Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mastery Test Scores Down

Surprise, surprise, surprise

Overall mastery test scores in Connecticut declined in 2004, according to statistics released by the state Department of Education. Mastery tests are given to students in the 4th, 6th and 8th grade every fall; they test reading, writing and mathematics skills.

So what does this have to do with politics? An awful lot, actually. See, mastery test scores are used to determine whether or not a school district is compliant with the federal No Child Left Behind act of 2001, which mandates strict penalties for schools deemed "failing" (i.e., those who don't show "adequate yearly progress" on standardized tests) for two years in a row. Penalties can include mandated tutors or allowing students to transfer to other districts. District superintendents and school boards desperately want to avoid being slapped with the "failing" label (it's not just about pride; there is no money provided to districts to help them hire tutors or bus kids out of town), so they put pressure on principals to deliver higher test scores, who in turn put pressure on teachers to, as they say, teach to the test.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the goalposts keep being moved:

Education officials said it is difficult to interpret this year's test results because for the first time they include the scores of many special-education students and new arrivals to American schools who still are learning English. (Pearson)

No allowences are made for these students. Almost all of them take the test at grade level. What does that mean?

Let me tell you a story. I was, for three years, a high school teacher in an exurban district outside Hartford. I taught ninth grade English. One of my students was a boy with Down's syndrome. Let's call him Jake. Jake was mostly a sweet kid, although he could be fiercely stubborn at times. He liked to please his teachers, but didn't like to actually do work. He had a very difficult time with pronunciation, and had to work to be understood. He loved hockey and football.

Jake wasn't very good at English. His reading comprehension was very, very low and he could barely write. He had an aide in class with him who helped keep him on task. He could probably read and write at around the level of a first grader, if that. One of my enormous breakthroughs that year was teaching Jake to write complete sentences. They weren't great, but they had a subject, a verb, and sometimes an object.

What? No, this wasn't a special education class. He was in with the regular low-level kids, he just did different things. Why? Jake's parents were lawyers who wanted him to have a "normal" school experience. A story for another time.

Jake was actually a sophomore, but was in with freshmen. This meant that, as a sopohomore, he had to take the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, or CAPT (I liked to refer to it as CrAPT... but that was just me), with the rest of his class. CAPT is a vast and intimidating test that measures reading comprehension, writing skills, math skills and science ability. It's not easy. Students take it over the course of a week and a half. Thanks to new laws handed down a few years ago, CAPT is now a graduation requirement for this year's high school juniors, of which Jake is one. The idea is to make "goal". A lot of students don't make it.

Surely, you think, Jake wouldn't have to take exactly the test that the other kids were taking, right? They'd modify it... right?

Nope. Jake took the test at grade level. A Down's boy who could barely write sentences took the unaltered CAPT last year. Only in "extreme" cases of mental retardation are students allowed to opt out. Jake didn't qualify. Only one percent of special education students do. I can just imagine him sitting in front of an incomprehensible test for hours a day, for a week and a half. Of course his score was terrible. It was factored in to the school's general score though, and, surprise, the school didn't quite make Adequate Yearly Progress.

Imagine this happening all over the state, at all grade levels. Mentally retarded kids and immigrant students who barely speak the language are expected to take the test at grade level, which means with their age cohort, instead of at their instructional level, which would be what they could actually be expected to do.

Scores decline. Everyone is surprised. Teachers, who are on the front lines, get the blame.

The solution? More testing. By next year there will be standardized tests at every grade level from 3-8, on top of CAPT in 10th grade.

[Education Commissioner Betty] Sternberg says the new tests will cost the state millions that could be better spent on programming that will help close the achievement gap. But the federal government isn't budging, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said that tests are a linchpin of school accountability. The department has denied the state's request to test only every other year. (AP)

The "achievement gap" is the widening gulf between rich and poor students. One of the obvious things the testing has shown us is that students in West Hartford do a lot better at standardized tests than do students in neighboring Hartford or New Britain. Better preschool programs, which Sternberg wants to fund in cities, could make a difference in how inner city kids develop and grow. But no, that won't happen, because those kids need standardized tests as third graders far more than they need preschool programs.

