Get real about student achievement

It’s one thing for school boards to establish educational goals and quite another to lose sight of reality in doing so (“Here’s the problem with L.A. Unified’s latest pie-in-the-sky ideas – they’re likely to fail,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 12).  The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, is a case in point.  A new resolution originally called for all third-graders to meet standards on the state’s annual standardized tests, for all eighth-graders to earn at least a C in English and math, and for all high school graduates get a C or better in all courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.

I can understand if the board had stipulated a realistic percentage who would achieve these objectives.  But instead it said 100 percent.  That’s impossible in a district as large and diverse as the LAUSD.  The large number of students from impoverished backgrounds alone would make this impossible.  In fact, even the best school districts can’t be expected to do so.

What will surely happen is that widespread cheating by teachers and principals will follow.  That’s because of the existence of Campbell’s Law: the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.  We saw that happen in other school districts.  Why would the LAUSD be any different?  The best any district can hope for is that scores will improve over time.  Even then, not all students will show improvement for one reason or another.

Recognizing its unrealistic thinking, the LAUSD board reversed itself by saying that the goal was to “prepare” all high school graduates to be eligible to apply to a California four-year university.  I still maintain that the board is living in a dreamworld.

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SAT has little predictive value

At first glance, defenders of the SAT and ACT seem to have a solid case.  They say schools vary so widely in their grading that it’s impossible to know with any certainty who will be successful in handling college-level work. That’s why these two measurement icons must not be eliminated (“The War on Admissions Testing,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 2).

But that’s not what the best evidence shows.  In 1984, Bates College decided to engage in a pioneering experiment.  It made the submission of SAT scores optional for admission.  In 2004, it announced the results of its 20-year study.  It found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and nonsubmitters.  Since then, hundreds of other colleges and universities have followed suit, with similar results.

The roots of the controversy go back to the start of World War I when the country was faced with the urgent need to quickly identify officer candidates.  Finding itself ill equipped for the task at hand, the military turned to the American Psychological Association for help. Working out of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, a special committee came up with the Army Alpha, which allowed recruits to be ranked according to their intellectual abilities.

In all, some 1,750,000 men the Army Alpha.  It proved so successful that its designers decided to apply the same approach to whatever subject content was being measured.  This eventually led to the design of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 by psychologist Carl Brigham, who believed that it assessed innate ability.  But there is a distinct difference between an aptitude test and an achievement test.  Although they may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.

Unfortunately, this distinction is completely lost in the continuing controversy over the use of both the SAT and ACT.  To most people, a test is a test.  That’s a misleading conclusion, as the experience of so many colleges and universities today shows.

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Janus decision undermines teachers’ unions

In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory public-employee labor organization union fees (“Supreme Court Deals Blow to Public-Sector Unions,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 27).  It also held that workers must expressly opt into the union before fees can be taken out of their paychecks.

Prior to Janus v. American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees Council 31, teachers who didn’t want to join the union were required to pay agency fees when those fees were used for collective-bargaining.  The ruling was cheered by some as a corrective to the high court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977.

I’ll restrict my comments to the effects that the decision will have on teachers.  Their unions will continue to exist, but they will be severely undermined.  With the exception of diehards, many teachers will let their membership expire because they will get the same benefits as if they had paid.  These free riders will have it both ways: They will pay nothing to their union but will get full benefits. Teacher union membership in the Los Angeles Unified School District has already declined from 42,000 to 31,000 since 2007.

If those teachers genuinely believe in what they are doing is right, they should refuse to accept whatever benefits their unions provide.  I vividly remember when some teachers at the high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years crossed the picket lines during the three strikes I participated in.  They said they did so because they believed in the “right to work.”  Well, no one was preventing them from working.

As teachers in public schools across the nation continue to be attacked from all sides and their unions are hamstrung, who will want to make a career in the classroom?  It’s a bleak picture.

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Tracking benefits are poorly understood

The U.S. continues to resist tracking in the belief that it is elitist.  Any attempt to differentiate among students is seen as anathema to democratization.  The latest example is New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system (“The Complex Disadvantages Underlying New York City’s Specialized-High-School Dilemma,” The New Yorker, Jun. 15).

