Blue Ribbons and Special Education
To the Editor:
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education’s new Blue Ribbon Schools identification procedures are not likely to be any more effective at identifying schools where achievement is improving than were the old procedures (“Paige Revamps Blue Ribbons, Basing Awards on Testing,” Aug. 7, 2002). The basic problem is that neither set of identification procedures pays any attention to the rates of identification of pupils with special educational needs or rates of retention in grade.
Virtually all states exclude the achievement of special education students in state ratings of school performance. But there is solid scientific evidence that schools with similar student demographics often exhibit very different special education participation rates. Some schools, that is, identify twice as many kids as having special educational needs as do schools with similar student demographics.
Identifying low-achieving students as pupils with special educational needs removes those students from the accountability rolls and from the new Blue Ribbon School achievement estimation. The federally funded research my colleague Anne McGill-Franzen and I conducted, as well as a similar study by David Potter and individuals of the South Carolina Department of Education, demonstrated that as high-stakes accountability pressures have increased, so too have the rates of identification of students as needing special education services.
We documented the use of special education placements as a strategy for creating the impression that achievement was rising. This strategy was successful, in that the principal who told us of how such a strategy worked had his school named a Blue Ribbon School the year after his interview with us. By tripling the number of low achievers identified as pupils with special educational needs, he manufactured what looked like improving achievement.
That practice is increasingly common today, and the continually increasing special education enrollments buttress that claim—a phenomenon that Jay P. Greene neglected to include in his recent Commentary on rising special education enrollments (“The Myth of the Special Education Burden,” June 12, 2002).
Flunking low achievers has a similar effect on reported achievement levels. That is, flunking the lowest-achieving quintile of students at the end of grade 3 means that 4th grade achievement will seem to be rising, at least in the year following the flunking. With an extra year of schooling, and with the expenditure of the extra thousands of dollars that extra year costs, those flunked 3rd grade students should score better when they finally take the 4th grade test a year late. But this does not indicate that the school is a more effective school, just a more expensive school.
Blue ribbons should be awarded to those schools that reliably serve poor children well. A focus on improving test scores is one strategy for identifying those schools, just as examining a company’s financial record is a reasonable strategy for estimating improvements in its earnings. But Enronitis accounting procedures have undermined confidence in corporate statements. Educational Enronitis, of the sort encouraged by the Blue Ribbon School identification procedures, has long been documented and long ignored by policymakers.
The failure of the Department of Education to develop rules and procedures that incorporate the scientific evidence on estimating educational quality allows Enron-like cooking of the achievement numbers and undermines the credibility of the Blue Ribbon awards.
Irving and Rose Fien Distinguished Professor of Elementary and Special Education
University of Florida
To the Editor:
I read with interest your article on the U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon Schools program. All programs need to be reviewed over time or they become outdated.
The focus on results is clearly what the public and parents are seeking, so the Blue Ribbon program’s changes are on target. Often, many reports from schools are rich in processes or “things done,” but poor in reported positive results. Yet I regret that the award has dropped processes from its focus. It may be difficult to determine if the results are connected to the design process or to some other factor, like a particular teacher or principal.
If your readers are interested in looking at both processes and results, I recommend the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Program. This is an award that rigorously connects what a district says it does in leadership, planning, data collection and management, stakeholder needs, curriculum design, and instructional delivery processes to results. The award gives the district affordable feedback from experts on how to improve the district’s processes to gain the results desired. It is based on a model of continuous improvement, or the belief that “good enough is not enough.”
As a member of one of the first school districts to gain this award, I can attest that involvement with the Baldrige standards over time will dramatically improve student achievement. We found that by applying the Baldrige standards, all our processes improved. We were able to link this improvement to the improvement in student achievement.
I urge readers who wish to become involved in working toward an award and improved results to learn more at the Baldrige Web site, www.quality.nist.gov.
Pearl River Public Schools
Pearl River, N.Y.
Educator to Public: ‘Put Up or Shut Up’
To the Editor:
One of your recent installments of Close Up: The Public Education Network-Education Week Poll, focused on the poll’s findings concerning teaching quality (“Teaching Quality Viewed as Crucial,” July 10, 2002), shows just how far out of touch with reality the American public still is.
