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Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

April 30, 1997 23 min read

College-in-High-School Laws: Minnesota’s Preceded Idaho’s

To the Editor:

Congratulations to Idaho for giving its high school students more high-quality options (“Idaho To Allow High Schoolers To Attend College Full Time,” April 2, 1997). But I was surprised to read that Education Week believes Idaho was the first state “to pass legislation explicitly allowing high school students to attend college on a full-time basis.”

In 1985, Minnesota adopted legislation permitting high school students to attend two- or four-year colleges and universities, full or part time, with state funds following students, paying all tuition, laboratory, and book fees. Our postsecondary-option law allows families, rather than school boards, to decide whether students are ready to take college courses. That makes it different from other states’, whose earlier laws had given this decision to the district.

Since the enactment of this law, about 75,000 students have used this great learning opportunity. Equally important, the postsecondary option has helped stimulate broad school system improvement. A study last year by the Minnesota legislative auditor found that more than half of the high school principals responding said that the law helped produce more collaboration between high schools and colleges. And the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses offered in state high schools has increased significantly since the law was passed.

I was also surprised to read in your pages a Commentary praising high standards, yet criticizing charter schools. Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991. We are finding that these ideas complement each other. There is bipartisan support for the charter school movement, as there is for increasing standards and combining classroom work with service to help make academics more meaningful.

There is no silver bullet. A combination of strong strategies will improve student achievement. Those strategies ought to include high standards, comprehensive statewide testing and reporting, and more school choices. These strategies coupled with technology, school-to-work, site-funding and decisionmaking, a system of ongoing staff improvement, and others will improve the nation’s schools.

Robert J. Wedl
Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning
St. Paul, Minn.

Zero-Tolerance Laws Give False Comfort, No Discretion

To the Editor:

School codes that proclaim “zero tolerance” for weapons and mandatory punishment for offenders may afford the false comfort that total safety is assured, but all they really accomplish is the removal of reasonable discretion from those who should be accountable for providing a safe environment in the first place.

The result is often the travesty that leads a principal to suspend an 8-year-old for innocently bringing a grandfather’s pocketwatch, festooned with a one-inch knife, to school. Rather than permitting the principal to make a judgment and requiring him to defend that action, some districts have chosen to administer a form of one-size-fits-all justice that conveys the illusion of total fairness, toughness, and safety, as you note in your article “Zero-Tolerance Laws Getting a Second Look,” March 26, 1997.

As a former superintendent, I routinely asked, when faced with a child who had been apprehended while in possession of a weapon, the weapon’s size, whether it was brandished or hidden, the circumstances that led to its discovery, and what the student’s explanation for having brought it to school had been. In virtually all cases, the student was then suspended, but a box cutter or a knife is surely different from the “weapon” displayed on a grandfather’s pocketwatch. And when non-weapons, such as a compass used in math class, turn out to be dangerous in violent hands, even though not a cause for automatic suspension, will the zero-tolerance advocates want to extend their list of “weapons” still further?

The tension between what school administrators consider to be an appropriate response to weapons possession and the position that some offenders’ advocates take is unfortunately what has led to the effort to remove discretion from school authorities, who may feel intimidated or wary lest their actions not be supported by their superiors or in the courts. I recall a lawyer’s argument in a brief supporting a student who brought a loaded gun to my school and whom I had suspended for a full year: My decision should be appealed, the lawyer wrote, because the hammer on her client’s gun would have to have been cocked for the gun to have been fired. The fact that it wasn’t constituted prima facie evidence of lack of intent and thus the penalty was excessive and unjust.

To the court’s credit, the appeal was denied. What is important to note, however, is that I had been authorized to exercise reasonable judgment and defend my decision, which is what I thought we expected professionals to do.

Announcing a zero-tolerance/mandatory-penalty policy may be politically correct in some quarters and even popular, but this is not how a safe school environment is created. Schools are complex small societies, and students must be taught, and expected to demonstrate, responsible behavior. Responsibilities must balance rights, and misdeeds must be responded to with punishment.

