Monthly Archives: October 2014

College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT

SAT Scores Delayed for Asian International Students

The above is the official story put out by the Washington Post, which is far more informative than any other outlet I could find. However, Valerie Strauss put some other information in two blog entries:

On Oct. 8, 2014 — days before the Oct. 11 administration of the SAT — the National Center for Fair & Open Testing received an anonymous tip about cheating that included what the sender claimed to be a copy of the December 2013 SAT that was supposedly going to be administered at international sites Oct. 11. This was reported by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the center, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the abuse of standardized tests commonly known as FairTest. He said FairTest tried to confirm the claims but could not.

According to Schaeffer, SAT tests given at international sites are “almost always” repeats of exams administered previously in the United States but not publicly released.

Students began to think that the October 2014 international version of the SAT was identical to the December 2013 U.S. version by Googling some vocabulary words and passage topics and finding that the 2013 test was the one that came up in discussions threads on “collegeconfidential.com,” according to Schaeffer. It is not yet clear, however, whether the two tests are identical.

I’ll have more to say about the media coverage, but I got distracted by reading up on College Confidential. I’ve always been skeeved by the forum, but that’s because I’m usually researching the test threads which are almost certainly populated by Asians and Asian Americans. No doubt the forums have other purposes; I hear parents frequent them. Little has been written about the forum;the NY Times wrote a feature about it that seems out of date. Quantcast shows that Asians represent 13% of the users, considerably above average. 18-24 is the largest age group, 45-54 is second. So it’s clearly not just used for college tests.

Anyway, I read the college confidential thread, which was opened back in early November for the December test, but from page 4 to page 70 is nothing but brain dumps. The posters make reference to Tiny Chat, a conferencing chat room, and google docs, where they are clearly compiling a list of all the answers. Many posters are putting down all the answers they can remember, in specific detail. One poster lists all the math answers by section (page 57, 58, page 59):

ccmathsatanswers

ccmathsatanswers2

ccmathsatanswers3

A few weeks later, a new thread is opened for the December international test, held on December 7th—and posted so early that the thread date was December 6th (the forums on US time, I assume). In response to the creator’s query, another poster announces that the December international test was a reissue of the June 2012 test, and for good measure gives a table:

JAN 2013- MARCH 2010
MAY 2013- JUNE 2009
JUNE 2013- MARCH 2012
OCTOBER 2013- MARCH 2013
NOVEMBER 2013- JUNE 2011
DECEMBER 2013 JUNE 2012

One thread asked about the December 7 international test

The poster is then sent to the June 12th thread, where again, all the answers are put down. One person (poster name largeblackman. I am deeply skeptical) posts reading section answers.

These are the only two months I checked.

Someone reading this going to say “I did this back when I took the SAT. Chewed over everything I remembered with my friends, worried if we didn’t get the same answers.” Well, no. You didn’t do this. Some of the posters are going into shocking detail. They have question numbers, letter answers. A good chunk of the posters were clearly coordinating the creation of a complete document with all the questions and answers.

They were braindumping, an activity that Microsoft spends a lot of time and energy preventing, but the College Board seems to actively encourage by reusing old tests for international students.

No wonder Asians have such a strong preference for the SAT. The credulous press tends to believe in the super tutors of Asia, but they’re much more likely to be New Oriental “prep” methods revisited. Steal the test, then memorize everything on it. GMAT had similar issues.

Valerie Strauss quotes the head of an international school who caught a cheater: This is certainly organized crime.

I suppose it’s possible that all these posts at College Confidential are just 17-year-olds pranking each other. I find that unlikely. More probably, the posters in question aren’t all 17, but adults who are paid to go in and take the tests while photographing or at least memorizing as much of the test as is possible. Or at the very least, the posters are actual high school students coordinating information illegally. Certainly, someone should at least investigate: ask the owners to provide the IP addresses, actually read the threads, ask the posters to produce the google docs they mention, find the actual names of people who participated.

But universities want the Chinese money, and College Board wants the test fees, and the FBI has to keep watch on Ferguson so that Holder can admonish the grand jury when Darren Wilson isn’t indicted. Who has the time or inclination to investigate a possible organized criminal enterprise that’s corrupting our educational institutions?

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Strange Happenings of the Everyday

A few weeks ago, the principal’s voice broke in on the loudspeaker.

“Okay, the lockdown drill begins now. Please proceed.”

I don’t know if all teachers do this, but even without the reminder of a school shooting, I periodically go through the “what-ifs” for my particular room. This one has two doors and really doesn’t offer a good line of fire to someone standing outside the room, since I sit my kids in groups. If a school shooter ever did show up and took it into his head to use my students as sitting ducks, I’d have some reaction time.

I’d told the kids of the drill the day before (as we were supposed to). This was the small class, and the boisterous contingent interrupted my explanation some 30 times a minute until I finally made them put their heads down and just listen. But they all went into motion as we’d discussed.

Kyle got ready behind the bookcase, waiting for me to open the left door and do one last check for any outside strays. As I shut the door and hit the left light off, he pushed the bookcase in front of the door. Elliot and Ahmed pushed some desks in front of the right door and, at my direction, switched the right light switch off. Kyle, Elliot, and Ahmed sat in the back middle, between the two doors. Ali sat behind the closet on the far back left, out of range. The other ten or so students moved to the front right of the room, creating a small barricade of desks and a huge table. I went back to the front left of the room, turned off my monitor (has a 2 minute sleeping time), and ducked behind the desk.

Within 30 seconds of the call, we were all sitting on the floor in the dark. I wondered briefly if I’d locked the door, but remembered that we were required to now. Our security team had been through training and learned that school shooters don’t usually try to break down doors, but rather try doors looking for open ones. So we have to lock our doors constantly, which is a drag because I have to stand by an open door as my students enter the room each block. Some people call this “creating a welcoming environment”. I call this a waste of five minutes.

