Monday, June 29, 2009

Anti-Bloomberg Education Diatribble

posted by The Vidiot @ 9:38 AM Permalink

What prompted the writing of this post is a recent spate of Bloomberg for mayor ads touting his record with the New York City school system. In one of them, he says that since he's been mayor, test scores have gone up. I'm here to tell you that the reality is, they have not.

The state of education today is one of those hot-button issues that's sure to get all sorts of opinions and ideas stirred up into a cauldron of uselessness. "Throw money at the problem!" "Punish the bad schools by withdrawing funds!" "Longer school year!" "Privatize!" Yada, yada, yada. Additionally, Bloomberg is basing a whole lot of his reelection campaign on how much the schools have improved under his tutelage.

But let me tell you, most folks have absolutely no idea what really goes on in the schools. So, I'm going to give you a little peek into a sliver of it. What follows is long, but if you are really interested in how a school system like New York creates their propaganda, read on.

Here in New York, the students are required to pass what is called a Regents exam in four subjects: English, Math, Government and History. They're supposed to make sure that all students graduate with the at least a minimum of competency in those subjects. But do they really? No, of course not.

I hold in my hands a copy of this year's United States History and Government test along with a copy of the chart that converts the raw test scores into final exam scores. Before I get to the chart, let me describe the test.

There are three parts.
Now, the multiple choice questions are framed in two ways. One way is to make three of the four choices a little silly so that the answer is more obvious. For instance: "Which of these trials established the principal that leaders of a nation may be tried for crimes against humanity? 1) Scopes 2) Rosenberg 3) Sacco and Vanzetti 4) Nuremberg. The other way the questions are framed are the answers are actually a part of the question, like in a graph or a cartoon.

For the part two essays, the first was on individual rights. They tell you what to do and how to do it:
"Select two different groups in American society who have faced discrimination and for each, describe one specific example of discrimination faced by the group, describe one action taken by the federal or state governments related to this example of discrimination and discuss how the action taken by the federal or stat governments either protected or limited the rights of the group. You may use any example from your study of United States history. Some groups you might wish to consider included Native American Indians, African American, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, women, the elderly, and the disabled."
Additionally, the instructions tell you how to write and essay and what the words "describe" and "discuss" mean. For the most part, this essay is the most difficult part of the test. Though, if they just wrote "African Americans are discriminated against. I'm African American and I've been discriminated against." That would garner at least a point. If they added "My friend is Hispanic. He's always discriminated against." They would definitely get two points.

The second essay is based on the "documents" used in the questions for part three. Basically, if they just rewrite the initial essay question as a statement, and then copy a bunch of stuff from the "documents", they'll get it right.

Part three has paragraphs, charts and cartoons with a corresponding question and for the most part, the graders looking for them to write, nay copy, a line, or even just a key word, from the selection as an answer to the question. So they don't even have to come up with anything on their own. Just find any line in the paragraph that sounds like it answers the question and write it out, word for word.

Keep in mind, the teachers are supposed to explain all of this to the students before the test.

OK, so that's the test. Now here comes the fun part: The grading

Obviously, part one is easy to grade. They either get it right or not. For part two, they get one point out of possible five for just writing a sentence, nonsensical or not. Two sentences gets two points and three points goes to the student who has two sentences that actually pertain to the essay topic. Of course, if the student actually writes a real essay, that's four points right there. And if that essay makes any sense, that's a five. The same lenient standards apply for part three.

Here's a conversation that actually occurred during the grading of the papers:
Asst. Principal: Let me see XXXX's scores for the third section.
Teacher: Here it is.
Asst. Principal: [After looking it over] Why did you mark that one wrong?
Teacher: Because "Health of the machines" is a completely nonsensical sentence.
Asst. Principal: But he used the word "machines" in the sentence. That's one of the key words. He gets that one right.
Teacher: {sigh} OK, I'll change the answer if you want, but it's the wrong answer. I'll mark all of them right if you want me to.
Asst. Principal: (Turning to the other teachers in the room) We have to be more careful when we grade these exams.
I'm not kidding. That actually happened.

OK, so now to the final tallying of scores:

First, they're in the process of raising the baseline pass score from 55 to 65, but they're doing it incrementally. This year's seniors need only one 65 and three 55s to pass. Next year, they'll need two 65s and two 55s and so on.

So you take the amount of answers answered correctly in parts one and three and add them together. Then, you look down the column of essay scores to see what the final exam score is. So, for instance, if the total correct answers for parts one and three is 40 (out of 64), then the student doesn't have to do better than a 4 out of 10 on the essays to pass the exam. Keep in mind, that could just mean writing two-sentence essays for each.

Here are some weird things that can happen with this grading system.
There are other weird things but basically, any combined score on parts one and three has added to it some amount for the essay, whether or not an essay is actually written. And the more points you get on parts one and two, the more points you get for NOT writing the essay. Combined 20 points will get you 2 extra points if you did not write the essay. Combined 40 points will get you 9 points if you did not write the essay. So, even though there are only 64 possible combined points for parts one and two, and that's one point below the 65 needed to pass for the higher pass score, the student will pass because even if they don't write the essay because they get an extra 17 points, pushing them to 81.

Also, NOBODY scores a 54 or a 64. If any student scores a 54 or 64, the teachers are 'encouraged' to go back and find that extra point so that student can pass.

Additionally, if you just look at how the essay points are weighted, each point on the essay exam is worth, on average, four points, making the total number of points for the exam approximately 104, not 100. (Actually, the average is higher than four points, because the initial bump can range from 1 point to 17 points depending on the combined score. I just don't fee like doing a lot of math right now. My gut tells me the average is about 8. Mathematically, the essays are weighted to account for the fact that the test only has 74 raw points. But the essay, which is the most flexible in scoring, is too heavily weighted.)

And this gets revamped every year and softened up. I have a scoring chart from 2007 and then, the passing grade for all was just 55 and there were 65 questions instead of 64. I also noticed that there were fewer points awarded for the essay section on the chart by an average of 2-3 points, especially in the lower ranges. Even when taking into consideration the extra multiple question (when compared to this year), it's still fewer points awarded, but since passing was 55, that's OK. Which means that when you hear anybody say "Oh, we're raising the passing grade level. Our requirements are getting more stringent." You know they're lying. Standards aren't being raised, scores are being artificially raised by adding more weight to the essay section.

Conclusion: So, bottom line, the test is fluffed, the grading is fluffed, the scoring is fluffed and so, in the end, the pass rate is fluffed. Bloomberg's claim that "pass rates have increased since he took control of the school system" is a bunch of hooey.

[There's another aspect of the school system that's been getting some coverage in the press of late and that's the issue of the so-called "Rubber Room" which is where they send teachers who have been accused of wrong doing to await their hearings. Sometimes, they can languish there for years. Now, someone is making a documentary about it. Watch the trailer.]

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home