“High stakes” testing and high school diplomas

I’m very pro-standardized testing…if the tests are good. [and this reminds me, I need to order the end-of-year tests for Bonnie & Mo]

So it was with interest that I read the account recently of a school board member in Florida sitting down to take some of the “high stakes” tests that the students in his district have to take:

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America did something that few public servants are willing to do. He took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.

By any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

The thing is, this sort of stunt happens every so often. And I wonder about the credibility of the person taking the exams, especially if he said he guessed on all the math problems. Is it really written that poorly, and nobody noticed til now… or is it that this guy sucks at math and does not think “Hey, perhaps people getting a HS diploma should actually know more than I do”?

In comments, MRW pointed to a public release of the test in question, and having looked at the tenth grade math items, I think what I said was unfair. While we have our share of students who struggle with basic algebra, I’m pretty confident that they would pass this test.

Just for fun, here’s a selection of a few of the problems from the 2006 math test given to tenth graders, the one where Mr. Roach didn’t know how to answer any of them, and “Not a single one of [his friends] said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.” See if you’re smarter than a Florida school board member:

[go to link to look at the questions... most of these I could do by 5th grade, btw]
Now, of course, I’ve cherry-picked these questions, to enable maximum snark, but you can look at the test for yourself at the link above, and see for yourself that the math involved is not terribly difficult. And, in fact, the test writers have done a pretty good job of putting the math into a useful (if occasionally a bit contrived) context, to demonstrate what it’s all for. Maybe whoever selected the questions for him to take pulled out only the most abstract and difficult questions from several years’ worth of tests, but that doesn’t seem terribly likely.

This is yet another demonstration of a problem I’ve been banging on about for years: the innumeracy of intellectuals. Mr. Roach holds three college degrees, and clearly considers himself an educated person, but even a lack of practice at taking tests can’t really explain this level of failure.
Mr. Roach’s failure to score at a reasonable level on this test is something that ought to embarrass him, not the educational establishment. As much as I have problems with the notion of high-stakes testing, I have an even bigger problem with people who believe– and teach our kids– that basic mathematical competence is not a necessary component of education.

Now when I had seen the info about his multiple degrees, and his inability to do well on very basic math, I guessed that those degrees were in subjects with the word “education” somewhere, which are some of the most degraded degrees out there. This would be ironic, unless you understood how the current education industry “works”: you get raises, promotions, etc. as a public school teacher for these degrees. The college and universities granting them get lots of money. And there’s no external check on whether those holding those pieces of paper actually learned anything other than how to work the system.

So let’s see if I was correct about Mr. Roach:

The man in question is Rick Roach, who is in his fourth four-year term representing District 3 on the Board of Education in Orange County, Fl., a public school system with 180,000 students. Roach took a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as the FCAT, earlier this year.

Roach, the father of five children and grandfather of two, was a teacher, counselor and coach in Orange County for 14 years. He was first elected to the board in 1998 and has been reelected three times. A resident of Orange County for three decades, he has a bachelor of science degree in education and two masters degrees: in education and educational psychology. He has trained over 18,000 educators in classroom management and course delivery skills in six eastern states over the last 25 years.

To be sure, I had these links before I wrote this post, but I’m sure the idea popped in many minds when hearing about those degrees (and I definitely thought it when I heard the credit hours towards a doctorate). Mind you, I’m not calling all education programs to be phony, but ever heard of Gresham’s Law?

Bad money drives out good.

This goes for credentials as well. The economic forces as well as the lack of any controls means that there has been a slide downward not only in the meaning of a high school diploma, but also education degrees.

I have written about this dichotomy of what is considered educated, in how much humanities, and at what level, one must take in college compared to math and science. Well, that was college, and here are two posts (post 1 on Cathy Seipp, post 2 on Richard Cohen) of me bitching about people who considered themselves educated, who would also needed to have guessed on that math exam….and trying to make up excuses that it’s okay to be that ignorant in math and call one’s self educated.

Look – would you consider someone educated who could not write coherently? Who could not read great literature (the accessible stuff, not when it was a virtue to be only for the elite) and comment on it?

I really have nothing to this statement from my Seipp post:

Exit exams need to mean something, or high school diplomas will continue to mean nothing. The only reason so many people feel the need to go to college is because a high school diploma means only that you showed up often enough that they gave you a diploma. If you’re getting good grades in math from grades 9-12, but can’t pass a 9th grade-level exam — that should indicate to you that your grades are meaningless. I ran into this problem once before: when I taught calculus at N.C. State. There was a reason they had a pretty strict requirement on placing out of Calculus I. Because over half of the freshman class had had Calc I before and claimed to have gotten decent grades in Calculus the year before… and yet, they didn’t even know how to give the equation of a line. Or what the area of a circle was.

So the question is: are people happy that high school grades and diplomas are credentials with no credibility? If they’re not happy, you’ve got to have some kind of do-or-die certification. Having “alternatives” where people can opt out of basic math knowledge or literacy is not a good way to shore up the credential.

These “high stakes” exams do tend to be relatively low level, especially in math. I think it’s reasonable to set a high school diploma at Algebra I.

Of course, there will be students, diligent and following the rules, who can’t clear that hurdle. It is not kind to anybody to lower the standard such that the HS diploma is merely an attendance certificate. For those who accomplish that, give them the attendance certificate. Don’t lie to them that by merely showing up they accomplished something academically.

One of the perspectives I’m coming from is that of special education — if those students can’t demonstrate that basic level of knowledge and application, then don’t give them a diploma, pretending it means something. What you’re doing is giving everybody a meaningless piece of paper just so that some people supposedly won’t feel bad. Some of those special ed students may very well be able to clear the same minimal hurdle everybody else does, and they should have something that indicates that. I’m also fine with an “honors certificate” above and beyond the minimal HS requirements. Or vocational credentials, if that’s the route they go.

The point is to change high school from a holding pen for teenagers on the way to the “real” credential of college, which will cost many people in money and time lost on wasteful activities….and find they’ve got yet another meaningless piece of paper, and many times, not even that.

About Meep

Meep is a member of the Irish Catholic mafia, having a suspiciously high number of green-eyed, red-haired friends. While she doesn’t have red hair herself [except when she goes into the sun (rare for any vampire)], she does have green eyes. She’s a raving Papist and is a life actuary on the side [i.e., she counts dead people]. An amateur pain-in-the-ass [willing to go pro!], she likes covering retirement, mortality, math, and education issues.
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2 Responses to “High stakes” testing and high school diplomas

  1. Based on the 7 sample questions, I’d say that Mr. Roach is lousy at basic math and underestimates its importance. None of his friends say they need to know that stuff? Don’t they ever prepare budgets, make investment decisions, or do their tax returns?

    He’s a school board member and has a degree in ed psych. I thought ed psych people needed to know some stats. And knowing a little math would help him understand his schools’ curriculum.

    Finally, the post by Marion Brady makes it clear that this is partly a dispute about personnel policy. Teachers object to standardized tests because they don’t want to be held accountable for students’ scores.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • meep says:

      dammit, this site requires one to do math problems now.

      how dare we challenge the abilities of school board members/education degree-holders?

      Haven’t we heard of the ADA?

      To be sure, teachers can do only so much re: the students scores. That said, managers/execs can do only so much re: employee behavior. And they get fired if they screw up in what they’re expected to get done (even if there are circumstances beyond their control).

      Not sure why teachers should be exempted from performance expectations that non-government workers have to put up with.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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