The problem is not the quality of teaching, it is the quality of learning. These are American public schools we are talking about. They are structurally inadequate and highly underfunded, if grade-level literacy and numeracy for all students is the goal.
I’ve worked in the public schools for decades. Many of these students can’t do the work. Many others won’t do the work. Most have other priorities: their friends, clubs, activities, sports, and occasionally drugs and sex.
The public schools reflect society as a whole, and we are in real trouble. The IQ of public school students is average or below average. Many schools want to force difficult subjects like algebra down into middle school, when most of these kids can’t even count. Hello! Can’t be done.
Many of the parents of these students don’t understand, don’t care, or both. Let me give you a typical example: I was in a conference with a parent about the failing grades of her child when she told me we needed to end the conference so she could get to a baseball game. Typical. There is a saying in the West: If you plant yellow corn, you get yellow corn.
You want to “fix” schools? Try creating an institution where learning is the priority, not babysitting and recreation. If you want to “fix” schools, spend the money necessary to achieve full literacy and numeracy for all students.
It’s time for the American public to wake up and smell the coffee. Wishing doesn’t cut it. Fantasies won’t cut it. No administrative fad will do it: No “high expectations,” no “block scheduling,” no innovation will improve schools when it is the structure and funding of schools that are failing. It’s time to get a clue and put up or shut up.
Making a Virtue of Teaching to the Test
To the Editor:
Since the grade of A in a subject does not indicate the same learning in Atlanta as in New York City, or anywhere else for that matter, the SAT is a necessary student measurement for colleges in their admissions process. It gives them one indicator through which to compare the applicants on a level playing field (“Overhauled SAT Could Shake Up School Curricula,” July 10, 2002; “On Changing the SAT,” June 5, 2002).
I applaud the College Board’s plan to revise and, as the board hopes, improve the SAT as a measurement of curricular information, thereby making it a better indicator of a student’s success in college.
If we are going to assess students by testing, there will be, without a doubt, teaching to the test. Instead of complaining about this and the time it takes away from the curriculum, we should let the test drive meaningful learning.
We could take the soon-to-be-added essay portion of the SAT, for example, and announce its general topic a year in advance. Since recent headlines bemoan how little our students know about history or science, we could make the schools prepare students to write essays in one of these areas. Have them research and write about cloning, alternative fuel sources, World War II, the Civil War, and other such topics. In this way, students would be studying relevant subject matter, learning to write, and preparing for college and the SAT all at the same time.
I know this may sound too simple but, in teaching an Advanced Placement course, I taught to the test because it was the material the students needed to know, as suggested by the colleges and universities. Why would it not work here?
Gordon R. Rode
Head of School
‘High-Threat Tests’ Upset N.C. Teacher
To the Editor:
I’ve been thinking about the Princeton Review’s conclusion that North Carolina has the best testing program in the nation, as reported in your recent Testing column (“Testing the Testers,” July 10, 2002). Perhaps we do, but I think we misuse it. I call it “high-threat testing.”
Threatening all of our students, teachers, and principals every year with dire consequences based on test results is a horrendous practice. Children are threatened with retention. Teachers are threatened with less pay, and everyone is threatened with publication of the results. I would like to see North Carolina give the tests, but instead of threatening us, let us use the scores as feedback for future instruction.
Decisions on retention should be made, using multiple assessment tools, by the people who know each student. And a school should not be labeled a “school of distinction” or “exemplary” or anything else based on standardized-test results. My school, which is a Title I school (meaning many students receive free lunches) made significant gains last year but, according to North Carolina’s mysterious formula, missed earning bonuses for its teachers by one-tenth of a point.
Giving a financial bonus to the teachers of students who do well and not to other teachers is demoralizing. It is common knowledge that the scores on standardized tests are more reflections of socioeconomic status than anything else. And all teachers know that teachers work hardest with the children who score in the lower ranges. In my room, to a child, the students who scored at the lower levels of 1 and 2 were English-as-a-second-language students or students who were not being raised by their natural parents or were being raised by only one parent.
