Tuesday, August 28, 2012

More and More Testing; Diminising Returns

Most of our non-educator education reformers believe that the primary purpose of K-12 education is to get all students ready for college. The high school Redesign Commission under the direction of previous Superintendent Pastorek several years ago adopted a goal that most students would graduate by completing the college prep Core 4 curriculum. (See my post of 1/29/2010) That's also why State Superintendent John White has decreed that starting this year all 8th through 11th graders in public schools will be required to take the ACT (See the Louisiana ESEA Flexibility Request page 54).
A few educators have warned that college prep for all is a serious mistake. We believe that not all of our student population can and should be prepared for college. We believe that scheduling all or most students in college prep courses results in a watering down of instruction. When more than half the class is not ready for Algebra, Geometry or Advanced English, the teacher ends up teaching only the minimum needed to get students to pass the end of course tests. As a result the true college prep students do not get the rigorous course content they need and most are bored to death.
The non-college bound students are hurt even more by this system. They struggle to get through the Core 4, and some have to take credit recovery courses to try to graduate on time. They have no time to take vocational courses that could allow them to pursue a valuable career. These students barely graduate from high school with no salable skills and very little chance of succeeding in college. Some that attempt college end up dropping out with a huge load of college loans and still no career. The reformers then simply blame teachers and administrators for not pounding square pegs into round holes.
The push for college for all has been the policy in Louisiana for several years.
How successful has Louisiana been in preparing all students for college? ACT test averages for all states were released last week for test takers in the 2012 school year. Louisiana students scored an average of 20.3. The Louisiana Department of Education put out a press release claiming improvement for our public school students over last year and a narrowing of the achievement gap. One important item that was not mentioned in the LDOE press release is an analysis by the ACT experts concluding that only 17% of Louisiana students met the benchmarks that would predict success in all major categories of college course work.
ACT testing administrators also published a 5 year listing of average scores for each state. The 2012 score for Louisiana students is exactly the same as the average score of 20.3 in 2008. So if one looks at the most recent 5 year period, Louisiana shows no overall increase in the average ACT score. The 5 year period covers the last part of the administration of Paul Pastorek, the non-educator guy who set us on this course.

A complicating factor in using ACT scores to estimate improvement in public education in Louisiana is the fact that scores are averaged for all students taking the test including both public and private school students. It is impossible to know whether a gain in the average is due to public school students or to the fairly large number of private school students taking the test. The State Department of Education however, is claiming that the flimsy one tenth point improvement this year in the overall average means that public schools are improving. I hope that is true, but I would first like to see a breakdown showing separate averages for public and private schools.

I participated in a meeting of the High School Redesign Commission a few months ago, where the group was informed that the State Department of Education will start requiring all high school students to take the ACT and that 25% of the all important School Performance Score will be based on the ACT average score. Some of the Commission members grumbled that this would not give the high schools time to set up special ACT prep courses. But not wanting to seem to be against this latest reform, they dutifully voted to endorse the new testing scheme. So it looks like many more of our teachers will be singing the Test Teacher Song. (Click on the link and you'll see what I mean.) 

It used to be that high schools in addition to producing literate and well rounded citizens would prepare students for either vocational/career work or for entry into 4 year colleges. Now the goal has been carefully reshaped by our non-educator reformers so that schools are supposed to produce adults who are College and Career ready.  The reformers are telling us that if we achieve the goal of college prep, we will also automatically be preparing students for careers that require less than a 4 year college degree. The problem is there are only so many hours in the school day. That's why many school systems have been forced to sacrifice many of their vocational-technical programs to allow more time for the Core 4 curriculum.

No other industrialized country attempts to prepare all its students for college. They know that the modern work force needs skilled and vocational workers just as much as it needs college educated workers. Why do our school reformers insist on doing exactly the opposite of what the most successful countries are doing?

It is ironic that business leaders have been telling the Louisiana Workforce Commission that what they need are skilled workers in many jobs that do not require a college degree. That's why one element of the Jindal reform legislation will now allow high school students to leave their home campus and attend vocational courses by private providers. The problem is most of these kids are not able to go in two directions at one time.

I believe that forcing students who are not suited to, or have no interest in college prep to take such courses is very bad policy. It is discouraging and damaging to the students and guarantees that our public schools will continue to look like failures. For educators it's more and more testing with diminishing returns.