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May 30, 2006   

People have been talking about the high school exit exam for months, so nothing I say here is new. Its implementation here has been exceedingly frustrating.

First and foremost, I find nothing objectionable about having a national standard for educational requirements. I do, however, find many things objectionable about the exit exam.

Requiring an exit exam makes at least one primary assumption that I do not feel the exam itself can address: the grades given out by the teachers are not trustworthy. If it was believed that teachers all across the U.S. were giving out 100% trustworthy grades (where a “trustworthy” grade given to a student always directly correlates on an absolute scale to his/her level of proficiency) to the students, then all passing students should get a diploma, no question.

If it is believed that the grades given to the students are not trustworthy, this belief implies at least one of a couple of other possible beliefs: either A) the teacher believes the student deserves the grade he/she got but is wrong or the B) teacher is knowingly giving the studen a grade that he/she does not deserve.

Let’s take scenario A. In scenario A, the teacher is grading to the best of his/her abilities and believes him/herself to be judging the students’ progresses fairly, but is in fact not. An “A” grade assigned by this teacher might in reality be a “B” as normalized against the other teachers in the school/district/state/country. Similarly, a “D” may in reality be an “F”.

In this case, it is because the teacher does not understand the standards that the students should meet. If this is happening, you have the problem that everyone involved — teacher, students, and parents — all believe that the student is doing well [enough] and by all means should pass and get a diploma, albeit just barely in the case of the D->F student. Even the A->B student suffers in the real world and/or college because the level of learning they believe they had achieved may not stand up to that of their A-graded peers.

It seems that the “better” (in quotes because it does not take into account budgetary considerations or possible objections from involved individuals and is simply my subjective judgment) solution would be to put the teachers through a process of education where they are made aware of the national standards and given continual access to tools to gauge their students’ progress as compared to the nation and/or absolute set of standards. I met a wife of Seppo’s ex-coworker[‘s uncle’s roommate’s boyfriend’s dogwalker’s mom’s poker partner’s dentist] over the weekend that is working with a non-profit organization that provides grants to teachers, schools, and other organizations in order to provide continuing professional development for teachers, improving their access to education & professional tools so that their students will get more out of their learning experience.

My housemate’s girlfriend, a teacher, also told me about a set of funded classes that Apple (I think?) was providing in order to educate teachers on how to effectively use computers to help teach. I think this is fantastic. But I want to see this come out of the federal education budget.

I think it’s disgusting that your zip code can have such a drastic effect on your education, that property tax is a large component of what your teachers will be paid. This can only lead to greater and greater stratification of the socioeconomic classes — if you are poor, you most likely live in a poor neighborhood with low property taxes, leading to your school district being starved for funds, leading to low wages for teachers, leading to brain-drain into higher paying districts, leading to your children being left of crappily paid teachers who need to dig into their own empty pockets to try to supplement the meager educational materials that the district can pay for, as well as less access to enrichment programs, leading to lower educational opportunity for your students, leading to lower paying jobs for those students, leading back full circle to those former students living in a poor neighborhood.

Of course, it’s not that simple and there are a great number of people who break through those circumstances, which is awesome. But just because those people are awesome, it doesn’t mean it’s ok for everyone else who gets shafted by the circumstances of their birth, and that it’s ok to pretend the shafting is not occurring.

Where the heck was I? Oh yes, teachers & grading…

Let’s now take scenario B, where the teacher knows the student doesn’t deserve a certain grade but gives it out anyway. What are the probably circumstances under which this could happen? The ones I can think of are: 1) student is a well-behaved “nice” student and is already behind by a grade or two and tries to work hard, but still does not meet the standards, 2) the teacher will face disciplinary action or possible lay-off if X out of Y students do not pass in any given year (or number of years), 3) the teacher is facing pressure from parents and/or administration regarding the specific student, 4) the student has shown vast improvement in learning in the time she/he has been with the teacher.