Schools that have public-housing developments in their districts have much catching up to do for their students and work the hardest, even though their scores almost always average out lower. For those teachers to watch teachers of easier populations earn an extra $1,800 is demoralizing. Doing this to teachers year after year is causing more teachers to retire as soon as they can. Younger teachers leave the profession entirely after a few years. What a loss for the children and for the future of the state.
Why Not ‘Flag’ SAT, ACT Exams?
To the Editor:
I was saddened and puzzled by your Aug. 7, 2002 article “Test Companies Lower ‘Flags’ on College-Entrance Exams.”
One company, the College Board (owners of the SAT), blinked in the face of a lawsuit; the other, ACT Inc., quickly followed suit. Henceforth, they will not notify test-score recipients (such as colleges and universities) when the scores were achieved with extra time—a nonstandard condition. The College Board’s decision was apparently made on the basis of a 4-2 vote by a panel of experts the parties had convened.
Thus will innocent third-party score recipients receive flawed reports. Although these reported actions by private entities do not have the force of law, I worry that they open a Pandora’s box and will have a chilling effect on our nation’s various (and nascent) efforts for meaningful reform, tests with integrity, and accountability.
As of the fall of 2003, no one will ever know that some ACT and SAT tests were taken under nonstandard conditions. You report that the College Board will “stop flagging for accommodations such as extra time.”
“Such as” invites more. Extra time is but the tip of the accommodation iceberg. What about scribes, calculators, readers, extra explanations, and so on? And what about other worthy groups: English-language learners, “at risk” students, students we all know who just don’t test well (though not labeled as disabled)? Where is the fairness and equal protection for them? Who will be the next defendant? It was a sad day for valid and meaningful testing.
Moreover, these are norm- referenced tests, which obtain their validity and reliability by having all students take them under standard (similar) conditions. It’s puzzling why these companies squandered the very credibility of their products, especially since it is not illegal to report that a test is given in a nonstandard way. In fact, some laws—and certainly testing protocol—require it. However, henceforth, no one will know how these tests were taken. And, apparently, time doesn’t really matter, though these testing companies intend to keep timing most students.
What now is the norm and what, if anything, do such results mean? Whither test integrity? The companies appeared to defend their action as promoting fairness for all students. I’m all for fairness, but they overshot the mark. The decision to stop “flagging” is neither fair nor sensible. Who benefits from test results whose very essence (validity and reliability) is jeopardized?
A better solution: Either (a) don’t implement this policy and go to court to defend the test(s), or (b) give all students (not just students with disabilities) the option to take these tests with accommodations that will be flagged, or, if time doesn’t matter after all, (c) simply let everyone take the tests untimed. Then, fairness and validity would be re-established.
At the very time that accountants, from Enron to WorldCom, are under scrutiny because their numbers may not tell the true story, the College Board and ACT Inc. choose to head in the same ill-conceived direction—their numbers will not tell the true story. Sad and puzzling. I just don’t get it.
Miriam Kurtzig Freedman
Advanced High School: Should College-Level Programs Be Offered to All?
To the Editor:
The most telling anecdote in Jay Mathews’ essay “Advanced Placement” (Commentary, Aug. 7, 2002) is that of the high school in East Los Angeles where all students are admitted to AP courses because “even [those] who flunk an AP course are better prepared for college than those kept out of the courses altogether.”
Mr. Mathews is dead on, both about the value of AP and International Baccalaureate courses and about the need to make those courses available to more students.
The best way to democratize AP and IB, to ensure that every student has a crack at excellence, is to transform the whole school. The Bard High School Early College in New York City, created a year ago, offers one model. When I visited the Bard school, I saw 11th graders discussing Plato in a way that would make me proud of college seniors. I saw a cadre of city kids who will become leaders, kids who otherwise might have been lost to us. And I also saw the liberal arts where they ought to be, where—as Earl Shorris has so eloquently pointed out—the social action is most consequential.
