Standardized tests are useful when properly used

No other issue in education is as poorly understood as testing.  And no aspect of testing is more controversial than standardized tests. That’s why it’s ironic that on the same day as schools in New York State were administering standardized math exams, the state Assembly passed legislation to bar the results of such tests as part of the teacher and principal evaluation process (“State Assembly passes bill to stop schools from linking student test scores to teacher evaluations,” New York Daily News, May 2).

If I had not taught for 28 years, I would be totally opposed to the action.  After all, shouldn’t effective instruction be reflected in how students perform on a test?  But that view is based on the assumption that all tests are created equal. The fact is that tests are measuring instruments.  How they are designed largely determines student outcomes.

Most standardized tests are created to allow students to be ranked.  If test makers loaded up their instruments with the most important material taught effectively by teachers, scores would likely be bunched together, making comparisons difficult.  To avoid that possibility, the tests contain items that have been shown in the past to produce score spread. I call those trick questions. It’s unfair, but it produces the desired outcomes.

A far better use of standardized tests is for diagnostic purposes.  I believe teachers would welcome the results as a way of providing them with invaluable feedback.  Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, uses that approach.  It does not name and shame schools, treating test scores confidentially.  I realize that many people will view this suggestion as an excuse for poor instruction.  But I submit it’s worth a try.  That’s why I’m not opposed to what New York State has done.

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High school graduation rise not what it seems

At first glance, the increase in the on-time high school graduation rate to 83 percent from 79 percent in 2010-11 is great news (“Is the high school graduation rate really going up? Brookings, May 3).  But a closer look reveals that it is no time for celebration.

To understand why, it’s necessary to keep in mind how the rate is calculated.  It takes the number of students in a school that enters the 9th grade (the cohort) and compares that number with the number graduating four years later.  It seems so simple and so fair.  But schools have learned how to game the process.

For one thing, they are not supposed to remove a student from the cohort until they receive a request for records from another school.  In other words, they are not supposed to count students as transfers when in reality they have dropped out.  But schools violate this rule to inflate their graduation rates.  They also fail to identify students who are enrolled in adult education, further distorting the data.

Finally – and most egregiously – they resort to credit recovery as a way to make themselves look good.  According to the Education Department, 89 percent of high schools offered at least one credit recovery course and 15 percent were in some credit recovery.  As a result, some 2 million or more high school students are in credit recovery each year.  Credit recovery allows students to get full credit for a semester’s work for a course lasting only one week.

On the basis of the evidence, the real graduation rate may actually be falling – not rising.  Only a thorough audit, combined with protection for whistleblowers, can determine the truth.

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Military parents deserve school choice

At present, military parents are limited to local public schools for the education of their children.  But efforts are underway to give them the same right that civilian parents possess by defunding a program known as Impact Aid. (“Betsy DeVos Is Facing Backlash for Her Plan to Push School Vouchers on Military Families,” The Nation, May 1).

Because military bases are tax-exempt sites, the federal government has long offered subsidies that are designed to offset the lack of resources normally provided by local property taxes. That certainly is fair.  But recent House education legislation would divert the funds to Education Savings Accounts to give military parents greater choice.

If the bill becomes law, it has to give parents enough to pay for private schools and other services.  Unfortunately, it does not, offering a maximum of $4,500 for families in high-needs Impact Aid districts or $2,500 for those families outside those areas.  That certainly is not fair because the amounts do not come close to paying for the full cost of private schools, which is roughly $10,000.

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, the bill needs to be altered to reflect the true cost of non-public school tuition.  I say that because military parents already sacrifice so much in serving the country.  Yes, choice always involves doing due diligence.  But I maintain that military parents should have the same right to decide which school is best for their own children.

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When diversity clashes with excellence

Although diversity is a worthy objective in education, the No. 1 goal should be excellence. When we focus on the former over the latter, there will be unintended consequences (“DeBlasio’s school ‘diversity’ plan will be a progressive failure,” New York Post, May 2). New York City serves as a case in point, but it is not unique.

Until recently, all students there had to apply and be accepted to a middle school.  Their status was determined by scores on the state exams.  But because this criterion has resulted in a disproportionate number of white and Asian students, Mayor Bill DeBlasio wants to give priority to students who don’t meet the requirement. It includes students who score a 1, which is “well below proficient.” In short, the mayor wants to establish a racial quota system.