There must be tons of other common cases, but these are ones that immediately come to mind.

Case 1 is a pretty sad case, in my opinion, because the student is working hard which the teacher can clearly see, but the student simply does not achieve the standard that he/she should. The teacher wants to reward such hard work and desire to not “cause problems” and might even feel sorry for the student, who may have previously been held back a few times. Being held back again could potentially break the student’s will to work hard, which would be terrible. But passing the student on to the next level before he/she is ready can be to the student’s detriment, since he/she won’t be able to keep up with the next grade, no matter how hard she/he works. This is how we end up graduating functionally illiterate students.

What is the solution to this? I don’t know. What I know about are “learning disabled” classes and other classroom structures that allows you to be in the 7th grade, but take 5th grade level reading classes. LD classes are not necessarily the right answer for when a student is not actually learning disabled but simply struggling with learning. I am not sure where the exact line is drawn but it seems like there is a line. My grade school had a mix of both: an LD class set aside for specific students, and different level reading & math classes for students who were keeping up with their peers for all the other classes except for that specific class. The different levels for reading & math was great for me because I got to go to the higher grades, but how did the kids feel who had to leave the room to go to a lower level feel? Was it discouraging? Did it encourage them to act out because they didn’t want to be teased? My memory of the kids that had to go to the lower levels was that almost all of them got labelled as “bad” kids. :-/

I went to a much larger school than my grade school for my 8th year. They had a strategy where they put the kids in different levels into different classrooms — I believe there were something like 12 classes of 30-35 students in the 8th grade. I have mixed feelings about this because I think it was good that all students didn’t have to compete with each other and that the teachers could focus better than if they had to deal with the fastest student in the grade and the slowest student in the grade at the same time, but I think it was bad that the classrooms were numbered 8-1, 8-2, … , 8-12, where 8-1 was the class of the fastest learners and 8-12 was the slowest. I think that really sucked because the information was out there in such an obvious way.

Hmm, I’m totally off on a tangent again. Since this is overly long already, I think basically when a teacher is giving out “wrong” grades, IMHO it’s because of immense social and/or professional pressure. We should have a standardized approach to help teachers deal with these issues as they arise. And what is the right thing to do when a student is learning faster and better than before due to his/her dedication along with the teacher’s efforts, but the teacher ends up professionally disciplined because the bottom line was not good enough? Do vast improvements count for nothing? And parents have no business trying to strongarm teachers into giving out better grades. I think this pisses me off more than anything else.

The bottom line is that the test doesn’t solve any problems. The students who think they were passing (or even doing exceptionally well) may be completely be surprised to see that they don’t pass the exit exam, even though they had done all the work required of them and passed all the tests leading up to it. Because of problems created by low resources, lack of funding, low salaries, or even with the sad case of bad teachers, the student faces a shock at the end. The problem is systemic and lies in the many many years leading up to graduation, not the moment before graduation.

The teachers should be taught what the standards are and given ample resources to teach them. The students should be graded in a trustworthy manner. The exit exam could act as a guide to modify future teaching methods, but does nothing for the students or teachers currently caught in its net.

May 30, 2006 at 3:17 pm

My ADD prevented me from comprehending what you are talking about here.

This post calls for section headings! 🙂

May 30, 2006 at 3:38 pm

I totally thought about doing that. Then I thought it was too nerdy and I’d get beaten up after school.

Ok, I’ll admit I was too lazy and didn’t feel like it. 😀

May 31, 2006 at 12:01 am

So, here’s sort of a tangential thought:

Standardized tests often work to measure the content of a person’s knowledge. Do they know Fact A? Do they know Mathematical Concept B? A huge portion of the time, it feels like these sorts of test test whether Person A has retained Bit of Information B. To some extent, that’s well and good. Information retention and access is certainly useful.