The pride of the district are the nine high schools that are known for their rigor.  Although the system is two-thirds black or Hispanic, less than a tenth of the spots went to them.  According to critics, the culprit is the Specialized High School Admissions Test that is administered once a year to middle schoolers across the city who apply to eight of the high schools. (The city’s ninth such school uses auditions.)

Yet blaming SHSAT for the situation forgets that the specialized high schools were not always so segregated.  In the 1980s, the three oldest and most prestigious such schools had sizable black and Hispanic enrollment.  For example, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant were 67, 22 and 16 percent black and Hispanic, respectively. That compares with 14, 9 and 3 percent, respectively, today.

What accounts for the change?  In a nutshell, the elimination of tracking. In the past, tracking was well funded and widely used. This strategy served as a pipeline for talented students. But in the early 1990s, New York City eliminated many of its honors programs.  As a result, the most able students were shortchanged.  Critics will argue that correlation is not causation.  They say that poverty is greater today than ever before.  There is some truth to that, but I maintain that the far greater cause is the abolishment of tracking.

Other countries with outstanding schools have no such problem with differentiation. For example, Singapore, whose students consistently finish at or near the top on tests of international competition, begins the process with its Primary School Leaving Exam and continues it throughout the school years. Singapore is not alone.

I support efforts to make specialized schools more diverse, but not if it involves the establishment of quotas.  Enrolling students who lack the wherewithal to succeed sets them up for failure.  Elite schools are not for everyone.

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College is not the place for remediation

Of the more than 3 million high school graduates this month, fewer than 40 percent enrolling in a four-year college will graduate in four years (“Too many kids are dropping out of college – here’s how to fix it,” New York Post, Jun. 11).  As pressure mounts on colleges to improve this dismal picture, some are implementing what amounts to remedial education.

But I question if four-year colleges should be doing this at all.  When high schools fail to teach students the necessary knowledge and skills, then the proper place for remediation should be community colleges. Four-year institutions were never meant for that. The truth is that not everyone is college material.  So many students would be far better served by a solid vocational education, combined with concurrent apprenticeships.

The widely cited wage premium attached to possession of a bachelor’s degree over a high school diploma fails to take into account the major.  I doubt that a degree in art history, for example, is more valuable in the marketplace than a certificate in, say, plumbing.  That’s before even considering onerous student debt.

Only in this country has college been so wildly oversold.  It’s little wonder that many students are dropping out.  They have been the victims of inept counseling and societal pressure.

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Universal parental choice worth a try

With vouchers one of the most controversial issues in education in this country, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Chile, which instituted universal vouchers in 1981 (“What Might Happen If School Vouchers And Privatization Of Schools Were To Become Universal In The U.S.: Learning From A National Test Case – Chile,” National Education Policy Center, June).

The greatest criticism of a universal voucher system is that it favors middle-class families at the expense of low-income families.  It does so because schools primarily select students more than students select schools.  (Think of this as what takes place now when high school seniors apply to college.)  Chile proved this is the case because schools were allowed to use admissions tests and parental interviews to determine which students to admit.  Moreover, since 1993 voucher schools were allowed to charge parents an additional amount over the government voucher. As a result, universal choice really is constrained choice.

Critics of vouchers forget, however, that no educational system is perfect.  Rather than abolish vouchers, I say why not make them fairer.  Let’s not forget that low-income black parents in the U.S. constitute a disproportionate part of the wait lists for charter schools.  They demand choice. For example, in New York City’s Harlem and the South Bronx, there are nearly four applicants for each available charter seat.  Why are they denied that opportunity? Is it because charters don’t provide bus transportation or require unaffordable uniforms?

The irony is that in Chile the performance gap between the country as a whole and the poorest 40 percent was cut by one-third in just five years.  That’s a huge accomplishment given short shrift in the debate.  Let’s learn from Chile to try to improve the education offered to so many low-income black and Hispanic students.