The unavoidable effect will be to force teachers to lower their instruction to the lowest achieving student.  That might please their parents, but what about the other students?  I’ll bet their parents will demand instruction geared to their needs.  They might even pull their own children out and enroll them in private or religious schools.  Depicting such parents as racist is outrageous.

I don’t think diversity and equity can simultaneously exist on a large scale. Any attempt to engineer diversity based on rigid quotas will invariably result in pushback.  The closest we’ve come to that goal is some charter schools.  But charters play by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.

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Teacher tenure is still needed

Teacher tenure is depicted by critics as the villain in attempts to improve education.  Yes, there have been abuses, but there’s another side of the story that deserves telling (“Dear Mr. Chancellor, please stop the grade-fixing in NYC schools,” New York Post, Apr. 14).  It has to do with wholesale grade-fixing fraud orchestrated by the principal at John Dewey High School in the New York City system.

When Kathleen Elvin became principal in 2012, she launched “Project Graduation” in an attempt to boost the graduation rate.  Aside from shortchanging students through credit recovery courses, she retaliated against unwilling teachers by giving them the lowest rating of “ineffective.” Two teachers blew the whistle, which eventually led to an audit by the state Education Department confirming the fraud.  But the Board of Regents has never held any guilty party accountable.

Here’s my point: If the teachers who exposed this scandal did not possess tenure, they would have been fired under some trumped-up charge. Even with the existence of tenure, teachers are still harassed by abusive principals.  But at least they still have their jobs.  Exemplary reputations do not protect teachers from such abuse.  What puzzles me in this case is that the two whistleblowers say the United Federation of Teachers failed to support their cause.  Bully principals are nothing new.  I’ve written before about the situation several years ago at Brooklyn Tech, an elite high school in the New York City system.

If tenure were abolished, how many teachers would be willing to expose similar scandals?  Tenure merely guarantees that teachers receive due-process protection.  It’s important to keep that in mind as pressure mounts to eliminate it or gut it.  As Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

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Strict schools appeal to some parents

It should be evident by now that a school which is ideal for one child is a disaster for another (“What It’s Like to Study at the Strictest School in Britain,” Time, Apr. 20). Although I have reference to Michaela Community School in Wembley Park, which is an impoverished section of north London, I submit that my remarks are equally relevant to schools in this country.

Founded in 2014, Michaela is built on order and discipline, to the extent that some liken it to the British army.  Everything is timed and regimented.  That includes behavior at lunch time and between classes. Students get demerits for failing to follow the rigid rules, like not sitting up straight at their desks and not tracking the teacher with their eyes.

Michaela is one of about 400 free schools in Britain. They are like charter schools here: independently operated by non-profit groups.  That means teachers design their own curriculum and create their own textbooks.  Rote learning characterizes instruction. Group projects are absent.  Ofsted, the government’s independent regulator, gave it a rating of “outstanding” in May 2017.  How students will perform on the national exams known as the GCSEs that all students in the country take at age 15 or 16 remains unknown.

So much of Michaela in London reminds me of Success Academy in New York City.  Both schools are highly controversial. But they can be just what some students need and want. Yet the same can be said of their opposite, the controversial Summerhill School in Suffolk, England.  In the 1960s, Summerhill captured the attention of the public by rejecting the model of rigid, joyless schools.  It was “child-centered,” which meant that the authority of teachers and most school rules were eliminated.  It too had its vocal supporters.

My point is that what works so well for some students can destroy other students. That’s why I have long advocated parental choice.  Parents know the needs and interests of their own children. Let them choose.  I know all the arguments against parental choice.  But in the final analysis, I maintain that it is still the best way.

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Behemoth school districts are unmanageable

Within weeks of each other, New York City and Los Angeles, the nation’s first and second largest school systems, respectively, in the nation, named new leaders (“L.A.’s new schools chief Beutner pledges to learn and to take action,” Los Angeles Times, May 2).  Both Richard Carranza in New York City and Austin Beutner in Los Angeles face uncannily similar challenges.  If history is any guide, neither will be able to achieve anywhere near what they promise.

I say that because both systems have been struggling financially and academically for years.  Much of the problem is the result of similar demographics.  The large percentage of students from low-income homes bring huge deficits in socialization and motivation to the classroom through no fault of their own.  It’s hard to find a solution, but when the districts are huge it’s impossible.  Yet no one dares talk about breaking up the two behemoths into a more manageable size.  I made this point in a letter to the editor published in the Los Angeles Times on May 3 (“Another experiment”).

