Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Conversations on the Rifle Range Chapter 21: The Truly Brilliant, the Stupid People, and Egalitarianism

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters published here under the name Huck Finn, is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number 21:




Occasionally I would see the mother of the Asian girl, Susan who, at the start of the semester, had cornered me about Susan’s performance and whether she could observe my class. I had made an excuse and she never followed up. On certain days, she helped out Mrs. Perrin, the math department chair whose classroom was near mine. As I passed Mrs. Perrin’s classroom on those days, the mother would look at me, a scowl on her face.

Susan was doing better in my algebra class, but was very distraught over the latest set of standardized tests that I administered. The latest tests were part of the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP), developed by California State University and University of California. They were straightforward multiple choice exams that had been used for years for placement. (Students already in Algebra 1 took an exam purportedly to determine readiness for geometry.) The MDTP test was in addition to the Silicon Valley Math Initiative (SVMI) test that students had taken earlier as a new facet of the District’s mysterious placement process. In my opinion, the MDTP was a much better measure of math ability than SVMI.

When I administered the MDTP, I was deluged with questions from all my students. “How is it used to place us? If we don’t pass, what class are we placed in? How is that other test we had to take going to be used?” (This last question referred to the SVMI exam). I decided to see Robin, the student counselor who had informed me about two students complaining about my teaching, to seek advice on how to answer the questions.

“There are two tests now; the MDTP and the SVMI test,” she told me. “It used to be only MDTP.”

This I knew.

“And what has been the cut-off for the MDTP?” I asked.

“It varies,” she said. “I’m not sure what it is this year. But for sure, both tests are being used. We're doing away with having so many students qualify for algebra. We simply can’t have this many students taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Under Common Core, we want the VERY brightest and most talented in math to be allowed to take that."

The cut-off has been 80% for years; but I wouldn’t find that out until after the school year was over when I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the school district to find out what it was, and how many students had qualified for Algebra 1.

Students already taking Algebra 1 were given the MDTP for geometry. What Robin didn’t know when we met was that during this transition year to Common Core the results of the MDTP and SVMI tests didn’t matter for those students, since they had been “grandfathered” in to the system (even though they were still required to take the exams). If they received a B- or better in Algebra 1 and the recommendation of their teacher, they qualified to take geometry the next year.

A few weeks after administering the MDTP, I distributed the summary sheets of the scores to my students. The summary did not indicate what class they would be placed in next year.

At lunch time the next day, Susan came to see me in tears. The results of her test were low. “Does this mean I can’t take geometry next year?”

“I don’t know how they will make that decision,” I said. “I’m told the cut-off level varies.”

“I have to get into the geometry class or my mother will kill me,” she said. “I’m not supposed to be telling anyone this.” She put her head in her hands and started crying. “I have to pass algebra and I have to get into geometry.”

I assured her she was passing the algebra course, but suggested she talk to her counselor about the placement exam. “Will you do that?” I asked.

After Susan left I called Robin and left a voice mail explaining that Susan was extremely distressed about getting into geometry and I was concerned. Towards the end of the day, I received an email from Robin, who had met with Susan. She knew about the problems between Susan and her mother. Robin did some research into the placement process during this Common Core transition year (a phrase she always said with a sigh, and a roll of her eyes heavenward). Robin told Susan that she was grandfathered in; she would get in to the geometry class. “That seemed to calm her down a bit,” Robin said.

Problem solved, I thought. For now.

I know there are parents who pushed to get their children into the algebra class. Perhaps Susan’s mother was one who did. But from what I could see in my algebra classes, with the exception of about 3 or 4 students out of 60, they were doing well, with most getting A’s and B’s. From my perspective, the MDTP was an effective placement tool. But the allure of Algebra 1 in eighth grade did have the potential of creating a student elite—now made even more so by the additional hurdle of the ill-conceived SVMI exam.

I recall in one of my pre-algebra classes after I handed the students their MDTP score summary sheets, a very bright girl named Gail said she hoped she placed into Algebra 1. (She in fact scored higher than 80% on the MDTP, and did well on the SVMI test.) “I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said to the girl who sat behind her.

