Spring 2013: These students aren’t really prepared, either.

I’m teaching Geometry and Algebra II again, so I gave the same assessment and got these results, with the beginning scores from the previous semester:


I’m teaching two algebra II classes, but their numbers were pretty close to identical—one class had the larger range and a lower mode—so I combined them.

The geometry averages are significantly lower than the fall freshmen only class, which isn’t surprising. Kids who move onto geometry from 8th grade algebra are more likely to be stronger math students, although (key plot point) in many schools, the difference between moving on and staying back in algebra come down to behavior, not math ability. At my last school, kids who didn’t score Proficient or Advanced had to take Algebra in 9th grade. I’d have included Basic kids in the “move-on” list as well. But sophomores who not only can’t factor or graph a line, but struggle with simple substition ought not to be in second year algebra. They should repeat algebra I freshman year, go onto geometry, and then take algebra II in junior year—at which point, they’d still be very weak in algebra, of course, but some would have benefited from that second year of first year.

Wait, what was my point? Oh, yeah–this geometry class class is 10-12, so the students took one or more years of high school algebra. Some of them will have just goofed around and flunked algebra despite perfectly adequate to good skills, but a good number will also be genuinely weak at math.

On the other hand, a number of them really enjoyed my first activity: visualizing intersecting planes, graphing 3-D points. I got far more samples from this class. I’ll put those in another post, also the precalc assessment.

I don’t know if my readers (I have an audience! whoo!) understand my intent in publishing these assessment results. In no way am I complaining about my students.

My point in a huge nutshell: how can math teachers be assessed on “value-added” when the testing instrument will not measure what the students needed to learn? Last semester, my students made tremendous gains in first year algebra knowledge. They also learned geometry and second year algebra, but over half my students in both classes will test Below Basic or Far Below Basic–just as they did the year before. My evaluation will faithfully record that my students made no progress—that they tested BB or FBB the year before, and test the same (or worse) now. I will get no credit for the huge gains they made in pre-algebra and algebra competency, because educational policy doesn’t recognize the existence of kids taking second year algebra despite being barely functional in pre-algebra.

The reformers’ response:

1) These kids just had bad teachers who didn’t teach them anything, and in the Brave New World of Reform, these bad teachers won’t be able to ruin students’ lives;

2) These bad teachers just shuffled students who hadn’t learned onto the next class, and in the Brave New World of Reform, kids who can’t do the work won’t pass the class.

My response:

1) Well, truthfully, I think this response is moronic. But more politely, this answer requires willful belief in a delusional myth.

2) Fail 50-60% of kids who are forced to take math classes against their will? Seriously? This answer requires a willful refusal to think things through. Most high schools require a student to take and pass three years of math for graduation. Fail a kid just once, and the margin for error disappears. Fail twice and the kid can’t graduate. And in many states, the sequence must start with algebra—pre-algebra at best. So we are supposed to teach all students, regardless of ability, three years of increasingly abstract math and fail them if they don’t achieve basic proficiency. If, god save us, the country was ever stupid enough to go down this reformer path, the resulting bloodbath would end the policy in a year. We’re not talking the occasional malcontent, but over half of a graduating class in some schools—overwhelmingly, this policy impacts black and Hispanic students. But it’s okay. We’re just doing it for their own good, right? Await the disparate impact lawsuits—or, more likely, federal investigation and oversight.

Reformers faithfully hold out this hope: bad teachers are creating lazy students who could do the work but just don’t want to. Oh, yeah, and if we catch them in elementary school, they’ll be fine in high school.

It is to weep.

Hey, under 1000 words!


About educationrealist

14 responses to “Spring 2013: These students aren’t really prepared, either.

  • Portlander

    You’ve been in the tech industry. Surely you’ve heard the old saying, “that’s a feature, not a bug.” If Federal intervention doesn’t get the desired results… well then, clearly we need more Federal intervention.

    If it’s good enough for the Federal Reserve, it’s good enough for the Ed Dept.

  • Black_Rose

    My point in a huge nutshell: how can math teachers be assessed on “value-added” when the testing instrument will not measure what the students needed to learn? Last semester, my students made tremendous gains in first year algebra knowledge. They also learned geometry and second year algebra, but over half my students in both classes will test Below Basic or Far Below Basic–just as they did the year before.

