Saturday, April 18, 2009

Commentary on NAEP, Klein, Ravitch, and Pallas

Ed Notes responds to Columbia's Aaron Pallas' (alias Skoolboy) response to Joel Klein's response to Diane Ravitch. Got that? (We are still working on our own response to Ravitch, which will include comments from Sean Ahern.) As you can see in the cartoon, the Ohanian/Bacey crowd don't think it does matter much.

Responding to Joel Klein: Why NAEP Matters

Read Pallas' full response. He starts with:
NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s response in Wednesday’s New York Times to Diane Ravitch’s op-ed last week provides a lot to chew on. Today, I’m focusing on his comments about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Many of us have issues with the NAEP because it is just another standardized test (JAST) being used to judge schools and teachers. There have been some calls to use it as THE measure as a way to create national standards, which would lead to a national test. Ravitch and Weingarten are pushing in this direction it seems.

I want to focus on this point. Pallas says:
Quoting Klein: "Our fourth-grade scores on those tests are strong."
Surely the Chancellor must know that, when a test is administered in both the fourth and eighth grade, and he claims that the fourth-grade results are “strong,” and says nothing about the eighth grade, a reasonable person might wonder about the eighth-grade results. In fact, there have been no statistically significant gains in eighth-grade performance in New York City in either reading or math between 2003 and 2007 on the NAEP assessment, and no gains in fourth-grade reading either. Fourth-grade scores in New York City are “strong” only in the sense that there were significant gains in fourth-grade math performance from 2003 to 2007.

One thing Pallas doesn't point to is that even the rise in 4th grade math scores are suspect if the same student drops back by the 8th grade. Did this indicate there was great teaching in grade 4 and poor teaching from grades 5-8? Or the middle school experience was just so lousy? If you're going to live by the sword of high stakes testing to claim how well you are doing, you're going to die by it. My middle school friends used to complain all the time that the scores our kids were showing up with were not real. They could always tell which schools cheated or manipulated the most.

Let me tell you about my experiences with testing in elementary schools. As the math test loomed we prepared much of the day. I always had great success in getting good math scores because it was so much easier to prepare kids than it was in reading. I used to collect questions from old tests and from the first days of schools in September, I would put up a Do Now every day with a few sample questions. The problem solving part was the most difficult to prepare because it involved reading. So we taught the key words like if you see the word "less" think subtraction.

Now I didn't consider this real math teaching, which we basically suspended in the weeks preceding the exam (today I hear they start prepping in September). Math is especially developmental, and teaching in a scattered approach by preparing for all areas of the test at one time is actually harmful.

Teaching fractions and percent are prime examples, as is teaching prime numbers. You can try to get them to understand the process behind division of fractions or you can just tell them to invert the denominator and multiply. "But why. Mr. Teacher?" "Shut up and do it. We have a test to take and there's no time to get into understanding this crap," might be a response. Prime numbers? Just memorize the first 20.

No. I actually did teach this stuff the right way but as crunch time came there was so much to cover. The worst was the stuff we hadn't yet covered and required the speedy cramming approach. Basically, it was all a waste of time. The tests I gave in class were so much more relevant and useful and provided instant feedback. Like, if almost no one got the primes right, do it again.

There are other reasons why the 4th grade math scores went up. By adding a math coach to every school, there was now someone who could focus all the teachers on the subject. This is not a bad thing, though we used to have a Title I math pull-out person who did some of the same stuff. But one would expect the scores under Klein to rise when there's a person who can focus on test prep. Why the coach didn't affect the math scores in the 8th grade is a good question. And why reading scores didn't go up due to the same attention being paid to testing is beyond me.

I view all test prep for reading and math as akin to going to the gym and doing ten sets of bicep curls. You can actually see a muscle – for about an hour. My test of Klein's claims would be to test 1000 kids at random in June and compare the results to the tests from a few months before. I would give the tests the first week of October and then get down to real teaching for the rest of the year.

Elementary schools are a much more controlled environment than middle schools with the teacher having the flexibility to spend as much time on a subject as needed. There are also more opportunities for manipulation and even cheating. My supervisors used to sit in the office for hours going over all the test papers – doing what we were never sure. They claimed they were cleaning up errant pencil marks which could lower scores. And this was in the 80's and 90's, so the ed deformers and NCLB did not discover accountability. Pressure in my school was INTENSE. And there was tremendous resentment when the principal singled out teachers who consistently got high scores but everyone knew were not great. There was one who was absent every year for about 30 or more days but scored high all the time. The joke was: Imagine how well they would do if it was 60 days.

Forcing us to teach in this phony way drove many of us out of the self-contained classroom, a place I thought I would never leave. My 25 years with a test prep principal (since 1979) has informed the strong anti-high stakes testing position of Education Notes and I started bringing this position to UFT delegate assemblies, especially when Randi took over as president. She would tell me how much she agreed with me, her usual style, and I was fooled for years, hoping the UFT would use its influence to raise the alarm.

But it became clear that the UFT would fall right into line with the testing regime and try to use it to claim how well teachers were doing –remember the UFT and ed deformer stand that teaching quality is the most important factor– and make the argument for more money, even if it meant various forms of merit pay.

Joel Klein is defending the indefensible and even if the results on the NAEP were great, the idea of measuring schools and diverting them from their mission of doing a comprehensive job of teaching would still be wrong.

Talk about closing schools, ATRs, teachers under attack, and all the other foolhardy aspects of the ed deformer crowd – the root of all evil is high stakes testing.

Gerald Bracey on 50 years of the manuafactored "crisis" in American schools.

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