The battle between the illiberals and the NEA. What do the results mean, and what good can they do?
On 14 September 2000, the Denver Post gave front-page emphasis with the headline "Two-thirds flunk state math test." These were the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests in math and science given to eigth-graders last Spring. Collating the results certainly took a long time. There were 58,881 pupils sitting the exam.
In looking at these results, one must make certain assumptions, which were not brought forward in the newspaper article. First, there must have been some sort of syllabus so that teachers and students knew what they would cover. This is difficult when the American system is total chaos and unpredictability. Someone must have had some idea of what eighth-graders should know, and drawn up the tests accordingly. Second, the grades were listed as "Advanced", "Proficient", "Partially Proficient" and "Unsatisfactory", with no indication of what attainment these levels represent. Apparently, "passing" the exam was equivalent to Advanced or Proficient, and perhaps represented a raw score of around 50%. What Partially Proficient might mean is questionable, like partially pregnant. It probably means Unsatisfactory, and Unsatisfactory means Very Little If Anything.
For an examination to mean anything, it must be set to a published syllabus (which could consist of past examinations), and must be marked impartially and equally. Incidentally, the unreliability of marking of essay-type questions is famous, and if any of that was done here, it reduces the significance of the results greatly.
The sample questions given were easy. I suppose that they represented the more difficult questions on the examination, meant to show the public that the questions were rigorous. The questions were easy because they called either for recall of facts, or manipulation according to rule. They were stated in words, which also tested the ability to understand written material, which is none too good in the American pupil. This does not mean that they involved creative reasoning, of which I found no real evidence. "Why does a candle go out in a confined space?" is not a question that involves much reasoning, especially when it is multiple-choice. Whatever the facts may be, the questions did involve arithmetic manipulation and recall of science facts, and this is something, however diffuse and unstructured.
The astounding thing that can be seen in the published figures is not the low average pass rate, 33% in math and 45% in science. It is not surprising that the average American eighth-grader no longer knows anything of significance. What was unsettling was the vast differences between schools. In Horizons Alternate School in Boulder, 97% passed math, 100% science. In Denver County Cole School, 2% passed math, 3% science. As the classes could not have been that large, this represents a very small number of students. Are the differences in students really that large? Even I, who maintain that good students are more important by far than good teachers, wonder at this difference. It probably represents a cultural difference that transcends individual raw ability and the low quality of elementary teachers in general. If we leave the cities, and go out into rural areas, the results are much more uniform and "average" as one would expect. It is certainly no more the school at fault than it is the pupils within the school. The United States is probably creating an urban class that is incapable of education. These CSAP results show three divisions: a selected superior group with traditional attainments, an uneducable lower class, and a large average mass of declining mediocrity. How these all can fit into one educational system cannot be imagined.
As always in race-conscious America, the results were broken down by race, now called ethnicity, but the same thing. Alas, Black and Hispanic students did much worse than Native American, and both did worse than White or Asian. It is obvious that this loathsome comparison has more to do with location, since Black and Hispanic are largely urban, Native American rural. A culture which elevates paid athletes and actors to heros, cultivates the supernatural, and is totally lacking in creativity, might be what is at fault here.
The State Commissioner of Education says: "Writing and math always have the worst scores because they're the hardest." He was not surprised, since American students always do badly in math. A politician said "We want to set the bar very high in order to have our kids be able to be challenged." Stupid--and illiterate.
Post Script: In a recent newspaper article, a mother who had conscientiously supervised the education of her mentally-retarded son took issue with the use of the CSAP scores of such special students to rank schools. She is quite correct in this. The amazing thing is that such students have to sit these examinations anyway. Even more amazing was the fact that her son passed them! Think about what this says about the exams. Some students have been allowed to take CSAP tests in Spanish, and most passed well, unlike their classmates who sat the English version. This doesn't help the school, because Spanish test results are thrown away; only the English ones count. What did you expect?
Post Script:International test results for math and science were released 6 December 2000. These seem to be administered every four years to eighth graders or the equivalent, and the present results are from 1998-99. These results seem to be an excellent example of statistics from which no useful conclusions can be drawn. This year, Western European countries (who score on top) pulled out, leaving the high ground to Singapore, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. This meant the US inched up higher in the mediocre category, accompanied by Bulgaria and Latvia. At least the US is accomplishing its goal of "excellence", which means "mediocrity" in non-educational English. England, who stayed in the test, has US-like results for math, but is much better in science. These scores say little about schools or students, I believe, and mostly about society. The sampling would seem to vitiate the statistics. What students are chosen? Are they self-chosen? Bad students could be chosen to show that the schools are at fault (the US slant), or good students could be chosen for national pride. Does the sample change with time (even beyond the obvious changes)? Maybe some answers can be found at Third International Mathematics and Science Study.
Post Script:The Denver Post for 5 February 2001 included samples of the CSAP for 3rd through 10th grades. Math is included at 5th, 8th and 10th grades, science apparently at 8th grade only. I had a problem with 4th grade reading. There was a poem where my friend (female) showed me whales in clouds. A sketch showed two small individuals, apparently female from the long hair, one with a leg brace. I was asked questions about in what order "the friend" and "the girl" point out or see things. I was stumped, since it was breakfast time, and I considered that either of the protagonists could be described as "the friend" or "the girl." It turned out that "the girl" corresponded to "I" in the poem, which is not an association I immediately make. "Girl" was not mentioned in the poem at all, only "She."