Removing discretion from those whose actions should create the safe atmosphere in which learning can flourish serves little purpose other than to create a pretense which can harm some children through Draconian measures without advancing the goal of the safe school.

Noel N. Kriftcher
David Packard Center for Technology and Educational Alliances
Polytechnic University
Brooklyn, N.Y

Talent-Search Programs Misrepresented in Essay

To the Editor:

We write in response to Pamela Gale George’s essay titled “The SAT and ‘Talent Identification’,” Feb. 26, 1997. We will not attempt to address each of the numerous errors and misconceptions contained in the piece, but instead describe the talent-search philosophy and system in a way that should clear up popular misunderstandings about this method.

Ms. George claims that by relying on a “single” SAT score, university-based talent-search programs, such as the Duke University Talent Identification Program, or TIP, provide educational opportunities for “substantially” more boys than girls. She concludes that such practices raise “troublesome” issues of validity and equity. This claim is both misleading and incorrect.

Ms. George begins by questioning the use of the SAT as a tool for “talent identification.” Our rationale for using the SAT to identify academic talent in 7th grade students is straightforward: For exceptionally talented students, the usual grade-level tests of achievement are too easy to allow these youngsters to display the full extent of their talents. By using a test designed for older students--a test with a higher “ceiling,” in testing parlance--a more accurate and complete picture of the student’s abilities can emerge. This is a perfectly valid practice. Indeed, 16 years of research at TIP have documented in detail its usefulness. Ms. George’s complaint that the SAT was initially designed to predict first-year college grades is irrelevant.

More troubling, however, is Ms. George’s misrepresentation of TIP’s student participation. By focusing exclusively on SAT math scores, she gives the impression that TIP participants are overwhelmingly male. This is simply false.

The Talent Search is a two-tier process. In order to qualify for the Talent Search, 7th grade students must first score at the 97th percentile or above on any major portion of a school-administered standardized test. All Talent Search participants, regardless of whether they continue in our two-step process (and this year there were over 70,000 in Duke’s program alone) receive four years’ worth of educational materials (such as a noted guide to educational programs and student-centered newsletters), program opportunities, and access to resources. These materials supplement school offerings and offer a motivational boost by putting students in touch with a community of peers interested in learning. This system takes students from middle school until they begin to consider the college-application process, offering information and support to them and their parents along the way.

The next step in the two-tier process requires that the student take either the SAT or the ACT. In order to qualify for some additional TIP programs (primarily summer residential programs), students must obtain very high scores on either the SAT verbal test or the SAT math test. Students may also qualify by obtaining high scores on one (or more) of the four sections of the ACT. Ms. George simply misunderstands this process and has erroneously stated that summer-program participation requires high math scores of all students. She then erroneously concludes that girls are disadvantaged by this practice. In fact, both boys and girls may qualify for summer programs by obtaining high scores on either the verbal or the math section of the test.

Use of a single math score would indeed be unfair to girls--but the issue is moot because neither TIP, nor any of the other talent-search programs, uses only a math score to identify students for summer programs and other opportunities.

So are there in fact “substantially” more boys than girls who participate in TIP programs, as Ms. George states? Since the first TIP Talent Search in 1981, the percentage of boys identified each year has been nearly identical to that of the girls (52 percent vs. 48 percent). When these students take the SAT (or the ACT)--the second step in the two-tier process--the gender gap is also small. Last summer, of the 1,728 students enrolled in TIP summer residential programs, 42 percent were females. Of the students who qualified for the programs--a much larger number, of course--45 percent were female. Equally important, regardless of gender, students do extremely well in our summer courses; there have been, in fact, no gender differences in either enrollment or performance in tip math and science courses for a number of years. The SAT is therefore as valid a measure of talent for boys as for girls.

Ms. George would like us to use additional criteria to select our students, such as school grades and teacher nominations. The reason we don’t is simple--for our purposes these criteria are less valid than is the SAT. It is important to remember that we use the SAT to identify exceptionally talented students. Very high scores on this test are excellent indicators of talent and frequently identify students--of all genders and backgrounds--whose talents were overlooked or misunderstood by their teachers and even their families.

