Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Op-Ed on Iowa Tests vs WASL

Every once in a while I try to win friends and influence people.....
Here's one of those attempts.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Letter from a former student

Every once in a while it is nice to know that students appreciate what you tried to do. Of course, it's a lot better if they appreciate it while you still have them!
Dear Mr. Dean
While you probably don't remember me, I took your algebra class four years ago as a know it all, math doesn't really matter student. While I am not sure if you will find any of this information useful, I wanted to thank you for efforts teaching math, and give a word of advice to students. A phrase universally known by all math students; is it doesn't matter. I’m a junior at the University of Connecticut, and can refute any such claims. Math is at the heart of everything I do, and I could argue that is a necessity in any profession, no matter how trivial. I perform statistical analysis for the baseball team on campus, and even from a fan's perspective math is instrumental in evaluation. As a “finance major”, I rely on basic algebraic principles in analysis for stocks, or even basic business plans. I would challenge any of your students that think math does not pertain to them, how they would determine how many burgers to produce at McDonalds, or how many houses a garbage truck can stop at in one day. If they are football players, ask them how they know what play to run, as it comes down again to mathematics and probability ratios. There are factors in everyone's life that are inescapable; taxes, finance, professional efficiency, and those with the greater understanding of mathematics will have the advantage. It took me years to appreciate this, and I would offer these words to any students like me that think somehow it won't apply to them. It will! Whether they go to college, play sports, or go onto work after graduation.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Day's End

Look at where you are going.....
.....Not where you've been!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"Research Says" ????

It is said that the Japanese eat far less fat than Americans and have far fewer heart attacks!

It is also said that the French eat far more fat than Americans but still have far fewer heart attacks!

What does this prove you might ask?

It proves that you can eat anything you like.......It's speaking English that's killing you!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Don't drop the Iowa Test

Dropping the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and relying on the WASL exam as the main measure of mathematics achievement in our state would be a big mistake which would only contribute to the continuing downward spiral of essential basic math skills by students in Washington.

First, the WASL math test is an experimental unproven exam that is based on a flawed foundation; the Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR's) The EALR's are poorly written ambiguous standards that have twice earned our state a grade of "F" when they were evaluated by the independent Fordham Foundation. How can we expect to obtain a valid test from this foundation?

The WASL math test supposedly measures "higher order thinking", an idea that can be defined so many ways that it is impossible to know for sure what you are measuring. More importantly, we know what WASL is not measuring. It does not accurately measure basic essential math skills and it does not measure the mathematics needed for college bound students. The fact that these two important elements are marginalized should eliminate using the WASL as the sole measurement for our state.

In addition, the WASL math test, like numerous other so called standards based tests, is a unique test. That means that it does not tell us how our students are doing when compared to any other state. Think about it: the WASL does not measure basic skills, it does not measure college preparedness, and what it does measure is disputable and can't be compared to any other state. One has to ask the question, why would anyone want to us this experimental test as a sole measurement of how our kids are doing in mathematics?

The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) measures a students knowledge of basic math skills. It is a "norm-referenced" test which allows us to compare how our students are doing nationally and gives us real information about how our kids stack up against students from other states. Compared to the WASL, it is relatively inexpensive to give and in return we get valuable information that tells us if we are really making gains or not. When we improve on the WASL what does it mean? It means little or nothing because the WASL can't be compared to any other test and it tries to measure something that at best is ambiguous and controversial. After six years of testing, the number of students passing the 10th grade WASL math test is abysmal. This is not an indictment against the students and teachers in this state, it is an indictment against the WASL. The test is a loser and it makes no sense to use the test as our only gauge of success.

Those who want to do away with the Iowa Tests say it is because the WASL is a sufficient measure and we can save money if we eliminate the ITBS. It should be clear that the WASL is not sufficient and the amount of money saved is minimal compared to the benefit that we obtain by having a "norm-referenced" test. The real reason that many of those who support the WASL want to drop the ITBS is because the Iowa test makes us look bad. The fact is, that at the same time that we have seen slight gains in the percentage of students passing the WASL, many districts have seen steady declines in their ITBS scores. Basic math skills have been on a downward spiral since the inception of standards based testing and many proponents of reform want to hide that fact. Additionally, they claim that calculators and modern technology make basic math skills obsolete in the 21st century and the type of higher order thinking needed on the WASL will make students much better problem solvers. If that is true it is a good thing because students who don't know basic math are going to have a lot of problems to solve.

Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute speaking before the Secretary of Educations mathematics summit in Washington, D.C., on February 6th, 2003 stressed the importance of basic skills in mathematics. He pointed out that “students who have not mastered whole number arithmetic by the end of the 4th grade are at risk of later becoming remedial students in mathematics.” No matter what some reformers say, students cannot be successful in advanced mathematics without being well versed in basic math skills. Loveless says, “Basic skills are a floor, not a ceiling.” It is not enough for students to learn only basic skills to prepare for the 21st century work world, but neither can they be ignored. Even more interesting, Loveless quotes Richard Murnana and Frank Levy in their landmark study showing the impact of basic skills on adult earnings; “mastery of skills taught in American schools no later than the eighth grade is an increasingly important determinant of subsequent wages.”

For numerous reasons we can not afford to stop measuring the progress our students are making in basic math skills. Dropping the Iowa tests and relying solely on the WASL would be a huge mistake and is detrimental to the future success of the children in this state.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Bergesen and Company still don't get it!

If good intentions were the measure of success in pushing for reform and higher educational standards in this state, then Terry Bergeson would be highly successful in her position of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Unfortunately, good intentions have not been sufficient to set legitimate educational goals in this state and we have become mired in a never ending need to compromise the state high school graduations standards as measured by the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) objectives.

The latest suggested compromise is a recommendation by Bergeson and the rest of the Achievement and Accountability Commission (A+ Commission) that students should not have to reach the proficient level in all 4 subject areas that are tested by the WASL in 2008 in order to obtain a high school diploma. Of course this comes as no surprise to me or many other teachers who have worked very hard in the trenches to make this Albatross (the WASL) fly when we have known all along that it is the wrong test in the wrong place at the wrong time. The truth is that the test, its foundation, and the implementation process have been deeply flawed from the beginning.

First consider the implementation process. The test was to be given over a period of ten years before students were ever to be held accountable for the scores they achieved on it. This has resulted in students “blowing off the test” and not taking it seriously. There has been no incentive for students to try and pass the test and yet teachers and administrators have been highly pressured to try and get students to increase their performance. This has been nothing more than an adult political game to kids and one thing I have learned about teenagers is that they will not play adult political games.

The problem could have been solved very easily by making it mandatory to pass the test after the first two years. A low passing threshold could have been determined at that time and then the threshold could have been incrementally increased each year until the desired goal was achieved. The beginning goal would not have been out of the reach of most students and there would have been an incentive for students to give a maximum effort on the WASL.

The foundation of the WASL is the states’ Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR’s). Unfortunately, many of these requirements represent learning that is neither essential nor of a proper academic standard. The math EALR’s are poorly written and when examined by the independent Fordham Foundation were ranked 42nd in the nation and given a grade of “F” for ambiguity and lack of clarity. The A+ Commission correctly found that the math portion of the WASL contains less Algebra and Geometry then other state tests. However, the cognitive nature of the test makes it one of the most difficult tests of its type in the nation. The test contains little college prepatory mathematics but it requires “tricky thinking” that many non-mathematical students stumble over. Some questions on the test remind me of an old IQ test rather than the measure of a students ability to do math. This baffles many students and they walk away from the test frustrated and deflated. Bergeson and others might call these type of problems “higher order thinking” but I have heard many kids call them just plain “stupid”. You will not convince them that the items on this test are essential learning skills.

The English portion of the test is also flawed because it is far too difficult. This fact was discovered two years ago when the State commissioned a study by WSU Vancouver. The study found that a higher percentage of running start students were able to pass the community college English asset test than could pass the English portion of the WASL. Anyone who believes that a minimum high school graduation requirement should be more difficult than a college entrance exam is sadly out of touch with the wide variety of ability levels encountered in high school today.

