My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


CSAP Impressions, part I 

With the announcement of the results of the Colorado Student Assessment Program on Tuesday, we now have a lot of data to work from when assessing the progress of Colorado shools and Colorado students. Over the course of the next several days, I will try to break down various aspects of the test results. With any luck--or maybe, I don't know, a little bit of actual logic--I will provide some thoughts that run contrary to the dominant media spin, and, in particular, contrary to the inevitable hand-wringing of Big Education.

I'll start with this beautifully simple statement in the Rocky Mountain News:

"It looks like wherever we meet you, that's where you stay two years later," [Jo] O'Brien said.

Okay--that needs a little setting up.

For the first time, the department this year dissected data from the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests to show how students progressed over the past two years. . .

Two-thirds of the third-graders who scored "unsatisfactory" — the lowest level — in reading in 2005 are still at that level, the data show. And more than 20 percent of students who were partially proficient — the step just above unsatisfactory — in 2005 slipped down to unsatisfactory this year. . . .

At the other end of the scale, students who scored at the advanced or proficient level stayed there. Only 12.9 percent of third graders slipped from advanced or proficient to a failing level

So . . many . . .thoughts . . .can't . . . sort . . .them . . .

Okay, so it's as though the bottom line is fairly simple: after two years of schooling, students tend to still be wherever they started out.

Well, . . DUH. If you accept the idea, even just a little bit, that talent and native intellect have something to do with academic performance, than you have to expect that a test that identifies low achievement would not vary greatly from year to year.

In fact, this actually looks fairly promising: if 33% of those Unsatisfactory two years ago have managed to move up the scale, while 20% of those "partially proficient" and 12.9% of those marked proficient slip, than it would seem you have a balanced ledger. Yes, the actual numbers are probably a little bit different, but just thinking in terms of percentages you have managed over these two years to keep the number of students failing constant.

I know--I'm looking for a silver lining here. Work with me, people.

Let me break a few things down here.

First of all, what do you mean "for the first time the department dissected data . . ." Are you telling me that this sort of analysis HAS NOT been the norm over the ten-year life of the CSAP?!?! How stupid is that?

It's like the Denver Broncos trying to do a ten-year running analysis of their running offense WITHOUT taking into account the specific running backs. "For our purposes, there is no difference between Terrell Davis or Clinton Portis or Ron Dayne." That is, of course, absurd; and so is the notion that we having not been tracking individual students to know if there is any mobility between classifications.

Secondly: Why are students who failed this assessment in third grade taking the fifth grade assessment two years later? Is it just me, or is the fact that they failed the assessment an indicator that maybe they should not have moved on to the fourth grade, and subsequently, the fifth grade materials just yet? How about we master the third grade stuff, then move on--you'll be a little behind your age group, but better that than we start stringing together years and years of failure.

This is one of the major--perhaps fatal--flaws of the American education system: there is NO accountability to the students. If a student is unable to do third grade work, they should not be asked then to do fourth grade work; if they never master any of the starting points, then how in the world can we expect them to be able to function at a high school level eventually?

But more importantly, thinking Big Picture, here's a thought: is it possible that a student who fails the third grade test entered Kindergarten behind the rest of their classmates? Does it seem reasonable to expect that a perfectly normal kid is somehow failed by the education system over the course of the years Kindergarten through 3rd grade while his classmates were fine; or, rather, applying Occam's Razor, is it MORE likely that this kid started out behind and was never made to or expected to catch up, so that when testing finally rolls around in third grade they have very little hope of success?

Maybe we can use this testing regiment to identify the students who need the most help the earliest and then GET THEM HELP rather than just shepherding them along with their age-peers.

And, by the way, folks (and here's where I'm going to tick off my conservative friends), guess who's more important to a child's learning in the first eight years of their lives: their parents, or the schools?

That's right, folks--the schools can only do so much. If parents haven't read to their children when they were younger, if they don't continue to read with them in Kindergarten and first and second grade, then NO amount of brilliance or dedication of resources by the schools are going to make that child a great reader in the third grade. They may get lucky--native intelligence and talent will always play their roles--but the schools can only do so much.

The converse is true, as well; the numbers seem to say that students who start out ahead continue on just fine. Does that mean that the schools don't effect them? Or is their influence mitigated by great environment or talent? Or do these students succeed IN SPITE of the schools?

Or, perhaps, whatever it was that got them ahead in the first place is still in place, irregardless of any effort on behalf of the public schools.

Maybe it would be more useful for all of us if we used this information strictly to identify aberrations. Find places where schools got students to defy their destiny, and then let's study that school and emulate it. Likewise, find schools that clearly retarded students' destinies, and then let's burn that building to the ground.

Maybe then we can have a reasonable discussion about schools' responsibilities and students' responsibilities in the context of EVERYTHING involved. Because right now, and for the last ten years, we've been having a very loud conversation about what the schools' responsibilities are, and we're not, apparently, having any affect on our students.

This is, in my opinion, one of the most important points of discussion that should come out of the entire CSAP hullaballoo--just what is the role and the expectations for the public schools. If the general public--conservatives included--expect the schools to cover up for failures of parenting and upbringing, than the schools will continue to be Quixotic failures.

If, instead, parents accept their rightful roles as first and most important teachers of their children, and then hand their children off to the schools for more opportunities and focused instruction, and the schools start focusing their mission on instuction and results, then there is the possibility that we can see some real changes in student achievement.

We either get used to the idea that we all have a role to play in this, or we get comfortable with the notion that the world only needs so many engineers and doctors and lawyers, and we ought to just let those jobs go to those with talent, while everybody else picks up useful blue-collar skills.

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