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Family and Friends is my everyday journal. Captain's Log is where I pontificate on religion and politics.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gaming the system

Alright enough about my granddaughter. I'm sure she'll be mentioned many times in the months and years to come.

Over at the Captain I posted a link to the entire transcript of last Friday's Bill Moyer's interview with David Simon of HBO's The Wire. It is an eye opening interview. One of the statements he made concerned an episode of the show on schools and testing. There was a clip in which one of the characters who left the police force to become a teacher figures out that all the statistics being gathered from the testing was just a way to manipulate the newspapers and people into believing that the schools were doing a better job than they actually are. In short gaming the system. That's caused me to reflect on the last twenty seven years of teaching. Bare with me as I go down memory lane.

When I started teaching the only standardized tests (outside of ACT or SAT's) were given to 3rd, 8th and 11th grades. Every summer the numbers would be released in the paper and the only people who used those numbers were real estate agents who could inflate the prices of the houses in the districts of the schools that had the highest numbers. Other than that nobody did much with them.
When George I was elected president and the cold war ended the republicans shifted their boogey man from Russia to American schools. Reagan laid the groundwork with his Presidential commission which produced a report called: A Nation At Risk. This is when the drum beat for yearly testing started. Naturally the NEA and AFT were against this, the argument being that teachers are hired to teach the subjects, if testing were to be done yearly teachers would be forced to teach students how to pass the tests, not history or English, or Algebra, etc.,which is why there is the constant shrilling about how the Unions are against improving the schools. Tell a lie loud enough and often enough and sooner or later people start believing it. Our legislature responded by creating a Competency Test that all public schools students must pass to get a diploma. If you don't pass it you get a certificate of attendance. The test is given to sophomores which gives them two years to make up any part of the test before graduation, and if there is still a part of the test not passed they have until they are twenty-two to pass it. Most pass it the first time. The GED is twice as hard as this test, and a passing grade is kept in the 40% range. In other words: Big Waste Of Time and Tax Payer Dollars, but the politicians could pat themselves on the back and boast that the were improving education in this state.
 The other demon in education is dropouts. There became a concerted effort to identify "students at risk" of dropping out. While teaching 7th and 8th grade English we had so called experts in identifying these students come to our school, take them out of class and give them a pep talk, and somehow all the money that paid these experts salaries was supposed to be translated into few of these students not quitting school. Meanwhile we were picketing before and after work hours to get a two percent pay increase that year.
By the Clinton administration even the democrats were joining the testing bandwagon. New tests came in, more grades were added to those needing to be tested, and as our school buildings deteriorated, as teachers retired and fewer and fewer college graduates looked at a starting teacher's salary and concluded that there was no way in hell they could pay off their students loans and live with this small an amount, more and more money was being drained away to pay for all the new tests. More faculty had to be hired to coordinate and administer the tests, fewer weeks were being spent on instruction and is now devoted to testing.
Then APS hired a superintendent who knew how to game the system. He negotiated a contract that specified that if certain goals were met he got bonuses. One of those bonuses was if the drop out rate was lowered. And he did it. He changed the way drop outs were counted. Previously a school would have the count of freshmen who enrolled at a certain high school and subtracted all those students four years later who graduated from that high school. The difference was your drop out rate. If you had six hundred freshmen and four years later your graduating class was three hundred you had a 50% dropout rate. Really pretty simple.
Dr. A had the dropout rated calculated by how many seniors enrolled and subtracted how many graduated at the end of that school year. So if you enrolled 330 seniors and 300 graduated then you only had 30 dropouts and that came to less than 10%. Amazing how he got his bonus that year. The newspapers and tv anchors were all singing his praises. He lowered APS's dropout rate by 30% in one year. It's stunning how easy it is to trick MSM with cooked books.
The Der Decider was elected. No Child Left Behind was hailed as a milestone for education. We began calling it "Leave No Child A Dime." Testing now comes with consequences. If schools don't reach a certain level of proficiency they lose money, teachers can be reassigned to other schools, the state or federal governments can come in and require better training so on and so forth. Every year the proficiency goes up until all schools will have all students at a 100% proficiency by 2012. The perfect recipe for every year letting the media squeal about how terrible our schools are. It is an impossible standard to meet, and then Bushco pulled the rug out from under it by refusing to fund all the federal mandates that had to be met. Even neocon heaven Utah screamed foul.
For the last eight years and counting from February to April there is very little instruction going on. It's all testing. Freshmen are tested one week, all other students stay home. Then Sophomores, get the picture. In the fall we have two practice testing days where we simulate the testing to get them ready. We have thirty minutes added onto one class every Wednesday were all student have to answer a math question, then we discuss how to get points on the test even if you don't know the answer! It's easy, each question has four points, you get one point if you rephrase the question, one point for attempting to figure it out, and two points for getting it right. Even if you get every question wrong if you do steps one and two you have a 50%. I'm not making this up.
On our In-Service days for two years years we had a testing cheerleader come with fancy posters, snappy phrases, and the secret of how we could get our students to pass these tests. They won't let us know how much was spent flying this guy here to give us this pep talk, or how much we spent buying his fancy posters that we all had to put up in our rooms. Want to know the big secret? Have the students underline key question words like who, what, when, where, why, and how. Then on the multiple choice answers cross out the answers they knew to be wrong so they could focus on the two answers that come close to being right. There's big bucks in selling snake oil to superintendents today.
The reason given for all of this testing was that it would identify the schools that need the most help and the government would come in to set things right. As David Simon points out it's really all about gaming the system. Are the students getting a better education today when most schools can claim that their test scores show improvement? Or has it just taken a few years for the schools to know how to manipulate the statistics.


Michael Manning said...

P M: A well-balanced report that hits on all 8 cylenders. My heart goes out to you for being handcuffed from teaching. I have 5 friends who are teachers--4 of them high school teachers and 1 in elementary education. I would welcome a post on some thoghts you have on fixing this mess. You are clearly a dedicated teacher "in the trenches". You inspire me with your passion and your patience. Do not give up!

P M Prescott said...

I'll give it some thought, stay tuned.