The make up of the WASL is flawed and needs to be totally revamped. In its present form, not only is it one of the most expensive tests in the nation, it virtually assures us that an unacceptable number of students will be left behind. The state's average passing rate after six years of testing should be all the research necessary to indicate that this test is a loser. No state test has given such dismal results after this time period. It is time to cut our loses and give our kids a test with reasonable standards that don't make students, teachers and the state all look like imbeciles. Unfortunately, I believe that Bergeson has too much personal investment in this albatross to make the radical changes that need too be made. It is time to take a hard look at the direction we have been heading and reset the course.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Research and The No Child Left Behind Act

A growing number of people are aware of the presidents Bush’s No Child Left Behind act because of the testing that it requires. What most people don’t know however, is that in addition to the testing and accountability requirements, the act requires new curriculum to be backed up by authentic scientific research. In fact, the words “scientific research” are mentioned over 100 times in the act. These requirements are an indictment of the poor reputation that “Educational Research” has earned among many.

It is ironic that, in the field of education, the very institution that promotes the teaching of history can’t seem to learn from it! As a result, teachers have had to deal with one fad after another that were touted to be the result of the latest “Research”. The truth is that many, if not most, of these fads have no valid research behind them.

Understand that, “Research says”, or “Research based” in educational circles doesn’t mean scientific research. Educational research most often does not include randomized controlled trials, replication or independent peer review essential in real research. Instead, “Educational Research”, especially with regard to new curriculum, is often conducted by people who have a financial stake in the outcome of the research. This fact would be scandalous and invalidate the research in any other field but it is common practice in the field of education.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), an organization that screens and studies educational interventions, recently examined 800 so called "research studies" on middle school math programs. They found that because of the inadequate methodologies used, only 11 of the 800 studies could be considered valid research.

So, here comes one of the latest controversial fads: Reform Math. Some of the most common names of reform math programs are Mathland, Connected Mathematics, Everyday Math and Core Plus. There are too many others to mention. These programs were all developed using “Educational Research” methods. There were no randomized controlled trials or independent peer reviews of these programs yet they claim to be the “end all” when it comes to new methodology for learning mathematics. The truth is they are radical and experimental programs that make our kids their guinea pigs. The results from these programs have been mixed at best and at worst have caused great harm to students.

Consider Mathland, a reform program for elementary age children. California used Mathland extensively in the early 1990’s, but the corresponding drop in basic skills test scores resulted in such an uproar that eventually the state refused to allow any state monies to be spent on the curriculum. Mathland has been tried and dropped by numerous school districts around the nation, but that hasn’t stopped some reform minded school districts from blindly continuing to use it claiming it is “Research based” curriculum.

Core Plus is a High School level reform math program that has also been surrounded by controversy. In 1999, Core Plus was one of 10 programs to be named exemplary by a so called “Expert Panel” from the federal department of education. At the time, Core Plus had not been around long enough for authentic research or other long term studies to be completed on the curriculum, but that didn’t stop the panel from hastily recommending it and five other reform programs as exemplary. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the one mathematician on the panel, Manuel Berriozabal, abstained or voted against all 10 programs.

In 1998 Professor Gregory Bachelis of Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan surveyed college students that had graduated the previous year from Andover High School. Andover was using the Core Plus program for mathematics and Bachelis wanted to know how the students felt the program prepared them for college mathematics. Student after student reported that Core Plus left them totally unprepared for college mathematics and many of them were quite angry about it.

A recent study of 3000 Michigan students found that Core Plus students took fewer advanced math courses in college, had lower grades in mathematics and shied away from majors that required advanced mathematics as compared to non Core Plus students. This type of information was totally dismissed by the promoters of Core Plus. In fact, it seems that while scientific research starts with a hypothesis and tries to disprove it, educational research starts with a hypothesis and ignores any evidence to the contrary.

The No Child Left Behind act to the rescue!

The NCLB act is a bold attempt to correct many of the deficiencies that have plagued the American educational system. The act is not perfect and may need to be tweaked in some areas but it has the potential to do more good than harm. The act not only is an attempt to increase the accountability of schools, administrators, teachers and students by requiring minimum standards, but it is an attempt to raise the standards within the educational research community itself. Hopefully, some of the past deficiencies will be recognized and attempts will be made to raise the "research bar". In the meanwhile, parents, teachers and administrators alike need to remember when they are being told that "research says"; if it defies common sense, it probably has no common sense behind it.