A blog reader sent me an email expressing concern about his (Utah) school’s new policy of compulsory tracking for math and science students who fail to pass the CRT exam. I thought his comments were worth sharing with the class:
I cannot see the logic in sending a kid on to the next level of Math until he/she has demonstrated proficiency at the current level. I think we are of the same mind there. Remediation classes are a step in the right direction there. The assumption that is being made, and it is a horribly bad one, is that the Math CRTs are an accurate test of that proficiency. The content of the test don’t even align with the new standards! Even when they did, they were a poor measure. In the end, a student who fails the Math CRT (for any reason) in the 9th grade moves on to High School and is placed in the “Math for dumb kids” class (problem enough, but still the next level of Math, it’s remediation in name only). Then, he/she gets a year’s worth of “teaching to the test” and falls that much further behind the group. Even if good things happen, the next CRT is passed, and he/she returns to “regular Math” class, they won’t have the preparation they need for that 3rd year of Math and the cycle will repeat. Those who fail that second year will probably fall victim to stereotype and adopt the attitude that they can’t do Math.Science, on the other hand, is it’s own little disaster in the making. Let’s say a student takes Biology in the 9th grade and fails the CRT. That student will not be allowed to take Physics or Chemistry. Let’s just suspend discussion on weak Science standards and terrible CRTs. How does performance in Biology provide any kind of meaningful measure towards understanding the students abilities in Physics or Chemistry? Their Math scores would be a better indicator, but we’re not even looking at that. Anyway, that student is forced down a different track and their chances at getting into and succeeding in college just got really slim.The worst scenario goes like this:A group of students register for Physics, but aren’t as prepared in Math or whatever as they need to be. They struggle. Some rise to the challenge; others don’t. Classes are large, teachers do what they can, but if the students aren’t seeking help outside of class they’re going to blow the CRT. Knowing this, the administration asks the teachers to evaluate their students and transfer any of them who could hurt the schools average out of the class into a non-CRT course.Let’s see, you’re going to give me a large class AND the opportunity to remove the more challenging students to teach. Tell me, are the interests of the students going to be protected as they should, or has the invisible shield of advocacy that we take for granted been destroyed?
I read this email right after I read an article from Brookings Institute scholar Tom Loveless. In “International Tests are not all the Same,” Loveless points out that Finland’s much touted educational system produces much higher scores on one set of math tests than another.
Finland is a great country and makes a wonderful travel destination. It also has fine schools. But its reputation in education is a bit overblown, based primarily on high PISA scores and an aggressive educational tourism industry. Like New Zealand, Finland also has a math curriculum compatible with PISA. In 2011, Finland participated in TIMSS for the first time since 1999. Finland’s 2011 math scores are statistically indistinguishable from the U.S. at both 4th and 8th grades. While U.S. scores have improved since 1999, Finland’s have declined (both changes are statistically significant). TIMSS is normally given to 8th graders, but to help monitor progress, Finland gave TIMSS to a random sample of 7th graders in both 1999 and 2011. Those scores fell from 520 to 482, a huge decline (see Exhibit 1.6 in the TIMSS International Report).
Read the article for more detail about the two tests, but basically, the PISA test focuses more heavily on applied problem-solving, while the TIMSS test includes more traditional computational questions. Lurking beneath this difference is a huge controversy that has roiled math education for the past several decades. It’s hard to quarrel with a “problem-solving” approach . . . except that there’s substantial evidence that a heavy focus on the process of math reasoning produces students who can’t actually work math problems. My main point here – and my correspondent’s point as well – is that tests both reflect and drive pedagogy. If we are going to embrace test-based tracking, we need to be very, very sure that we’re giving the right tests.