David Goldstein
Executive Director

Vicki B. Stocking
Assistant Director for Research
Duke University Talent Identification Program
Durham, N.C.

Education School Defender Uses ‘Straw Man Argument’

To the Editor:

Frank Murray’s defense of the education-school-educated teacher as superior to what he calls the “natural teacher” is the worst example of straw man arguments that I have seen in a long time (“Ed Schools Are the Key to Reform,” March 5, 1997). I have known education-school-educated teachers (including those recently so educated) with the ideas and habits he attributes to “natural teachers” and people (including teachers) who have never taken an education course who exhibit the qualities he attributes to “professional teachers.”

The qualities of a good teacher (including deep learning in the subjects he or she will teach, thoughtfulness about both what is to be taught and those to whom it is to be taught, and respect for and willingness to listen to students) do not come out of work on an education degree. In fact, I know successful teachers (in community colleges and private schools) who would like to teach in public schools (and, in some cases, have been offered positions there, with the proviso that they become “certified”) who will not submit themselves to an education school.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

Michigan Teacher Doubts ‘Rigor’ of State Tests

To the Editor:

A few points should be added to your excellent article concerning the large number of Birmingham, Mich., parents opting their high school juniors out of the Michigan High School Proficiency Tests (“Just Saying No,” April 9, 1997). The governor and his people continue to defend the tests, maintaining that the kind of rigor they impose will oblige schools to meet higher academic standards. Regarding the communication arts sections of the test, I can testify that “rigor” is not the right word.

Juniors who achieve proficiency in the writing tests must prove their writing skills three times in a variety of writing tasks and time periods. What these students have demonstrated is not so much an ability to succeed in writing assignments that offer a legitimate challenge as an ability to keep from being bored with an array of writing assignments and to generate a purposefulness to these assignments, when, in fact, little worthwhile purpose exists.

In most competitions, one’s best score is the keeper, since it truly reflects the level of achievement a person can attain. In the Michigan Writing Assessment, a poor performance on one of the two lesser assignments can nullify a good performance on the long, more demanding assignment--the only one that can truly be called rigorous. Thus, in the first year of the tests (the only one for which scores are available) only 55 percent of the juniors at Birmingham’s Seaholm High School achieved proficiency on the 20-minute “Quickwrite” part of the test. This number contaminated the 82 percent who succeeded on the 115-minute writing task.

The main question should not be why our students, most of whom are demonstrably able writers (using college admissions as one criterion), did poorly on Quickwrite. The real question is why this trivial writing task, which in a sense is merely a prelude to the longer paper, rates 25 percent of the total score. This writing exercise is not rigorous or tough; it’s wrongheaded.

The hidden agenda for the first writing exercise, also worth 25 percent, is to promote writing across the curriculum. To take part in it, the student writer must have at hand two papers, one written in an English class and one written in a class other than English. The assignment provides a context for reflecting on the praiseworthiness of the two papers. This year the evaluators of the students’ compositions will not read the papers on which the student reflections are based. So how valid is the evaluation of a composition that deals specifically with material that the evaluator has not seen? This question takes on special emphasis since in the writing part of the reading-proficiency test students are penalized severely if they fail to mention and link all three reading selections in their essays. One suspects that this bean-counting mode of evaluation holds true in part one of the writing test as well.

During the period of logistical nightmares in the week or so before the tests, when parents were beginning to sign waivers, I wrote a public letter to high school juniors, encouraging them to take the test, lest too many top-level students opt out, thus skewing the school’s profile when the schoolwide results were published. Once the trickle of waivers became a deluge, my point became moot. Schoolwide scores for this year are meaningless in Birmingham.

The other points in your article--that the lengthy testing period devours an unseemly amount of class time, that juniors in charter schools and private schools need not take the tests, and that there is little gain for the individual student who takes the test, whereas risks exist for those who do--are all valid points.

Henry B. Maloney
Head, English Department
Seaholm High School
Birmingham, Mich.

