Saturday, February 23, 2019

Louisiana Education's Myth of High Standards

If there is one thing Louisiana State Superintendent John White stands for its higher standards!
In 2012 Governor Jindal and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) engineered the appointment of John White (An individual with basically zero education credentials) to the office of State Superintendent. The one thing they expected him to implement were higher standards. Accordingly, in numerous presentations White often emphatically makes the case for higher standards. It is an article of faith to reformers such as White that if standards are set high, then teachers and students will rise to meet them. This post examines the standards that White has established for Louisiana students and the real achievement levels accomplished.

At the same time that John White was in the process of being appointed, Louisiana was in the middle of adopting the new Common Core Standards. This was a set of academic standards primarily in math and Language Arts that were considered tougher and more appropriate to prepare our kids for life. It was believed that if our students were required to master these tougher standards that they would be better prepared for college and careers.

Much of the project for the adoption of the new standards was promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, whose support was obtained by a brief  high level meeting between the Gates' and the creators of the standards. The Obama administration was sold on the project by his outspoken Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. (Another person with no real experience in teaching) The Federal government then found ways around the law prohibiting the Department of Education from mandating curriculum by handing out a lot of money to states that "voluntarily" adopted the program. Louisiana adopted the standards, sight unseen, before they were even written.

Never mind that the Common Core standards had been hurriedly put together by a supposedly elite group of college testing experts who had little experience actually teaching students at the k-12 level. Never mind that the proponents were in such a hurry to implement these new standards all across the nation that they did not bother to run field trials of any kind. (Like what we would do before we subjected our children for a new pharmaceutical drug) It was just assumed that these tougher standards were just the medicine our students needed to make them smarter and more able to compete in the world job market.

A major part of the implementation of the standards included the adoption of new tests for all students at the end of each school year as a way of insuring that the standards were being met. State law, even before the adoption of the new standards already required that students in 4th and 8th grades could not get promoted to the next grade if they failed their state tests in both math and English. So the new tests would be used as further evidence that our students were learning what they needed to know before they moved into high school. Also students at the high school level would not be allowed to graduate unless they passed certain competency tests in critical subjects.

The real promotion standards as measured by the new state tests are low enough for outright guessing to become a major factor 
The state BESE approved standard for receiving a passing grade in course work has long been 67%. In addition, students are expected to meet attendance requirements before they can be promoted.

But an exception was made for the new Common Core tests. Basically the Department of Education was allowed to set any standard they chose relative to the percentage of questions answered correctly. And they were also allowed to change that underlying percentage for passing without consultation from year to year. The passing standard has been quietly watered down over a period of years without the public or the legislature being informed. So at the end of the 2017-2018 school year my public records requests revealed that a student on average only needs to get about 30% of the questions right on their math and English tests in order to get a passing score. That's just a little above what a student who knows absolutely nothing could attain with outright guessing.

My most recent public records requests reveal that 20% of our 4th and 8th graders did not meet the extremely low standard for passing both English and math in 2018
State law still clearly requires that students who fail both math and English are not supposed to progress to the next grade. But John White and BESE found a loophole in the law that allows school systems to implement alternatives to retention for students who do not meet those standards. So by getting local school officials to fill out a little paperwork, all students can magically pass.

The new BESE rules for promotion basically allow any student to be promoted to the next grade even if there is absolutely no evidence of learning in their present grade. 
Even though 20% of students are repeatedly failing their state tests, public records reveal that only 1.8% of 4th and 8th graders are denied promotion. The truth is that the Louisiana Department of Education, using the latest BESE policy, expects our local school systems to promote basically all students to the next grade each year whether they have learned the material or not. Then the teachers in the next grade are magically supposed to teach them the new material in addition to what they did not learn in previous grades.