Bard’s experiment, along with several other intriguing efforts, spurred the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to announce its Early College High School Initiative this past spring. In this initiative—also supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.T. Kellogg Foundation—each of seven partner organizations will create academically rigorous small schools where disadvantaged students get the support and challenge they need to excel. For example, we at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation are working with four-year colleges and research universities to develop nine new early-college high schools for urban kids.
Whatever the specific model, all of us in the Early College High School Initiative are working to give a broader range of students, as Mr. Mathews says, “a hard taste of college academic life,” and indeed to stimulate a lifelong appetite. It’s high time that we make excellence, opportunity, and challenge for high school students not just an AP-style taste, but a schoolwide diet.
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation
To the Editor:
Jay Mathews’ Commentary on the rising numbers of students taking the Advanced Placement exams is right on target. Indeed, if prep schools like the Fieldston School are dropping AP courses (although students will still take AP exams), this is not a sign that AP exams are of little value. Rather, it is a sign that if standards are high and courses intellectually challenging, we don’t have to teach to a tough test.
What Mr. Mathews did not say is that the growth in the number of AP exam-takers is not an isolated phenomenon. As a result of the K-16 movement, reports about the waste of the senior year, and state performance assessments for high school exit that are given as early as 10th grade, students—and not just privileged and gifted students—are taking advantage of a number of ways to get college credit in high school.
Across the country, dual-enrollment programs are growing. In these, high school students take courses on college campuses, or teachers certified by postsecondary institutions give regular college courses in high schools. A number of community colleges have successful programs for high school students who not only flourish in the more adult, less regimented atmosphere of college, but also complete both the high school diploma and the Associate of Arts degree on an accelerated schedule.
And there is an even more radical way for students to earn the A.A. or two years of college credit in high school, especially those for whom there are financial and other barriers to college-going. With Jobs for the Future as coordinator, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has provided funding for an effort to establish 70 early-college high schools over the next five years. Partnering with both two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions, early-college high schools combine high school and college in a single school, and allow students to take college-level courses as soon as they are able.
Early-college high schools share the attributes of effective small schools, but they also unify academic work from grade 9 through grade 14. Designed to increase the number of first-generation, low-income, English-language learners, and students of color having the preparation to attain a bachelor’s degree and highly skilled work, early-college high schools demand more of students earlier, while eliminating obstacles to college entrance.
Our young people deserve such options, and the good news is that they are taking up these various opportunities for challenging intellectual work.
Jobs for the Future
Early College High School Initiative
To the Editor:
Jay Mathews presents a clear and compelling argument in his Commentary. Unfortunately, he fails to address the most important issue facing the use of the Advanced Placement program in today’s college-admission scene. The AP program was originally designed as a means of acceleration and enrichment. Most students took AP classes in their senior years of high school, and because the program was meant to provide an opportunity for advancement on the college level, the scores were not available until July of the summer before the freshman year of college. Now that colleges are using AP scores in the admission process, students are taking AP classes earlier and earlier as a means of enhancing their profiles for admission, not simply as an opportunity for acceleration.
As a past AP grader, I often encountered essays written far below the level one would expect of an AP- quality student. I became aware that many high schools allow any student who is interested in the AP program to enroll, even if the student is far below average in ability. With this being the case, judging a high school’s quality of education or curriculum by the number of AP courses offered is ludicrous. If it is important to provide this sort of ranking to the public, only a ranking based on the outcomes of those students’ exams would truly indicate the quality of the education they are receiving at their particular high schools.
A case in point: My nephew took AP calculus his senior year. This, of course, appeared on his transcript. He earned an A in the course. In reality, his class covered four chapters over the course of the entire school year. No one in his class took the AP exam. My nephew was admitted to engineering programs at several colleges. I would assume that those colleges believed this young man had successfully completed AP calculus.
I wish I had a solution to this problem, but I don’t. I only wish that there were some way to return the AP program to its original intent. Possibly dropping the AP designation from transcripts would help. It would then be necessary to see the results of the tests to determine a student’s true level of ability. Until the purpose of the AP program matches its application and use, any conclusions drawn will be in error.