    I would presume that learning “algebra knowledge” is a concrete process, but on standardized tests, that would not suffice because the tests are moderately g-loaded and therefore require abstraction to master the problems on the tests.

    You believe that “value-added” is instilling students with concrete knowledge and having some retention of the material over the semester. Presumably, the knowledge would inevitably decay if these students did not apply that knowledge in a challenging (for them) academic environment. If, however, the value you added included the ability to reason abstractly and those improvements are reflecting in increased standardized test scores, then you would be regarded as The Messiah.

  • Roger Sweeny

    So I gather you are saying:

    1) The idea that most every teen has the ability and/or interest to do 3 years of relatively abstract math is a fantasy. In fact, only about half do.

    1a) There is really nothing schools (elementary or middle) can do to substantially increase the number who can.

    2) Therefore, if we honestly assessed high school students on their Algebra I, II, Geometry skills, half would fail.

    2a) If we required these skills for graduation, half would be denied graduation just for this.

    3) If the electorate has to choose between honest tests that actually fail the students who don’t have the math skills, or passing along students who sorta kinda have some of them (and are reasonably well-behaved and don’t have too many absences) while pretending that the students actually have the skills, they will pick the latter. And they have.

    • Florida resident

      Dear Roger Sweeny:


      Form there:

      The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.

      Meanwhile, most respectful greetings to Educationrealist.
      Your F.r.

    • educationrealist

      1-2a, yes. Devastatingly put in a much smaller nutshell.

      I’m not sure about 3, though. The electorate would probably prefer we taught students what they could learn well, rather than a complete pretense.

      • Tim

        I imagine the answer to that question would vary by who you asked. Professional parents with meritocratic ideals might want to cull the herd so their bright babies could have a better chance moving forward (unless of course it turns out their beloved is better suited to being a barista than a tax attorney).

        Non professional parents might be incensed at the idea of changing standards that would disallow their children from having the necessary credentials to make it into a state college where they can fill out the legions of business and communications majors.

        None of this addresses actual aptitude. No one wants to know what their kid might actually be best at only: What is the most prestigious/highest paying career he/she/it can be shoe-horned into?


      • Roger Sweeny

        If I had to write a 3 for myself, it would be something like:

        3) So the educational system can:

        a) Set high standards, hold students to them, and award less than half of them high school diplomas;

        b) Set high standards, pretend, and award high school diplomas to anyone who has been passed along for 12 years (which means they did some work and sorta kinda have some skills, were reasonably well-behaved, and weren’t absent too much);

        c) Set realistic standards, and have a diversity of high school diplomas (practical, pre-university, etc.–hey, diversity is good, right?);

        d) Set realistic standards, require a basic minimum of academic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic?) but then after certifying the attainment of those skills, allow (or encourage?) the nonacademic to leave and get on with their lives.

        Right now, most places do b. Since a is unacceptable, serious attempts to hold students to high standards may push systems toward c or d. However, based on the experience under NCLB, it is more likely to lead back toward b.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Perhaps the movement will actually be toward a more sophisticated version of 3b:

        3bs) In order to graduate high school, a number of relatively rigorous exams must be passed. A pass is forever; a failure means the student gets another chance next semester. Each exam is made public after it is given. In each area, the exam stays in the same format. Each new exam asks the same kind of questions as the previous exam and requires knowledge of the same things.

        Students begin taking the exams as early as their freshman year. Those who fail the exam (or who fail repeatedly) are required to enroll in “tutorials” or “mastery classes.” These classes meet during regular school hours and are taught by regular teachers. The classes reteach the information and skills that are expected to be on the test–which after a few years has become easy to predict. Students do a lot of drill and a lot of practice on previous years’ tests.

        Five or ten years in, 80% of students are eventually passing all the tests. They may have forgotten much of it a month after taking the test but no one wants to think about that.

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  • surfer

    Track the kids. Can be very soft tracks, not telling a kid even what track he is on. Just having 3 levels of courses: standard, accelerated/enriched, behind (with some euphemism like “practical” or “consumer”). Let the kids do what they want.

    You don’t even need to have separate diplomas to reward the kids who take the standard or accelerated tracks. The transcript tells the story, plus the benefits of not needing remediation in college.

    This solution has the advantage of not causing the brouhaha of failing kids like crazy. Of course, you need to tell the eduformer standard types who think every kid should do algebra in eighth grade to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.

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