Let National Tests Support, Not Displace, State Efforts

To the Editor:

The essay by Christopher T. Cross and Scott Joftus in support of President Clinton’s proposed national voluntary assessment makes some important points (“Stumping for Standards,” April 9, 1997). It is important that high content and performance standards are set in all schools in our country, that teachers have incentives to see their students succeed on these standards, and that parents be kept informed about how their children are progressing in meeting these standards. While I agree with the goals, I fear that the proposed means of achieving them--by having the federal government pay for a “voluntary” testing program--will do significant damage to efforts already under way.

One problem with the authors’ reasoning is that it supposes state-developed tests will be less challenging and state performance standards lower than those associated with the federal effort. To support this contention, they rely on a report by Mark Musick of the Southern Regional Education Board based on data that now are about 2 years old.

That report noted that many states, particularly those throughout the South, where it is common to require students to pass a state test for promotion or graduation, had set low standards.

Over the past few years, however, many states have taken advantage of Goals 2000 money to develop challenging content standards, assessments, and performance standards. Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, and New Hampshire, for example, have all, independently, set approximately equal standards--and, also of note, standards slightly higher than those set for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Thus, there already is under way a considerable effort by many states to establish content and performance standards that Messrs. Cross and Joftus would support.

States that have developed their own standards and assessments based on those standards have produced them with considerable input from teachers and other citizens within their states. They have done this in part because they realize that local buy-in to the standards and assessments is critical to their acceptance and, therefore, their effectiveness in changing classroom behavior.

If a national assessment program is offered to states (especially if it is initially offered at no cost), states will feel a need to use it--probably abandoning or reducing their own assessments in the grades and content areas included in the national tests. If pressure is put on teachers to have their students perform well on the national tests, the importance of the state frameworks will diminish, along with the goodwill and support of local educators that states worked so hard to achieve.

If it were necessary to trade that support to achieve the goals that Mr. Cross and Mr. Joftus have posited, we then would need to debate the relative benefits and costs of each approach. But that trade-off is not necessary. All their goals can be met by testing a sample of students in each state and then using that data to provide national norming information on the statewide assessments.

That approach is already being tried in some states using the data from the trial state assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Indeed, the reason that Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, and New Hampshire know that their performance standards are slightly higher than the NAEP standards is that they participated in the trial state assessment and can use those data to address the issue.

The only problems are the undependable schedule of the trial assessment and the paucity of data it produces: To date, results have been provided to states only for grade 4 reading and grades 4 and 8 mathematics. For a fraction of the $90 million it will cost to test all students in grade 4 reading and grade 8 mathematics, the federal government could offer states the opportunity to test a sample of their students in several grades in both those content areas. States would then have far better information about how their students were doing relative to national norms and could use the information to make their statewide assessment results far more meaningful to parents, who want to know how their children are doing relative to national, not statewide, norms.

Before we rush to implement the current proposal, we must consider all the likely consequences, both good and bad. National testing that supports existing statewide efforts, rather than displacing them, will be the best way to promote educational achievement and ensure that students meet high standards.

Richard Hill
Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation Inc.
Dover, N.H.

All Parents’ Taxes Used For Public School Costs

To the Editor:

What Edd Doerr fails to mention in his letter supporting the claims of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association about state spending on transportation for private school students (Letters, April 9, 1997) is that parents of children who attend nongovernment schools support the public schools with their tax dollars. Busing children to the schools of their choice seems a small price for districts to pay.

Mr. Doerr, the director of Americans for Religious Liberty, will do anything in his power to ensure that Americans do not have religious liberty when it comes to education. He does not want parents to have any choice about where they send their children to school, and if they stray from the government monopoly, he says, then tough luck, they’ll have to get there on their own.

Ned Smith
Catholic Schools Office
Diocese of Erie
Erie, Pa.

More Accreditation Critique: ‘Preordained,’ Untold Stories

To the Editor:

Your March 26, 1997, front-page story on school accreditation contains a misleading and out-of-date description of the work of the regional school accreditation commissions (“Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill”).

