Thursday, November 03, 2005

Objective... and very confusing

In case you missed it, an NYT article from yesterday dives into the problems created by the sheer number of different tests for varying age levels in diverse subjects. (I'm getting dizzy just thinking about it.)

From the NYT:

Take Florida, where 30 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading on this federal test in 2005. Yet on the Florida state test, 71 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2005. It's a big difference: Are nearly three-quarters of your fourth graders proficient? Or less than a third? And it's typical.

On the 2005 federal test, 33 percent of New York's fourth graders were proficient in reading; on New York's 2005 state test, 70 percent were. In Tennessee, 27 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading on the federal test; 87.9 percent on the state test.

Nationwide, millions of students may or may not be proficient, depending on which test you favor.

What's more, basic trends on the two sets of tests are often contradictory. In Florida, the federal fourth-grade reading proficiency scores were down two percentage points between 2003 and 2005 (bad news); on the state test they were up 11 points (good news). In New York, on the federal test, fourth-grade reading proficiency was down one point; on the state test, up six points. In short, it's hard to answer the age-old question: Are fourth graders getting smarter or dumber?

"It's a problem," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "It's a case of trying to compare apples and elephants."

So the dream of objective measures that would definitively tell us what was happening in schools really was a dream. That is, it's an illusion. Not reality. Surprise, surprise.

Some, like Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, say the states are making their tests too easy, to ensure they get high marks on the No Child Left Behind rating system. Some say the federal test's proficiency level is set too high. And Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the liberal group FairTest, says, "It shows these so-called objective measures are arbitrary, easily manipulated and profoundly political."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Compassion for whom?

As the Bushies frantically rush to appease their base and reduce the budget deficit, they've decided to cut spending instead of reducing tax cuts.

What does it mean for schools and the kids in them? According to the Washington Post today:

About 40,000 children would lose eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches, the Congressional Budget Office estimated.

Let's see... kids eat or millionaires pay a little less tax? Tough choice, huh? Not if you're a compassionate conservative. Then, apparently, the choice is all too easy. The millionaires win every time.

(Hat tip to Bull Moose.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

$6 billion for mystery meat?

Newsweek ran a great article yesterday on school lunches.

Here is one area where policy makers could do a great deal to improve the overall wellness of students (yes, test scores would probably go up, too, if kids ate better) but very few are doing anything.

A few facts from the article:

...[E]very day 54 million U.S. school children eat lunch. About 29 million of them participate in the National School Lunch Program, which costs the U.S. government $6 billion a year. (Of the 29 million kids, 14 million receive their lunch free and 3 million get it at a reduced price; the remaining 12 million pay for it.)

It's a big market, and the food industry has stepped in to provide a host of new options for parents and school systems...

But companies in the federal school lunch biz have to contend with strict nutritional and price restrictions. The federal government reimburses schools $2.32 for kids on the free-lunch program and $1.92 for kids on the reduced-price option. To subsidize healthy eating, the government also kicks in 22 cents per full-pay child, too.

That's not a lot of money with which to make inexpensive, mass-produced, healthy lunches that kids want to eat. And in an era in which more than 16 percent of kids are overweight or obese according to the Centers for Disease Control, there's ever more pressure for school lunch suppliers to provide healthy food.

It's a huge industry and one that, at least until now, has served the public very poorly. It appears that that might be changing.

One problem with the article: Newsweek didn't even mention the work of Jamie Oliver who has revolutionized the way British children eat at school. He's now working to do the same thing here.

What're working parents to do?

Salon ran an interesting article on good day care options -- or, more accurately, the lack of them. The Salon analysis was an expansion of an NYT article that appeared Tuesday and covered three studies put out recently be researchers.

The findings boil down to this: kids that stay at home with a parent or attend limited pre-school (1/2 day or less) tend to be more well-adjusted than those that go to day care all day.

From Salon:

But, says [UC Berkeley Professor Bruce] Fuller, it's important to remember that this data isn't about parental failings; rather, it's "symptomatic of a larger problem in American society," where more often than not, both parents have to work. If anything, these findings should embolden us as a community to "nudge employers to adjust the structure at work for young parents."

I think this is an excellent point and needs to be talked about more in conversations on education policy. The years before school begins are critically important and studies like Fuller's (which included a sampling of over 14,000 5-year olds) show that having parents home makes a big impact. So why shouldn't government encourage businesses to allow workers flex-time arrangements?

A new generation of war reporters

Students at Swarthmore run War News Radio. This kind of student journalism is very important in a time when an ongoing war could -- could -- lead to a draft and will lead the thousands of casualties among young people.

(Link via TPM)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

68 million and counting

Don't miss the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's two part series on testing. Part one is here and part two is here.

From the first installment:

The American Educational Research Association estimates that 68 million tests a year will be given nationwide to meet the requirements of the law.

In Wisconsin alone, the number of students taking the state tests will rise from about 190,000 last year to almost a half million this year, state Department of Public Instruction officials say.

Even the tests are bigger. Some who have seen Wisconsin's fourth- and eighth-grade test booklets groan when describing them. There will be eight hours of testing for fourth-graders and almost nine for eighth-graders. The state has recommended test schedules that could take up parts of as many as 13 school days for some children, although many schools will take fewer days by doing multiple sections a day.

The official testing window opened Oct. 24 and runs to Thanksgiving. Because many schools don't like to give tests on Mondays or Fridays, the focus will be on the middle of each of those weeks.

A reasonable guess: More students in Wisconsin will be taking standardized tests Tuesday than on any single day in state history.

All this testing requires a lot of test prep -- or does it? The article describes daily prep in some schools. But...

Experts generally agree that having students study for standardized tests is ineffective. DPI officials say about one hour a year of teaching students what to expect, including how to handle the test format, is about all that is productive.

Renee Bast, a third-grade teacher at the Academy of Accelerated Learning, says, "In the long run, test preparation starts in kindergarten."

And therein lies the rub. This is the problem. Everybody knows that tests are supposed to be a diagnostic tool but by adding the high-stakes element to the tests they become an end instead of a means to an end.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Denver's teacher incentives

Next week, Denver voters will decide whether to increase property taxes to raise $25 million that will be targeted toward teacher incentives.

Normally, I would oppose this. But Denver has done teacher pay incentives differently than any other place. Instead of implementing them to spite teachers, they did it to reward them. No really, they did. 59% of teacher union members favored the program in a vote last year.

Which begs the question: Why don't other cities, districts, and states that want to implement teacher incentives work with teachers instead of against them?


I'm finally back online and will be blogging much more regularly starting now.

As always, check out the Advocate Weekly at Joe Thomas's Shut Up and Teach blog. There are some excellent selections this week.
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