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SAT/ACT essay is still valid

When Yale University recently announced that it will no longer require applicants to submit an essay score, it joined other elite schools in what has become a disturbing trend (“Another big-name university drops SAT/ACT essay requirement,” The Washington Post, Jun. 1). Although admissions officers say that writing is an indispensable skill, their words ring hollow in light of their new policies.

The only possible rationale for their decision is that timed writing does not permit applicants to demonstrate their true ability.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, professors told us that the ability to write under pressure was only one indication of competence.  Most reflective writing requires thought that cannot easily be expressed when time is of the essence.

Short of that caveat, I maintain that colleges and universities are hypocritical.  If they genuinely believe that the ability to put one’s thoughts on paper is so important, then they have to demand evidence.  In short, they need to assess that wherewithal. Multiple-choice items are no substitute. Both the SAT and ACT would be receptive since it means additional income for them.

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Discriminating against Asians in college admission

If merit were the primary factor in determining admission to elite colleges and universities, Asian-American applicants would likely occupy far more seats than they do now (“The Balancing Game,” The Weekly Standard, Jun. 8).  That’s the basis for the closely watched lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University.

We know that because the student body at Caltech, which does not use racial preferences, is more than 40 percent Asian-Americans.  A similar pattern is seen at Stuyvesant High School in the New York City system and at other specialized high schools there, where Asian-American students constitute 52.5 percent of enrollment.  I realize that merit alone has never been the sole factor in determining admission.  Colleges have long granted preference to legacies, athletes and others.  But two wrongs don’t make a right.  Setting a higher bar for Asian-Americans makes a mockery of fairness.

I was reminded once again about this after reading the latest issue of The Concord Review.  Of the 11 high school students whose work was published in this highly regarded journal, five were Asians.  They all demonstrated impressive research and writing ability.  Will Fitzhugh, the editor and publisher, makes no apology for relying strictly on merit in deciding who makes the cut.  Nor should he.  Students deserve the exposure they get because they’ve earned it.  I think the same thing should hold true for colleges and universities.  Let’s see what the outcome of the Harvard lawsuit is.

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The ‘rotten’ teacher problem

One of the favorite subjects of opinion writers is the presence in public schools of what they call “rotten” teachers (“Why New York refuses to identify rotten teachers,” New York Post, Jun. 2).  They claim that the only objective way of identifying them is how their students perform on standardized tests.

I understand their anger and frustration.  There are teachers who do not belong in the classroom and should be fired.  But what I object to is the belief that standardized test scores are the way to do so.  The truth is that so much of the effectiveness of teachers is determined by the students assigned to them.  As I’ve written often before, give a weak teacher a class of Talmudic scholars and that teacher will shine.  Conversely, give a strong teacher a class of future felons and that teacher will fail.

If teachers were randomly assigned students, which is rarely the case, then perhaps an argument can be made for using test scores.  Even then, however, great caution has to be taken in drawing conclusions.  I emphasize that because much of any teacher’s performance is dependent on factors beyond his control.  If students come to class without proper rest and nutrition, they are not going to be receptive to learning, regardless of the quality of instruction.

Blaming unions for resisting the use of test scores to evaluate teachers is scapegoating.  Yes, unions exist to protect their members, but that does not mean nothing they do is without merit.  De-linking test scores from evaluation is a good example.

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Homeschooling’s appeal grows

Concerns about violence, drugs, bullying and sex are driving more parents to choose homeschooling for their children (“Educational decline: Homeschooling surges as parents see safer option for children,” The Washington Times, May 31).  According to a 2017 Department of Education report, some 1.69 million students from ages 5 to 17 are now homeschooled.  That compares with about 1.5 million five years earlier. However, the number may be higher because most states are not required to keep count.

Shootings stand out as being the No. 1 factor, as parents lose confidence in the ability of school officials to protect their children from harm.  I understand their concern, but home schooling is a commitment that many parents do not fully appreciate.  For example, although studies have shown that homeschooled students perform better on academic tests than their peers in public school, such studies depend on voluntary participation.  Moreover, children risk being socially isolated.

If parents fully understand what is required to provide their children with a quality education, then I get the appeal. The problem is that many parents learn too late that they are over their head.

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