During the past year, I have worked with the commissions and their research arm, the National Study of School Evaluation. The NSSE has developed a comprehensive set of research-based school-performance indicators. For release in the fall, the indicators will help school staffs identify their strengths and weaknesses and plan improvements to raise student achievement. The indicators will reveal progress in implementing proven practices and conditions that foster learning.

Although educators based past reforms on opinions, fads, and unsubstantiated claims, the NSSE is building its indicators on achievement research. It is, for example, collaborating with the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, an organization of 30 education groups with more than 2 million members, including teachers, subject-matter specialists, administrators, and chief state school officers. The alliance commissioned the Handbook on Improving Student Achievement, a concise compilation of actionable research findings from organization-sponsored works on six subject matters. Building on this, the NSSE is working with the alliance and its member organizations to further define effective practices in each content area and to specify indicators of these practices. It is also involving distinguished scholars to formulate indicators of progress in administration, leadership, staff development, and other vital areas.

Through my firsthand involvement in this project, I have seen the commitment of the regional-commission leaders not only to hold schools accountable but also to support their implementation of research-based reforms. Though they would say much remains to do, these leaders and their collaborators have taken significant steps to remedy our nation’s achievement problems.

The work of the NSSE and the regional commissions has extended to over 28,000 elementary, middle, and secondary schools, and these groups have considerable leverage to specify, encourage, and monitor needed improvements requested by governors, Congress, business people, parents, and others. Because of their current vision, credibility with school people, and collaboration with other groups, the NSSE and the commissions may be in a better position than any other organization to take the lead in raising achievement. It is a pity that you did not tell this part of the school-accrediting story.

Herbert J. Walberg
Professor of Education and Psychology
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

It was a disappointment to read your article about accreditation. What the article says is bad enough, since it doesn’t reflect the reality I have seen in the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ sizable slice of the accreditation world and which I believe exists in several other regions. But worse than the inaccuracy in the finished product was the sense of a preordained outcome permeating your information-gathering.

I was contacted at the beginning of this project. In response to questions, I described our commission’s “Focus on Learning” process, which is an entire protocol centered around assessment data to drive program improvement. I spent some time discussing how this process differs from our previous version, which was less dependent on evidence of student learning.

After this discussion, your reporter requested the opportunity to accompany an accreditation team to a public school--but it appeared that only schools using older, “bean counter” processes were desired for the visit. I informed the reporter that this would not be possible because, as of this year, the Focus on Learning process is required of all California schools.

The article subsequently produced stated that “most” public schools used accreditation protocols which are “superficial ... virtually irrevocable ... focusing on a minimal checklist of equipment and policies” and suggested that accrediting teams were inappropriately chummy (and therefore easy to please) because “schools pay visiting accreditors’ tabs for hotels, meals, and travel expenses.”

In fact, California public schools never pay traveling costs for accrediting teams; those bills are paid from the WASC’s general fund. And I only wish that schools were always pleased with the evaluations they receive from our teams. Perhaps the 15 percent of our schools which were given probationary terms or denials last year would have been more cheerful in their interactions with me. Not infrequently, I hear that administrators are transferred, demoted, or even fired for receiving a poor accreditation. I am sure those individuals would not agree that they “don’t have to fret about retaining accreditation.”

The report was also in error, at least as concerns the WASC, regarding the nature of accrediting commissions. Education Week describes a panel of peers, possibly with too much sympathy for the staffs of poorly performing schools. The WASC schools commission is made up of educators from public, private, and religious schools, parents and public representatives, college professors, and state officials. Their patience with schools that do not take improvement seriously is noticeably short; every year they override the recommendations of some accrediting teams to reduce the terms of schools which are falling short of the published standards. Our commissioners are proud of the WASC flag and show no inclination to let it fly over bad schools.

After reading this article, I am forced to believe that you showed inexcusable bias and prejudgment in conscious avoidance of evidence that your initial impression might not be generally accurate. We counsel our accreditation teams to place their integrity above their pride and abandon their findings if what they learn during the school visit renders them incorrect. Should a journalist follow a lesser standard?

Donald G. Haught
Executive Director
Accrediting Commission for Schools
Burlingame, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 1997 edition of Education Week