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Teaching in Absentia, Unstandardized Tests, and Licking Wounds

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, March 4-10.

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As assessment season kicks into high gear, it’s worth noting that along with reams of other data on school and student performance, teacher attendance rates are also being closely examined. When the most recent edition of Colorado’s school accountability reports rolled off the presses, for instance, included among its many statistics was the fact that the absentee rate among educators had hit a three-year high during the 2003-04 school year. Officials cited a particularly nasty flu season but acknowledged that many teachers are now missing classes because they’re in class themselves, learning how to prepare students for the Colorado Student Assessment Program exams. “Those teachers are out of the classrooms ... to meet the professional demands that have been placed upon them,” explained one superintendent.

Students taking the SAT this year are also facing new demands—most notably, the addition of a written essay to the requisite stacks of bubble sheets. But if Yale University psychologist Robert Sternberg has his way, they’ll someday be able to eschew all multiple-choice questions, instead writing captions for cartoons or drafting original stories based on titular prompts like “The Octopus’s Sneakers” or “35,381.” Dubbed the “Rainbow Project,” Sternberg’s not-so-standardized test stresses creativity and problem-solving skills, and according to early studies, it appears to more accurately predict students’ performance in college—exactly how the SAT crawled its way to the top of the assessment heap. Officials with the College Board have expressed tentative interest in the project, which Sternberg says could help eliminate testing disparities among minorities. “We can’t afford to have ... people who could do really great stuff for our society not given the chance because they can’t get through the testing system,” he said.

The mother of a Chicago-area 1st grader was recently given the chance to avoid having her unruly son suspended. All she’d have to do, administrators at Schaumburg Christian School told her, was give the 6-year-old a spanking in front of them. Instead, Michelle Fallaw-Gabrielson pulled her son, Chandler, out of the school. Groups that follow corporal punishment issues say such tactics are unusual but legal given that parents must agree to a private school’s policies before enrolling their children. For their part, school officials are standing firm. “When it gets to the point where the teacher can’t solve the problem in the classroom, and the administration can’t solve the problem, we ask parents to fix the problem,” said administrator Randy Thaxton.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., attempts to solve a problem with mercury contamination have stretched into their second week at one high school, with the mayor calling the ongoing situation “embarrassing to the city.” Three unexplained mercury spills that have kept Cardozo High closed since February 23 also have sparked a battle between city officials and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which was brought in to clean up the mess but wants the district to pay for it. Following a similar incident at D.C.’s Ballou High School in 2003, officials had ordered the districtwide removal of all items containing mercury, including thermometers, thermostats, and laboratory materials. Even so, as the Cardozo incident was making front-page headlines, students broke a mercury thermometer at a third D.C. school, sending hazardous-materials teams scrambling.

A Wisconsin teenager may well be scrambling to make up some summer work assigned nearly a year ago. Instead of cracking the books, 17-year-old Peer Larson took his math teacher, school district, and state superintendent to court, asking a judge to ban all summer homework. Justice may move slowly, but it rarely minces words: After considering Larson’s case for the first time this week, the judge promptly threw it out, calling the suit frivolous. Now Larson, who’d argued that he couldn’t complete the assignments because he spent the summer working as a camp counselor, may have to find another paying gig to reimburse the state’s court costs.

Which brings us to the case of an Oregon football coach currently under investigation by a state education commission. It seems that Scott Reed had a unique flair for on-the-field first aid—he licked his athletes’ bleeding wounds. He acknowledged as much after police investigated a parent complaint this past summer, finding no basis for criminal charges but labeling the behavior “bizarre.” Reed, who’s still coaching at Central Linn High School in Halsey, is likely the wiser for taking a course on blood-borne pathogens, which warned of the dangers of blood-saliva contact.

Presumably he’s also had some time to lick his own wounds.

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