This has nothing to do with ideology.  Instead, it has everything to do with management.  I don’t believe that diversity and excellence can exist simultaneously when schools are faced with overwhelming numbers of students who are so needy.  I wish Carranza and Beutner well, but I remain highly skeptical about their ability to turn their respective systems around.

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Teacher protests symbolize desperation

After stoically accepting increasing demands without commensurate salary increases for years, teachers are fed up (“Arizona Teachers Are Out On the Largest Strike in State History. Here’s Why,” In These Times, Apr. 26). They’re showing their disaffection by engaging in more work stoppages so far this year than in any full year since 1993, according to the Bureau of Labor.

The combination of accountability demands, coupled with lack of adjustment in their salaries as adjusted for inflation, has resulted in revolts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.  Critics of such demonstrations say that if teachers don’t like what has happened since 1992, they can always quit.  That’s the same argument used when workers attempt to organize in any field: No one is forcing them to stay.

But there’s one difference. It’s one thing to recruit workers in factories and quite another to recruit college graduates to become teachers.  If the situation doesn’t improve, who will teach the young?  We’re already seeing this happen.  According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of people entering teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 55 percent between 2008 and 2012.  Nationally, the drop was 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to federal data. If teaching is such a plum, as some charge, why aren’t college grads flocking to the field?

Critics of strikes by teachers counter that college grads avoid making teaching a career because of the lack of opportunity to advance professionally.  But nothing has changed in this regard.  What has changed, however, is the growing gap between salaries and the cost of living.  Teachers are often forced to moonlight in order to make ends meet.  Dedication doesn’t pay the bills.

What about the argument that there is no money to pay teachers more? For example, Arizona hands out approximately $14 billion in tax exemptions, while taking in $9.8 billion in its general fund.  The latter is how the state pays for its schools. The difference accounts in large part for the state’s present situation regarding schools. Teachers there want per-student spending to reach the national average. I don’t think that demand is unreasonable.

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Non-college grad future is hardly bleak

Repeating something often enough does not make it true.  I have reference now to the assertion that lack of a four-year college degree means a lifetime of low earnings (“Jobs for the working class: Raising earnings among non-college graduates,” Brookings, Apr. 23). I’ve yet to see a study that compares salaries broken down by college major with those broken down by vocational specialization.

Students who receive a bachelor’s degree in the humanities, for example, find no labor market reward compared to students who complete a vocational curriculum concurrent with an apprenticeship. Not only are the latter immediately employed, but they are not burdened by onerous debt.  Yet we persist in the fiction that some associate degrees and certificates are not as marketable as bachelor degrees. It’s a myth.

I’m not saying that the value of a college degree should be measured solely by what its holders earn.  There are indeed other benefits.  But going to a four-year college or university today costs a small fortune.  No one is going to believe this, but when I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s, tuition for the full academic year was $800, which could be paid in two equal installments.  There was also a general fee of $135, which provided for services not covered by the tuition.  It too was payable in two equal installments when tuition was due.  The cost of 400-page required textbooks rarely exceeded  $11.

It’s unlikely that costs will diminish in the years ahead, as so many more people buy into the college mania.  By the time graduates pay off their student loans, however, they might wish they had learned a trade instead.

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Dress codes need flexibility

It never ceases to amaze me how common sense in enforcing school rules is lacking. Consider dress codes  (“Is Your Body Appropriate to Wear to School?,” The New York Times, Apr. 19). Even when parents buy in to the policy, it is no guarantee of its success.

I have in mind now the case of a 17-year old at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Fla. who didn’t wear a bra because of a painful sunburn.  Realizing that she was in violation of the school’s dress code, she wore an oversized T-shirt to conceal her nipples.  Rather than accept her reasonable explanation, school administrators humiliated her.

This is another example of how zero tolerance policies have backfired when schools have refused to back down in the face of plausible excuses. The girl in question used sound judgment, but that was not enough to get her off the hook.  When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember vividly the result of a ban on short skirts that did not meet the stipulated length.  All it did was create countless hours of work for administrators, who summoned the girls to their offices and used a ruler to determine if the girls were in violation.

I have nothing against school dress codes, including uniforms, but I think they have to be reasonable in light of changing fashions.  In the final analysis, they can succeed when flexibility is used.

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