Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hiding the Achievement Gap: how current trends backfire

In a recent post, I wrote about how current trends in education aimed at narrowing the achievement gap actually end up widening it. These trends include Reform Math; making all kids do work at their age-based grade levels; "accommodating" disabilities rather than remediating them; and multiple instructional options aimed at different talents/"learning styles."

At the extreme, for example,  you might have a 9th grader with a serious reading comprehension deficit "learning" Romeo and Juliet (because the curriculum says all 9th graders should do Shakespeare) by reading simplified Shakespeare, watching West Side Story, and then creating a diorama of the Balcony Scene. What this child needs is remedial reading instruction with a text that is not at his age-based grade level but at his aptitude-based grade level. Without this, his reading level will stay where it is and he won't stand a chance of ever grasping adult-level texts, let alone Shakespeare.

Why are today's education experts promoting such obviously counterproductive strategies in the name of Narrowing the Gap? Is it because such strategies make it look as if the gap is narrowing? By providing a way for a child to "do" Shakespeare that bypasses the actual challenges, you can take someone who once would have had a transcript marred either by English classes marked as remedial, or by very low grades in college-prep English, and give him an A in Honors English.

Furthermore, as Anonymous writes on my first post on the achievement gap, the more the assessment rubric allows subjective judgment (e.g., how "creative" your diorama was, or how "deeply" you explained your correct or incorrect answer), the more latitude the teacher has to assess away any achievement gap in her classroom. (A more formal tactic is grade compression).

So you can disappear the K12 report card gap. And, using similar tactics, you can disappear the state achievement test gap: keep dumbing down the tests and softening their assessment criteria.

But there are still a few manifestations of the achievement gap that schools can't sweep under the carpet:

1. The achievement gap in independent standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.
2. The achievement gap in colleges, where those who can't handle the traditional college curricula either fail out or lose their time and money to remedial/dumbed down classes.
3. The subsequent gap in earnings (and employment) that results, in large part, from the cumulative effects of all this educational malpractice.


1crosbycat said...

I did a bit of research on reform math after finding it in my local school, and found that 21% of our students going to community or state colleges needed remedial math and/or English (our district is upscale and considered to be excellent based on PSSA state test scores). Even worse, 43% of all students at public two-year institutions had enrolled in a remedial course and 29% of all students at public four-year institutions had enrolled in a remedial course according to the website for the Pennsylvania Coalition for World Class Math Standards. Excellent post.

Unknown said...

As a teacher, I see this happening for two reasons:
1) Special education requirements that student objectives in IEPs be related to grade level standards, which is great for some kids who can stretch to meet them, but for many just means wasting time on meaningless stuff that is only marginally related to the curriculum.

2) Soft-hearted teachers who think that by doing pretend grade level projects the kids won't feel different or bad about themselves. They don't seem to "get" that no matter what you do the kids know who is behind.

I fully believe that there are places that are decreasing the achievement gap by keeping the top achievers from excelling.

Happy Elf Mom said...

My older autistic son (17) has been pushed through and mainstreamed and ohhh he's reading at a fifth grade level according to their tests.

He can't even really read Cat in the Hat and has an IQ of 65 or 67. The school can't "fix" that but hello, we could have been more honest and done some life skills training.

Instead, he has a standard high school diploma. Which is fine for him, I suppose, but if I were an employer, my son would "look" the same on paper as a child who can read and write well and construct an essay.

Deceptive. I am not sure if, as we approach time to file for SSI (income wise he doesn't qualify and stuff until he is 18?) that that will also count against him. I know that's not quite on topic, but all these topics are very inter-related when you have a child with a disability.

Auntie Ann said...

This is more language oriented, but the sci-fi author Sarah Hoyt posted this on her blog yesterday.

>> I think the other day I said it was in third grade that the school gave us trouble over Robert. I was wrong, it was actually in first grade. I sent them a kid who could read, write and was working on fractions. Imagine our shock when in our first first grade conference, the teacher informed us that Robert was learning disabled and would probably never learn to read and write. This was particularly surprising since one of her pieces of evidence was a worksheet that consisted of 1+0, 2+0 etc. across the top of which Robert had written in properly spelled words “this is stupid and boring. A number plus zero always equals the number.”

>> Dan and I threw a fit – we would – and they insisted Robert needed to be in Title One and remedial education. We insisted he didn’t. In the end, they had him IQ tested, after priming the school psychologist, who used a “set” that topped out at 107 IQ. Then they informed us his IQ was 107 and he needed to be in Title One and remedial education...

>>...Remember, Title One is supposed to teach kids who are disabled to read at normal level. Remember too, the kid they sent to Title One was reading The Life of Caesar at four. (Though he did get stumped by the meaning of “incest.”) While they were sending him to Title One, one of the books confiscated for reading in class was one of our signed Pratchetts (can’t remember which now, but might have been The Color of Magic. I remember because instead of telling me – he wasn’t supposed to take those to school – he broke into the teacher’s closet and stole it back. He was never caught.)<<

She goes on to write of the horrors of remedial, whole-word reading and wonders what the heck the ed establishment is thinking pushing such obviously incompetent teaching methods.

GoogleMaster said...

Why do the powers that be think that the achievement gap CAN be narrowed?

If you look at it purely as a mathematical problem, you take child 1 and child 2 who learn at velocities v_1 and v_2, where v_1 > v_2. If you assume that they start out at the same x_0 level of knowledge, then after time t you have x_1_t = x_0 + v_1 * t, and x_2_t = x_0 + v_2 * t. Since v_1 > v_2, and time t is positive, it follows that v_1 * t > v_2 * t, hence x_1_t > x_2_t.

Extrapolating, we can see that the gap should be expected to grow, unless someone goes all Harrison Bergeron on child 1.

Anonymous said...

GoogleMaster, this is exactly why we have to stop testing for x.

In fact, testing for x is racist. I know this because white kids do better in tests for x.