God, it's demoralizing. Teachers and other education professionals are all jumping up and down, waving their hands and screaming that more testing is exactly what kids don't need. But the U.S. Education Department, which actually seems to see teachers as the enemy, won't soften its stance one bit. One of the reasons I left teaching was to escape that soul-crushing feeling of helplessness... and I wasn't the only one to go.

So now panicky towns and cities will be spending more time and money on making sure their students do well on the standardized tests instead of actually teaching them the skills they'll need to survive and thrive in modern society. In the meantime, a lot of real and vital issues surrounding education and society in general fall by the wayside. In the end, I fear that no child will be left behind... because they never actually went anywhere.

Pearson, Dan. "Local Student Performance On CMT Dips". New London Day 29 March, 2005. (registration required)
"Sternberg Says More Tests Will Hurt State". Associated Press 29 March, 2005.


stomv said...

I grew up in the 80s in Brookfield CT schools. Now, Brookfield is a town with good schools -- a high percentage of folks in Brookfield make substantial money and have stable homes, so you've got both high revenue from property taxes and supportive home environments, both substantially correlated to high performance.

I remember taking the California Achievement Tests (IIRC) every other year for about a week. I performed well, but what a miserable experience.

I understand the instinct to give standardized tests to measure achievement. But, if tests take 5 full teaching days each year, by the time a kid graduates high school he'll have lost almost 1/3 of a whole school year to testing.

There is something to be said for learning how to perform well in testing environments, but I don't believe that its more relevant than learning the concepts and facts Americans must learn. You can take a test or you can learn -- you can't do both at the same time.

As for teaching the test... it's only natural for the teachers to do it, and it isn't great for the kids. To be sure, it is important for kids to be able to put facts on paper, but I don't believe the facts are particularly useful without a solid "theoretical" foundation to keep these facts in context.

Ugh. I just don't understand the justification. The only thing I can come up with is that it is an attempt to measure not for the kids, but to try to more tightly measure the performance of teachers. Sure, every kid is different and sometimes a teacher ends up with a classroom full of blunt minds, but ability should average out in the long run.

Finally, as for the comment about moving the goalposts: it's essentially the same scenario as the following: (a) start with all kids (including those like Jake) with performance requirement x, and then (b) raising it to y a few years later. If the special-ed kids don't take the regular test, there is a danger of a school intentionally mis-diagnosing a less-than-bright student as "special-ed" so that he or she doesn't bring down the test scores. The flip side is that special-ed kids benefit from extra time in school learning... not from taking a test that's entirely confusing, frustrating, demenaning, and so difficult that it might as well be in Chinese. Going through that for a week every year is just a waste of everybody's resources.

It's a tough problem: if you want to measure performance across the country, how do you handle special-ed kids? Ultimately, I don't understaind why the GOP, the "states rights" party, puts up with this meddling from the White House anyway.

tkd27 said...

I just graduated high school in 2001. I remember how annoying the CAPT prep was. The administration basically highjacked all our classes to teach us only what we needed to pass the CAPT. My Latin teacher used to get so angry that he was required by the school to devote a segment of every class to teaching English, with the reason that there was no Latin on the CAPT.

My understanding of NCLB is that it allows the states to set it's own measure of student success. For example, the state could decide NOT to use the mastery test, or modify it.

Is that true? Do states have ultimate leeway, or are they bound by certain conditions, such as the one that requires all kids test at their grade level?

Anyone know the specifics of what we could do to influence Connecticut to change it's basis for testing for NCLB?

stomv said...

If I understand correctly, a state can walk away from NCLB... and its huge financing.

Since it doesn't lower your citizens' federal taxes, should you walk away from NCLB then your state ends up contributing to everybody else's NCLB funds, and still has to make up the gap in state funding via state/local taxes.

So, states walking away from NCLB doesn't hurt other states, but it allows that single state to get reamed.

It's possible, but not really feasible. And, if I understand my political history correctly, this is a function of the Democratic shift in school funding away from local and more toward state and federal funding, in an effort to use the money from rich areas to help schools in poorer areas. But, I'm sure its far more complex than this post makes it out to be...