But to me, *access* to information is one of those things that’s greatly amplified by socioeconomic status. I may not have access to the internet. I may not have access to recent textbooks. I may not have a teacher who’s an expert in their field. These things cost money, because content, and access to content, cost money.

So how do you teach someone to learn, in the relative absence of content? How do you test their ability to *learn* instead of their ability to *remember*?

I have a friend who’s more or less an encyclopedia of trivia. Historically, he’s been someone our peers have considered highly intelligent. I’d say he has a spectacular ability to store information, but that his ability to *recombine* that information is average.

On the other hand, I have another friend who’s not necessarily what one might consider “book smart” – but he’s able to take *practical* information, and convert it into appropriate, well-considered action. For many, if not most practical applications, this one is actionably “smarter” than the previous.

But there’s not a standardized test in existance where the first wouldn’t wipe the floor with the second.

How do you test a person’s ability to *learn*? Can you give a person an entirely novel concept, and get them to do something new with it? Does that have practical application in understanding how well a person is prepared for the world?

I dunno.

I think for the most part, “preparation” for most people involves knowing enough to be a good cog in the machine. You learn enough math to total up your food bill, and that’s probably all you’ll really need on a day-to-day basis. History? Maybe knowing enough to understand why race relations are the way they are. Science? Probably nothing. Why bother? English? Can you fill out a form? How many people need to be able to write even marginally legible reports? 1%? .1%?

I dunno where that’s going. Ah, but if you teach to the minimum standard, how does anyone ever excel? How do they find what they’re passionate about? How do they find things that stimulate their mind, and then how do you show others that this has actually happened?

I dunno.

May 31, 2006 at 10:38 am

“But there’s not a standardized test in existance where the first wouldn’t wipe the floor with the second.”

I think the essential point of standardized tests is to test a person’s ability to be a cog in a machine.

They don’t test a person’s ability to create a new machine. They don’t care. It’s not viable to try and create new machines when the current machine needs more cogs to function.

I think if one looks at the educational system as simply attempting to create new cogs, and not new machines, or less metaphorically, well-rounded and developed human beings, it become easier to see what is or is not wrong with the system as devised.

I tend to look at it as an idealized system for creating wonderful people, but that’s not really its function. Its to create new workers.

And viewed through that lense or approached in that manner, it’s easier to engage the issues from the top down and in practical ways.

June 5, 2006 at 11:28 am

Two points:

1. I disagree that “Requiring an exit exam makes at least one primary assumption that I do not feel the exam itself can address: the grades given out by the teachers are not trustworthy.” Maybe that’s true for state and local exit exams, but not for national exit exams. That’s because the federal gov’t has no control over state and local curriculum, so an exit exam is a simple way to implement a base-line national standard.

2. I agree with what A_B says: standardized tests only see if you will be an adequate cog. Most public schools prepare you to be cogs, or at best “effective citizens,” not brilliant imaginative learner inventers.

June 5, 2006 at 12:44 pm

That’s because the federal gov’t has no control over state and local curriculum

That’s exactly what I’m saying though. If the national standards made it clear that an A in Geometry in district 3 of Connecticut was the same as an an A in Geometry in district 18 of Kentucky, meaning that the students were taught the same basic body of knowledge and were similarly found to be great learners of that material, then there would be no need for a test.

The problem I find is that without addressing & assisiting with the implementation of national standards (which the exit exam sets) and regulating it throughout the educational system, we just put a flow control valve at the end of the pipeline.

My feeling is that if what we want is a national standard (and I have no problems with this), we need to implement system-wide changes and improve things throughout the process, not just put this dam at the end that sorts the students into two piles without addressing the hows and whys of the history that led up to this sorting. The test can be a part of it, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem by itself.

June 5, 2006 at 12:52 pm

To clarify, the biggest problem I have with the test is that it seems to be instituted without the benefit of additional support and/or education of teachers on what the levels we are trying to achieve are.

As a part of an educational upgrade program that is adequately funded and supported throughout, I don’t find it objectionable.

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