Anne Macleod Weeks
Director of College Guidance
AP English Literature Teacher
Online AP Consultant
To the Editor:
Bravo to The Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews for his fine essay on the Advanced Placement program. I too have been concerned by what he calls “a season for bashing ... the college-level courses and tests ... in American high schools.” I too am a proponent of the AP program.
As the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 sets the direction for schools nationwide, one must ask whether its goals are even compatible with a successful AP program. I worry they are not.
The AP program has two distinct goals: to help students be admitted to good colleges prepared to succeed there; and to give students college credit for courses taken in high school. Each is a worthy goal unto itself.
The mandate for America’s high schools is to enable all students to earn a diploma. That requires completion of prescribed courses and success on standardized tests. It does not require proper college preparation.
The federal and state governments now impose heavy burdens on schools to meet the “everyone earns a diploma” standard. Districts are evaluated based on factors that focus on middle- and lower-performing students—that they show progress on tests of minimal competency, that they attend school regularly, that they graduate. Districts earn no extra credit for students who achieve excellence, as judged by taking honors and AP courses or being admitted to colleges and succeeding there.
School districts face diminishing resources, like good teachers and administrators as well as funding for programs and supplies. One strong criticism of the AP program is that it diverts scarce resources from needier students. Rigorous high school coursework facilitates success in college, but not all students go on to college. So why not direct all efforts and resources towards what everyone can achieve?
Mr. Mathews argues that more students should be encouraged to take AP courses. But those courses, like actual college courses, often have prerequisites. Unless students master algebra in grade 8, they may not be ready for AP math and science courses in high school. Unless they take honors-level English or social studies, they will not be prepared for AP courses in those disciplines. Rigorous coursework is a cumulative process.
Preparation begins in middle school. Yet, in most districts, there is little if any communication between middle school and high school teachers or counselors. You cannot simply drop kids into AP courses for which they are unprepared and expect success. That can only lead to frustration for all.
Along with the issues of scarce resources and solid preparation, there is the issue of grades. Local schools devise their own grading systems. Grade point average and class rank are important to college-bound students. In my district, an A in regular English equals an A in honors English or AP English. An A in basic math equals an A in AP calculus. Students need an overall 3.5 GPA to qualify for National Honor Society, and sometimes the students taking the honors and AP classes don’t make it.
Kids figure that out and “play” the grading system. Taking all regular courses and lots of nonacademics can lead to a 4.0 GPA and high class rank. Taking AP courses and earning some B grades can be costly to both a student’s GPA and class rank. Some of our brightest kids, with no understanding of real college preparation, opt for the easy A grades. They ask me: “Why should I work so hard in AP courses and maybe earn a B and drop in class rank?”
I believe there should be some standardized grade-weighting system so that B’s earned in AP courses equal A’s earned in regular courses. Many schools do this; others believe it is unfair or unacceptable to colleges.
Finally, there is the “triple E” issue: excellence, equality, and elitism. Is it elitist to encourage the pursuit of academic excellence by some students? Or must all students receive equal coursework? In an era of shrinking resources and growing demands for accountability, how do we balance equality and elitism in our public schools? That is the great unspoken issue.
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Board of Education Member
MCAS Results and Missing Students
To the Editor:
In their letters to Education Week (“Test Questions,” Aug. 7, 2002), David P. Driscoll and Jeffrey M. Nellhaus of the Massachusetts Department of Education take exception to some of the views expressed in my Commentary “Ensuring Failure,” (July 10, 2002). Both claim that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or mcas, tests are criterion- referenced, but neither explains the basis on which they make this claim.
At the same time, Mr. Nellhaus admits that “questions for MCAS tests are selected and rejected for their usefulness in differentiating performance.” This means, I submit, that items answered correctly by most students during pilot testing will be discarded from the operational version of the MCAS. (As I pointed out in the longer article from which my Commentary was adapted, “Lake Woebeguaranteed: Misuse of Test Scores in Massachusetts,” available at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n24/, an item answered correctly by 80 percent of test-takers can have a discrimination index of no more than 0.20.) This was one of my essential points. Selecting questions in terms of item discrimination is characteristic of norm-referenced testing, not criterion-referenced testing.
