of Fresno Unified graduates completed A-G requirements –basic high school courses students need to pass before college....The Data Dashboard also yielded other alarming statistics, including the fact that 58 percent of students had a D or an F on their report card last school year. There also are wide achievement gaps among minority students....Graduation rates, however, have increased in recent years, with nearly 82 percent of students graduating on time.". Unbelievable.
- If you read enough of those reports you see all sorts of attempts to make the numbers look better (see Jim Clark) or to minimize their importance. So how do you make the pile smell even better? The Bluegrass Institute has the answer with two pieces to look at, because the second is not so clear when you read it. The first piece explains, "...in some years during the past decade, more than 40 percent of Kentucky’s high-school graduates needed non-credit remedial course in one or more areas of English, math or reading. So, what’s happening? Dreamers in the bureaucracy are lowering the rim by getting rid of remedial classes.They wistfully think all will be well if these students, who are well behind, get placed in so-called “accelerated courses” – credit-bearing classes that promise to catch them up with their better-prepared peers. It’s a fanciful expectation that Robert King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, even admitted on Oct. 6 to the state Board of Education that professors in the university system are unhappy about.". So the officials entrusted to educate the students are attempting to lower the rim to make high school easier. The second piece explains the backlash from the local college system, "These department heads really took King to the woodshed for his obviously impractical ideas. A few quotes from the letter make it obvious that the math troops are really unhappy....“Adoption of the default placement model described in the Guiding Principles would indicate to the K-12 community that the postsecondary system no longer adheres to even these minimal standards for college readiness, let alone the more rigorous standards of the KCAS.”...“The impact of the co‐requisite model as a statewide standard will be particularly destructive in mathematics because students will no longer be held accountable by the postsecondary system for learning any algebra, not even the most basic algebra universally regarded as essential for college readiness in mathematics.”.....In closing, I must point out that critics of the Common Core State Standards predicted a dumbing down of college standards as an inevitable consequence of the adoption of what former Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday repeatedly admitted (such as here) were only “minimum” standards. After all, standards that omit high school trigonometry and pre-calculus are not going to get many kids ready for real college work. But, if the new college standard won’t even require high school mastery of algebra, we have a real problem.Clearly, the answer isn’t to dumb down the standards in Kentucky’s colleges. The real fix is to improve the quality of what comes out of Kentucky’s high schools." Thank goodness some people in Kentucky are not letting education officials destroy their state's education system. That would be a sad irony.
- Signs of the Times with a fascinating look at the illegal overthrow of Hawaii. The article has a two part video on the issue as well. I would venture to say the vast majority of Americans are unfamiliar with the history of Hawaii.
- Contra Costa Times on how UC Berkely aroused the ire of its students by not letting one of its adjunct teachers (and highest rated teacher) continue teaching. Sad.
- Signs of the Times again with the following story, "A Gillett, Wisconsin, high school school teacher went to the hospital after a group of students filled his soda with cleaning solution, police say. On Oct. 20, the Gillett Secondary School teacher noticed a strange smell coming from his bottle after he had left it unattended, Fox 11 News reports....While the teacher had no symptoms, he decided to admit himself to the hospital as a precaution....It was later discovered that two teenagers, a 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl, had put the solution into the teacher's drink. They reportedly told the police that they poured a small amount of the cleaning solution into the teacher's soda as a prank....The school district is still working to determine the correct disciplinary action".
- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has, according to Infowars, determined, "...using the term “politically correct” as a pejorative is a politically incorrect “microaggression”. A campaign entitled ‘Just Words’ which seeks to “raise awareness of microaggressions and their impact” asserts that the terms “politically correct” and “PC” have “become a way to deflect, [and say] that people are being too ‘sensitive’ and police language.”. They have some conclusions on other words, too.
- RT.com on "...administrators at a school district outside Boise, Idaho voted earlier this year to purchase four rifles, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and to train some staff to shoot".
- An article I just discovered in Psychology Today, which was written last month, talks about declining student resilience: "Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned .... two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them....Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively."