Education Letter to the Editor


August 06, 2003 14 min read
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If Standards Fall, Will Test Be ‘Fair’?

To the Editor:

Well, well. Now we have a state dropping its standards because a test might have been “unfair” (“N.Y. State Seniors Flunk Exit Exam, But Get Diplomas,” July 9, 2003).

We have become a nation of talkers and not doers. No wonder our kids keep flunking. We must get around the short-term pain and focus on the long-term benefits of testing. It will work when we stop focusing on the first-year effects. It’s like a diet or an exercise program: The first few weeks or months will be hard, but the long-term results will be worth the effort.

One day, those people who moan about the horrors of testing may be looking out an airplane window while waiting for takeoff and see one of those “unfairly” tested students who flunked the exit exam working on their plane’s wing flaps. Good luck to them—and to us all.

Dave Bell
Columbus School
Medellin, Colombia

‘Report Card’ Void Gives Policy Insight

To the Editor:

I found your article on what the U.S. Department of Education omitted from its report on the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading results very interesting for a number of reasons (“‘Report Card’ Lacking Usual Background Data,” July 9, 2003).

If the federal government really wants to improve school reading instruction, as it says it does, why would it withhold data about what students do inside and outside of school? These are things teachers need to know in order to better teach their students, and the public needs to know in order to appreciate the difficulties in educating today’s children.

The case you gave as an example of missing information—what materials 4th grade teachers use—is inexcusable. Shouldn’t we all know that students who are taught with trade books or a combination of trade books and basal readers score higher than those who are taught with basal readers alone?

Moreover, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst’s dismissive comment about this result was troubling. If it is true, as he believes, that poverty districts are less likely to use trade books than affluent districts, then shouldn’t the Department of Education be working to change this situation rather than pressuring poverty schools to use basals, as it does through the Reading First Initiative of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001?

My suspicious nature tells me that Mr. Whitehurst’s explanation that the information was left out of the report because the department wants to cover it more thoroughly in separate reports is just an excuse for hiding from the public some truths about teaching reading that don’t square with government policy.

Joanne Yatvin
Portland, Ore.

We Do Scrutinize Special Ed. Files

To the Editor:

Linda Dann’s letter to the editor (“A Medicaid Review of Special Ed. Files?,” Letters, July 9, 2003) provided an interesting perception to a noneducator’s view of special education paperwork. “My experience is that there is very little,” writes Ms. Dann, “and that most of the work is straight off a computer.” Her solution is to “have an agency like that which administers the Medicaid program come in once a year and go through every file with a fine-tooth comb.”

I would like to inform Ms. Dann that Pennsylvania does have such an agency. It is called the department of special education within the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Every three years, the state department of education conducts cyclical monitoring, with follow-up monitoring to ensure that the compliance issues found to be at fault are corrected. Moreover, focused monitoring may be done at any time when there is a concern. If you work in a district that is home to special education advocates or special education lawyers, you can be assured that the district’s program will be under heavy scrutiny, complaints will be filed, and files reviewed with “a fine tooth comb.”

The commonly used phrases that Ms. Dann referred to as “moribund"—"Will process feelings with teacher on a regular basis” and “Will refrain from angry outbursts 90 percent of the time"—are not measurable goals. I am surprised that a district that has written such goals has not been required to obtain training on writing measurable goals.

I also would question whether Ms. Dann knows that training of the educators can be requested and considered as part of the individualized-education-plan process. This is yet another check-and-balance system that works to fulfill one of the main tenets of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a “free appropriate public education.” An example such as she provided would have been considered out of compliance.

It may be that instead of reviewing the amount of paperwork, Ms. Dann should review the requirements for staying in compliance both procedurally and substantively for the special education paperwork. Then she should consider all of the documentation that teachers and administrators must generate to prove that the IEP has been followed, that they have had communication with parents, that accommodations have been made, and that progress has been made in meeting students’ goals.

Elise Hazel
Director of Support Services
Juniata County School District
Mifflintown, Pa.

Pink Floyd, Orwell: Food for Thought

To the Editor:

Reading Jane Ehrenfeld’s Commentary (“The Orwell Connection,” June 18, 2003) gives much food for thought. Another rendition of this kind of schooling appeared in the video “Pink Floyd—The Wall,” with the song “Another Brick in the Wall,” including this lyric: “We don’t need no education.”

Leo West
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Time to Strengthen Adolescent Literacy

To the Editor:

In recent weeks, you have reported, in the online version of Education Week, the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and writing scores for students in grades 4, 8, and 12 (“NAEP Reading Scores: Progress Mixed With Decline,” June 20, 2003, and “NAEP Writing Scores Improve, But Not for Seniors,” July 10, 2003).

Fourth graders show significant gains in reading and writing from 1998 to 2002, indicating that the focus on early literacy is beginning to pay off. These early gains are not sustained at the upper grade levels, however. At the 12th grade level, average scores on both assessments have declined, while results for 8th graders are mixed. Despite some gains in reading, 8th grade writing scores have stagnated.

A close examination of this data is even more troubling. Only one-quarter to one-third of the nation’s 8th and 12th grade students are proficient in these basic areas. For example, only 33 percent of the 8th graders in this country score at or above the proficient level in reading, and only 31 percent score at or above the proficient level in writing. In 12th grade, only 36 percent of students are at or above proficient in reading, and 24 percent are at or above proficient in writing.

Over the last several years, the American educational system has invested a great deal in promoting literacy at the preschool and elementary school levels. But current policy gives short shrift to middle-grades and high school students who continue to struggle with reading and, as a result, struggle in nearly every other area of learning. It makes little sense to work so hard on literacy development with one group of students and then deny that same support to students who need it later on.

Developing literacy skills is a continuum. A growing body of evidence suggests that starting in 4th grade, students need a new set of literacy skills: reading to learn. Developing literacy includes far more than decoding text; it is a fundamental process of building understanding, which requires drawing on prior knowledge, assimilating that knowledge with new information, and applying the knowledge to new situations. It is the ability to use reading, writing, speaking, and listening as tools for learning across disciplines. We must now create and support adolescent literacy programs that build on early literacy efforts, and take them to the next level.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform and its 65 member organizations (including the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Middle School Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the College Board) call on the president and Congress, state legislatures, foundations, and educators across the country to take up this mantle. It is time to focus on strengthening adolescent literacy for middle-grades and high school students, so that these young people graduate with the full range of literacy skills needed for productive work, responsible citizenship, and personal fulfillment.

Nancy Ames
Vice President
Education Development Center Inc.
Public Engagement & Policy Committee
National Forum to Accelerate
Middle-Grades Reform
Newton, Mass.

A Last Word on Virginia Testing

To the Editor:

It is ironic that even as Mickey VanDerwerker continues to claim falsely that national tests show no gains for Virginia students since the SOL program began (“Response to Letter on Virginia Tests,” Letters, July 9, 2003), the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reading results showed Virginia’s students posting the highest reading scores since NAEP testing began in our state over a decade ago. On the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, Virginia students made overall gains in all skills tested (reading, writing, math) at all grade levels (4, 6, 9) in the five years of testing since the launch of the SOL reform.

Scores obviously will fluctuate in the future on individual tests in individual years, up on some, down on others, but when one looks with an open mind at the data from multiple tests over multiple years, it is clear that Virginia’s students have made significant progress since the SOL program began.

Reasonable critics of the SOL program at least acknowledge that progress while still pointing out ways to improve the program. Both I and my predecessor as state board president, Kirk T. Schroder, made a practice of listening and responding to those critics who wanted to improve the SOL program, not destroy it. Only someone wearing ideological blinders would continue to deny that progress in raising student achievement has taken place in Virginia since the SOL program was launched eight years ago.

Mark Christie
Former President
Virginia Board of Education
Richmond, Va.

Disclosure Derailed Pilot Teacher Exam

To the Editor:

In their rush to defend both the motivation and morality of the players involved in the ongoing “imbroglio” over the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, both of your recent letter-writers have not only completely misrepresented the facts, but have also completely missed the point (“Political Charges?: The Imbroglio Over a Pilot Teacher-Certification Test,” Letters, July 9, 2003).

The facts first: Contrary to assertions by Ana Maria Schuhmann and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 3,000 individuals did not “possess” or see this test. The field test was taken by roughly 1,300 test- takers over seven weeks, and of these 1,300 test-takers, none were permitted to “possess” the test. Only the testing vendor was permitted to possess the test—even the American Board did not physically “possess” its own test.

Second, AACTE’s assertion that there was “no legal disclaimer” is completely false. Every single one of the 1,300 test-takers, as well as each of their proctors who oversaw the field-testing process, were required to agree to nondisclosure—before they were even permitted to see the test—stating that they understood the contents of the field test to be confidential, and that “no part of the materials may be copied, downloaded, reproduced, stored, disseminated, transferred, or used in any form by any means without prior consent of the American Board.” It would have been impossible to view, proctor, or take the test without first making this agreement.

Third, the purpose of a field test, by its very nature, is to determine which items will be used for the final test, and which will need to be reworked or rejected altogether. The American Board was field-testing items for elementary education and professional teaching knowledge. Given that AACTE President David G. Imig had a stapled packet of items, the American Board had no way of knowing which items he had or who else had copies, so all items being field- tested had to be thrown out. AACTE knows very well the intricacies of the test- development process, so to feign ignorance of how compromising field-test items could possibly derail the testing process is nothing short of disingenuous.

Now the larger point: The fact that Mr. Imig possessed and circulated a copy of the American Board’s test is one that neither Ms. Schuhmann nor AACTE has denied. Because these items were circulated, the security of the test had been breached. And because we take the security and integrity of the American Board’s examination very seriously, we were forced to discard all of the test items and start again.

Sure, it has been difficult to go back to the blueprint. And we’d like to thank the hundreds of teachers, researchers, teacher-educators, parents, policymakers, and administrators who have worked diligently to write and review thousands of new items, helping make sure that the board remained on schedule to deliver the first examinations for teacher-candidates in August 2003.

While the American Board has been inconvenienced by this delay, the real losers are the potential new teachers—who can demonstrate that they are “highly qualified” via American Board certification—and the countless students who deserve and need such outstanding teachers. AACTE is certainly entitled to defend its president, but I hope its members will think about who’s really been harmed by his actions.

Kathleen Madigan
American Board for Certification of
Teacher Excellence
Washington, D.C.

Bioterror Lessons: A Call for Teaching Students About Epidemiology

To the Editor:

In a recent news article, you pointed out that bioterrorism has become a major public concern, and that teachers need to respond to it by educating their students rather than avoiding the subject (“Bioterrorism a New Topic in Science Class,” June 18, 2003). You suggested several curricular approaches focused on biology, infectious diseases, and microorganisms.

We at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggest that teachers also use this opportunity to introduce the principles of epidemiology to students, as epidemiology is arguably the most important discipline for countering bioterrorism and the fear it engenders.

Epidemiology is the science of exploring patterns of disease, illness, and injury within populations, with the goal of developing methods for prevention, control, and treatment to improve health. By integrating epidemiology with statistics, biology, history, sociology, and other areas of study, we can teach students how to understand the risks posed by bioterrorism, as well as many other health threats, including SARS, AIDS, and West Nile virus.

We also can help students understand important personal health-related decisions about taking risks that they make every day, such as whether to smoke, wear seat belts, or exercise. And perhaps most important, we can teach them how to analyze complex information so they can better understand the world in which they live.

The fact is that the world has become much more complicated. Travel, international politics, communications, and technology are speeding up all of our lives. What seems impossible one day becomes a reality the next—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Issues of health and safety are at the forefront more than they were two years ago, and it is unlikely that this pattern will abate.

We need to prepare students to live in this world, and that means they have to understand it. Epidemiology is one route to that understanding.

How do we teach epidemiology when the curriculum is already crowded and teachers are already overburdened? The answer may not be as complicated as it appears. We can insert epidemiology modules into existing courses. History, social studies, math, biology, and other subjects provide an excellent context for learning and applying an epidemiological approach. In fact, these integrated modules can bring many strands of study together in real-world applications.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation seeks to improve the health and health care of all Americans. That includes helping Americans understand health issues. As part of our larger efforts, we have begun the Young Epidemiology Scholars, or YES, program. We are funding the development of epidemiology curricular modules at the high school level, we are awarding prizes to teachers who create new curricular modules and mentor students, and we will be providing generous scholarships to high school students for research projects using epidemiological methods. More information on all three components of the program is available at www.collegeboard.com/yes.

We do this because we are committed to having our citizens understand the many factors that affect their health. Epidemiology is a key to this understanding.

Dr. Pamela Russo
Senior Program Officer
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Princeton, N.J.


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