Fifth grade math had things like choose the shape that has four equal sides and no right angles. Another question amounted to: if I have a pile of three blocks, how many more blocks do I need to make a pile six blocks high. Remember that a fifth-grader is about 11 years old! Eighth grade was represented by two arithmetic problems (e.g., if 6 pumps of the handle gives one gallon, and each 4 pumps more gives a gallon, how many gallons from 34 pumps?) and finding the median of 7 integer results (i.e., remember what the median is). Tenth grade "math" had a map scale problem, trigonometry was represented by find x if tan 67° = 10 / x, an x-y plot with drawing the best straight line, and selecting the equation describing the height of Sara's plant. Sara's plant was 6 in high to start, and grew 2 inches daily (48 inches divided by 3 weeks x 7). Only one of the choices had a constant term 6, so one didn't need to do any calculation at all. None of these questions involve anything more than the application of rules and definitions, no thought, and very little manipulative skill. A 10th grader, remember is about 16 years old, and in the past could have had actual courses in geometry, algebra and trigonometry that developed real skills. To have reached this level with such minimal accomplishments represents a great waste of time. A perfect score on the CSAP corresponds to a minimal level of achievement, and perhaps luck in overcoming ambiguity, certainly not to an education.
The CSAP section even included an ad by the CEA saying, essentially, that the CSAP tests are great, but also should be ignored. A sad little girl is shown holding a sign saying "loser." Actually, the tests are going to be used to rank schools, not pupils, and are not requirements for graduation. Some pupils may decide to trash the tests (what's in it for them?) just for fun, and if they succeed well, there will indeed be fun. Illiberals probably want more to hold feet (teacher's feet, not pupils') to the fire than to improve education, while the CEA wants to make the world safe for stupidity. Sadly, there appears to be no hope for real reform of this gigantic monkey ship.
Governor Owens took the test on 7 February, together with some legislators and other experts. They agreed to take the test only on condition that their performances would not be published. A wise precaution, no doubt, but hardly an intrepid one, considering that they are forcing thousands of pupils to undergo the experience. In Britain, the equivalent to CSAP is the Ofsted inspection, which is much more comprehensive and may even have some validity. It was also noted that schools are trying to "encourage" their pupils to give their best on the exams. It was observed that the pupils have nothing to lose. One Denver principal has decided to give up in advance, knowing that her school will be sucking mud as a result of post-busing changes in attendance. The thought of holding pupils responsible is never even whispered. Pupils without incentive and teachers without education are a dismal combination. The only thing that cheers me is that principals are writhing under torture and can't do anything about it except falsify grades.
It turns out (Denver Post, 12 February 2001) that the oily, sanctimonious illiberal was actually taking a sample test that had been circulating for a year, not the actual CSAP. Last year Owens refused to take it. I suppose I can see where he might have some trouble with an easy test designed for schoolchildren, and be afraid of having his performance revealed. Things like this could give Texas lawyers a bad reputation.
Post Script: Arizona has a similar new program, called Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, a meaningless name chosen for the sake of the acronym AIMS. How about Arizona's Instrument to Measure Little Except Student Stupidity? It ranks state schools, half are expected to fail, and reform squads will be sent to them. 80% of "minority" students seem to have failed last year. This, of course, has no impact on the students themselves. They probably don't care, and I don't see why they should. Now, if one replaced the bad pupils with good ones, the schools would suddenly excel.
Post Script: Today's (16 February 2001) paper reports that the Jefferson County PTA objects to the CSAP because it interferes with field trips, class parties, and all-school assemblies when time is wasted preparing for it. Under the county's Performance Promise, schools with good grades will get more support, those with bad, less. That should shake them up. What is all this effort, to "prepare" pupils for what is a very simple test at a low level that makes no difference to them anyway? The best way to remove stress from the pupils would be to make it plain that they have nothing to fear from the CSAP, that it will not affect them in the least. Nothing to fear but fear itself. However, this is not in the interest of the teachers or the administrators. There is a dull fog of stupidity that surrounds "education" from bottom to top, so it is no wonder progress is impossible. Schools actually do a thorough job in preparing pupils for a stupid society in only 12 years. There was no mention at all in the paper of the AAAS convention opening in San Francisco today.
Post Script: Denver Post, 6 March 2001, page 2A: "Graduation testing runs into difficulties" by Charles Ornstein, Dallas Morning News. Unlike Colorado, some states have bravely tied exit examination results to diplomas. Of these, Alaska, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia have decided to allow other paths to graduation. Some states are "eliminating difficult questions, making tests shorter and lowering passing scores." That is, bringing the tests down to the level of the students rather than the probably impossible task of bringing the students up to the level of the exams. A Wisconsin educational bureaucrat speaks of setting "enormously high expectations," which, of course, means minimal, basic, whinging expectations, as evidenced by the CSAP's, which even so are already above the general politician's level. What is being discovered is that the American Plan of continuous assessment results in little learning and no education (always excepting, of course, the results of individual student exertions independently of the official system). It is politically much more palatable to tie exam results to schools, not to the pupils who take them, as with the CSAP and Bush's plan. Business leaders apparently want a "certain" level of knowledge, and think these tests will help. They might if all that was wanted was the ability to read simple instructions and do a little arithmetic. The minute anything better is required, a large number of pupils will drop out the bottom as usual. Texas education commissioner Jim Nelson says "Our society is insisting and demanding that our high school graduates be better skilled." Nothing about better educated. Of course, American society is demanding nothing of the sort.
Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 17 September 2000
Last revised 6 March 2001