Monday, August 24, 2009

No Child Left Behind (Just Call in Sick on Test Day)

My local paper reported that my home town school district was one of the top ones in the state in STAR testing this year. STAR test scores and the related Academic Performance Index (API), among other things, affect whether schools may be subject to interventions, and more recently eligibility for Obama-aid (Break me off a piece of that $4.3 Billion stimulus package).

What interested me most about the 2009 scores is that my school district had the highest percentage in our area of those proficient or better in Math. (86.3%) It reminded me of one of the events that eroded my daughter's self confidence in her academic abilities. Her 6th grade math teacher, who is given a lot of credit for raising the test scores in the middle school, did daily speed drill tests of "basics" with the students first thing in the morning. My daughter, who never had any trouble with basics, could not do those particular speed drills and amassed a number of "F"s. My daughter also could do math in her head but if you did not show every step of your work in this class using the method for solving the problem that the teacher taught (because there is apparently only one correct way to get the right answer to a math problem!) you got no credit. So my daughter started getting Ds and Fs in Math even though she was getting the answers right. She became then labelled as "bad in Math" and started to hate it and school in general. Later when I had a tutor work with her who was familiar with real math learning problems he told me that she did not have any such problems. It was a matter of confidence and focus.

By 7th grade, my daughter felt subtly encouraged not to show up for STAR testing in Math. My son, who also had trouble with Math and standardized tests, similarly believed his high school (in a different school district)  would not mind if he missed the STAR tests. He has since graduated magna cum laude from a good university. Even so, he still feels anxiety about standardized testing as he prepares for the LSAT which luckily only has logic and games theory and no other mathematic type concepts.

I do not know the best way to teach Math to students in general and particularly to those who cannot do inflexible speed drill tests. I recognize those types of tests likely help raise test scores, which, while people decry their prominence, are a surprisingly popular measure of all things good. Read Malcolm Gladwell's chapter in Outliers about Mathematics test performance. He questions the standard explanations for certain Asian countries excelling in Math but never questions the tests as measures of excellence. (Although to be fair to Gladwell, he also talks about math instruction at KIPP Academy which seems to spend extended time teaching concepts rather than to the test)

Our pandering to the test is doing harm to some children. As Julie Diamond put it today in a letter to the editor of the NYT "The Obama administration should reject the basic tenet of No Child Left Behind: children are not numbers."

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