It was probably that attitude that caused some school districts to enlist an “honors classes for all” type of policy, so no one would feel left out. Other school districts such as mine restricted entry as much as possible through their exclusionary tactics (which also kept down the number of students taking geometry in eighth and ninth grades). The eighth grade traditional Algebra 1 class has become an endangered species open only to a newly formed and very small elite. During my assignment at the middle school, about 300 students were enrolled in Algebra 1 in the entire District. This year, the number dropped substantially to 46. Many of the rest would have otherwise qualified, but for the hurdle imposed by SVMI. They were now part of the larger and growing class of the “stupid people” as Gail referred to them. Given how I am seeing Common Core interpreted for the lower grades, her insulting categorization is taking on new meaning. It is a group for whom Algebra 1 will be a watered down Common Core version in ninth grade. All in the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good.

4 comments:

SteveH said...

"... about 300 students were enrolled in Algebra 1 in the entire District. This year, the number dropped substantially to 46."

Do you know how many of the 300 were successful? What is their justification for cutting the number down so low?

I'm a believer in giving parents an override in these sorts of testing situations. I think they allow that in our schools. The problem is that a tough cutoff requires parental involvement and some kids don't have that support.

Parents often don't pay enough attention until their kids get into high school. If many more kids never get a chance to get to algebra I in 8th grade (and pre-algebra in 7th), then it's all over by the time high school starts. Schools should push and not just reserve algebra in 8th grade for those who have gotten help at home in K-6. Better yet, schools should fix math in K-6.

Barry Garelick said...

The 300 students enrolled in ALgebra 1 had been placed there by virtue of the MDTP which in my opinion is a good test. I had 60 students in my two classes, and they did well. Most of the class got A's and B's; a few C's, 2 D's and 1 F.

The justification for cutting the number low has been discussed in other chapters of the series. Basically, the District wants as many students in Grade 8 Common Core math as possible and wants algebra 1 reserved for 9th grade. As mentioned in Ch 18: "The purpose of the additional test, as Sally had explained the last time the math department had met, was to limit Algebra 1 for eighth graders to the “truly gifted” since the powers that be preferred that students take Algebra 1 in ninth grade under Common Core."

Thus, the SVMI exam (given in addition to the MDTP exam that had been the sole placement mechanism for years) was the means by which to cut the number of students down.

Wayne Bishop said...

"In my opinion, the MDTP was a much better measure of math ability than SVMI."

You'd have to be an expert in mathematics education to have any other conclusion. How much the SVMI (with PI Alan Schoenfeld) has evolved from its original MARS Balanced Assessments (with PI Alan Schoenfeld and Phil Daro on the board) would be speculative but the speculation would be correct. The site now credits itself as being the driving force behind the CCSSM. I don't remember Schoenfeld writing anything about his MARS in comparison with the tried-and-true MDTP but, at earlier levels, he called the high CA testing versus low MARS (within his schools' SVMI data study) as "false positives" and the (far fewer) low CA versus high MARS as "false negatives" with regard to the CA tests. I tried to get him and/or the "independent" validation people at Nottingham to follow their data back to the source of these and classroom teacher weigh in on which is which but no go. I do believe that Schoenfeld knew as well as I what that would have shown. The Chinese kid just off the boat (my Korean daughter-in-law exhibit had exactly that experience) with very limited English but at least a couple years ahead in mathematics. Fine math but weak English verbal should be rewarded, not discarded for lack of "deep understanding".

Oh yes, they used to be more proud of Daro's nonstandard preparation. Here is what the site used to say:

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http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/education/MARS/personnel/pd.html

Phil Daro is a polymath - an English major, he became a research methods and evaluation expert at Berkeley. He moved through the California State Department of Education to lead that State's professional development in Mathematics as Director of the California (and American) Mathematics Projects. He has long been interested in the processes of educational change, and in the role of assessment in forwarding it. He helped devise the Balanced Assessment Project, and is one of its directors.

His advice is greatly in demand nationally. Among recent responsibilities, he was co-chair of the Task Force advising on the revision of the California Mathematics Framework.

He is now Executive Director of the New Standards Project, which provides the most wide-ranging set of performance assessment resources at Grades 4, 8 and 10 that are currently available across the US.

Phil Daro is a co-director of the MARS, with particular responsibility for strategy and systems issues.

Catherine said...

Very upsetting.

All of it.

btw, C. heard that kind of "Gail" talk on the bus a lot, from one student in particular.