How can students graduate if they are promoted to high school with little or no knowledge?
As this blog explained in an earlier post, the improved graduation rate of Louisiana students is achieved using even more of the John White standards magic. Using the secret raw score standards implemented by John White, a student can pass his/her algebra I test by scoring only 15% correct answers. Geometry requires only 12% correct answers. English I can be passed by getting 17% of the questions right. Louisiana's improved graduation rate was achieved by faking the stats.

Here are the real results of the proficiency of Louisiana students as measured by an unbiased and untainted testing system
The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is a national test that is considered the gold standard for measuring proficiency of students in 4th and 8th grade in reading and math. On the latest NAEP test given, only 26% of Louisiana 4th graders achieved a proficient rating in reading, only 27% of Louisiana 4th graders got a proficient rating in math, only 25% of Louisiana 8th graders got a proficient rating in reading, and only 19% of Louisiana students got a proficient rating in math. My analysis reveals that our state tests have been inflated an average of 59% in recent years compared to the NAEP tests.

How have Louisiana's children fared during the term of John White compared  to students in other states?
The latest NAEP test results which compare Louisiana student performance in reading and math to all other states places Louisiana at its lowest ranking ever. We now rank at the bottom of all state systems. The only area scoring lower on NAEP is Washington D.C.

Don't blame the students or the teachers. The fact is the Common Common core standards are so bad, so age inappropriate, so filled with stuff these kids will never use, that the tests should not be used for any purpose, much less the promotion and graduation of students. Meanwhile our students are being denied instruction in real world problems and truly useful reading and writing skills.

I would dare any BESE member or legislator with a college degree to take the 8th grade LEAP math test and make their raw score public. 

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry need not complain if their new employees cannot read, write, or do math. These kids have passed the "higher standards" LABI and White forced on us.


Donald J. said...

What are we, as parents, to do? My six year old first grader comes home exhausted, then we spend an hour to 90 minutes each evening doing homework. She is getting A’s in all subjects besides ELA, which she is failing. She is given sight words to master, which she does, then fails the tests. For instance, last week she failed a cold read test titled, “Wangari Maathai,” about an African woman who studied in the US before returning to Kenya to plant trees. Be honest, are you 100% sure you pronounced that title correctly? How much more difficult is it for a six year old to do so? Last week she was given a four page story cold read to read about a farmer growing crops and raising animals. There were few pictures to help her understand what certain items like oats are. We are not farmers, so our daughter has not been raised to understand what oats are in their raw form. Yet my concern is more with her inability to retain the information in a four page story long enough to answer multiple detailed questions. It’s disheartening to watch her confidence shattered because her grades are so poor. She was so proud of herself for making a C just a couple weeks ago, which we were also happy for. She no longer wants to attempt to read because she says it’s too hard. Sadly it’s too hard because they’re not reading about Tom and Jane riding bikes, but instead reading about Wangari Maathai planting trees in Africa.

So back to my original question: what are we as parents able to do? I’ve asked first grade teachers in other schools in our district who say they’re as frustrated with the curriculum as the parents are, but there’s nothing that can be done. I read blogs that say we have problems in Louisiana’s education system, but there’s nothing we can do. I consult parents who recommend private or home schooling (a direction I do not want to take) because there’s nothing that can be done. Are they all correct?

Michael Deshotels said...

Donald, thank you for adding real examples of how impractical and discouraging this curriculum is for our younger students. The people who wrote these standards had no understanding of early childhood education. These reading assignments for little kids are killing the joy of reading. First through third grades are too early to prepare kids for analytical reading comprehension.

What can we do? We need to tell our legislators to start by getting rid of the non-educators like John White who have been put in charge of our education. Give the teachers real Leeway in what to teach, especially to younger children. Bring back some play and real fun in learning. Get rid of the high stakes tests that tell us nothing but which schools have the most privileged kids. Stop stigmatizing schools using test scores which just makes it harder to attract good teachers to them. The testing standards mean nothing anyway, since White has falsified the results.

We don’t send non-medical people to run our hospitals. Return our schools to the professional educators.

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