Also noteworthy is that about the only validity evidence presented in the 1998 Technical Report on the MCAS is that MCAS scores correlate strongly with scores on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition and the Metropolitan Achievement Test—both of which, of course, are norm-referenced tests.
Mr. Driscoll asserts the MCAS tests are “high quality.” On this issue, I would simply ask Mr. Driscoll if he knows of any other state test on which two items were shown to be so obviously defective that the state withdrew them from scoring—as happened with the MCAS in 2001.
Mr. Driscoll also touts the fact that "[o]n the 2001 MCAS test for grade 10, virtually every district in the state showed significant improvement over previous years’ results in both English and math.” What this ignores is one of the unfortunate causes for apparent improvement in grade 10 scores: Huge numbers of students are being failed to repeat grade 9, or are dropping out before the MCAS test in the spring of grade 10. To illustrate this fact, the following table shows the numbers of students in Massachusetts enrolled in the fall in grades 9 and 10 for the years 1995 to 2001:
Cohort difference -4441
Percent missing -6.5%
Cohort difference -5018
Percent missing -7.1%
Cohort difference -5800
Percent missing -8.0%
Cohort difference -6091
Percent missing -8.2%
Cohort difference -8286
Percent missing -10.7%
Cohort difference -9878
Percent missing -12.4%
The enrollment numbers come straight from the Massachusetts Department of Education. All I have added are the differences between grade 10 enrollments in one year and grade 9 enrollments the previous year—or, in other words, the numbers and percentages of grade 9 students who are “missing” from grade 10 the following year.
As is apparent, in the years before MCAS, which was introduced in 1997, only around 6 percent or 7 percent of students turned up missing between grades 9 and 10. However, by 2001, the rate at which students were missing from grade 10 had nearly doubled, to 12.4 percent.
For white students, the “missing” rate increased from a little over 5 percent in the pre- MCAS years to 9 percent to 10 percent in 2000 and 2001. But for African- American and Hispanic students, the missing rates skyrocketed even more. For African-American students, the rate more than tripled, from a little over 7 percent to almost 24 percent in just five years. And the rate at which Hispanics were missing from grade 10 nearly doubled, from 17 percent to 29 percent.
I will not discuss here the extent to which increases in missing grade 10 students is caused by higher dropout rates, inflated rates of failing students to repeat grade 9, or some combination of the two. But I do note that these figures, based on fall enrollments, almost surely underestimate the extent to which students are missing by spring of grade 10, when the MCAS tests are administered.
For Mr. Driscoll to tout with pride increases in grade 10 pass rates, while ignoring the fact that lower proportions of students— especially minority students—are even getting to grade 10 is, to be charitable, more than a mite myopic. Evidence indicates that the vast majority of students who are failed to repeat grade 9 will not persist in school to high school graduation (see, for example, Part 7 of “The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education” at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/).
Lynch School of Education
Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Wrong on N.Y. Tests
To the Editor:
Walt Haney’s Commentary on state achievement tests cites New York state’s tests among those that “have been constructed using norm- referenced test-construction procedures” and “are designed so that all students can never succeed.” He is wrong about the New York tests.
New York tests are criterion-referenced and are designed so all students, given reasonable instruction, can and should pass them. We do not prescreen or exclude test questions on the basis of difficulty or P values, but rather evaluate item-difficulty statistics only as flags for potential flaws in the questions. In addition, our process for setting cut scores and our conversion tables from raw to scale scores are not norm-referenced. In fact, New York state tests are calibrated using an item-response-theory model in which questions are evaluated for fairness, fit to the state learning standards and ability to measure the content taught to students in New York schools.
All of the information on New York tests is available in over 50 technical reports that we have made accessible to the public. It is critical that any claims about New York state’s tests be based on the facts.
James A. Kadamus
New York State Education Department
Deputy Commissioner, Elementary,
Middle, Secondary, and Continuing Education