“I have to pee.” Naturally, Mohammed. Giggles. “Can I get a pass?”

“No.”

“But I really have to pee. I’ll have to go on the floor.”

“Then you’ll clean it up. And I won’t give you any paper towels.”

“What would I use?”

“Well, your pants would already be wet. You could just be a Mohammed mop, swishing around on your butt to soak up the excess.”

“Or I could take them off.”

“You take off your pants in this room I’ll throw you outside and let the shooter get you.” No, I didn’t say this. I just thought it. Dre said it.

“Whaaaaat?” This shut Mohammed down, as he likes attention but not when the class is laughing at him.

“Okay, class, who starred in Die Hard?”

“Oh, I know! Bruce Willis!” Dylan, one of the quiets, spoke up.

“Who sang Bohemian Rhapsody?”

“QUEEN!”

“What’s the ratio for the sine function?”

“Oh, that stars the Hawk guy, from The Avengers!” Elliot.

“Opposite over hypotenuse,” from Amanda, another quiet one.

“How many Hunger Games movies are there?”

“Two!”

“No, four!”

“They aren’t out yet. It’s just two!”

“The third one is coming out.”

“Yeah, but it’s part one.”

Fortunately, they don’t ask me to adjudicate, since I had no idea how many Hunger Games movies there are. I thought they’d tell me. While they debated the issue, I wondered how my colleague was doing. His huge room has no windows and a heavy door, also windowless. His next door neighbor, with an interior adjoining door, teaches the severely autistic students who can’t tolerate sitting in the dark–or indeed, any sudden change. So when the drill went off, she just brings her students into his pre-calc class. Sudden change, just not sitting in the dark. Hope it went well.

Just then, my email bell went off and the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker.

“Students and teachers, a local school is experiencing a security alert and we are now in lockdown alert mode, although we are in no immediate danger. The lockdown drill will continue. Thanks for your continued response.”

Pause.

“The hell? I thought we were in lockdown already,” from Dre.

“Does this end the drill and we can turn on the lights?”

I turned my monitor back on and read the email, which largely restated the principal’s message. No parenthetical about how we were nesting a real lockdown inside a lockdown drill. Huh. I turned the monitor off again. “Real” lockdowns are issued during local security alerts, requiring us to keep all the kids in the room with a locked door.

“What’d the email say?”

“Nothing helpful. There’s probably a security alert somewhere–a bank robbery or power line down. So we’ll just keep going.”

“That’s weird.”

“I’m sitting on a dirty floor in a pitch black room with fifteen teenagers. Weird left the building five minutes ago, shaking its head at our wacko ways.”

“You funny.”

“Would you save us if the gunman came?” from Elliot.

“Yeah. I’d try to. Whatever door he tried to come in, I’d throw desks and white boards and books at him as long as I could, distracting him best I could, and hope you guys could escape out the other door.”

“But he might see us.”

“Yeah. In that case, we’d stay in. Either he stays out, and we’re relatively safe in here, or he comes in and you all leave.”

“Or maybe we could all attack him.”

“Except Mohammed, who’d be mopping up his pee.”

“No way, I’d throw pee at the shooter. Burn his eyes.”

Principal’s voice came on again. The lockdown was over. Elapsed time: 15 minutes. We turned on the lights, put the desks and bookshelves back, and went on with class.

We passed the drill with flying colors, which is not always the case. At one school I participated in a fire evacuation procedure that made Arnold’s first attempt in Kindergarten Cop seem a paragon of efficiency, and got us a stern talking to by the district. The “real” lockdown inside the drill had been called because of an armed robbery nearby. Sorry for the confusion, they said.

I was reading The Secret Lives of Teachers, an essay at Larry Cuban’s blog (by Steve Drummond), one in a series about teachers when they’re at home and the varied lives they lead. Somewhat implied is the contrast with the sameness of our jobs at school as the kids and the public perceives them: grade papers, make copies, hang out at the luxurious faculty lounge and, occasionally, teach. But then we all go home and really live the lives that fuel our passion, or something.

I’ve always thought our work was pretty interesting. Besides, every so often we get to sit in the dark with our kids and pretend a deranged adolescent is trying to kill us.


Teaching is Unknowable

While I’m really enjoying teaching this year, the job is taking tremendous mental energy. I’m teaching three classes. One of them isn’t math. I’m thrilled. But it’s taking an enormous amount of work, because I have a very clear vision…not so much of what to teach or how to teach, but how I don’t want to teach the class. Having gone into the experience with my eyes wide open, I haven’t been disillusioned or disappointed by how much more difficult the class is. But I’m way outside my comfort zone—which is amazing in and of itself. I have a comfort zone in teaching math! Who knew?

But then, my math classes are outside my comfort zone, too. I’m teaching trigonometry for the first time and recall, folks, I’m not a mathematician. I know right triangle trig very well, know the graphs well, know the identities. But I’ve never taught it. The last time I taught a new class, pre-calc, I followed the book pretty faithfully the first time through—lots of lecture, lots of book work. I lost a good half the class in the first month, and while most of them were saved, I learned that for whatever reason, I should avoid lectures. The second through fourth times through I slowed it down, designed more activities, did less lecturing, and kept the whole class moving forward each time.

So the first time through trig, I’m trying to avoid straight book work. I’m helped here by more subject matter knowledge, and designed the opening unit to take advantage of this. I had some breathing room until I needed to dig in to the new stuff. The class definitely needed the time. Trig, like geometry, with all its facts and spatial notions, comes as kind of a shock after years spent having algebra processes beat into your head. So the class is going well and is, in fact, the closes thing I have to a comfort zone this year. Just one problem—I spent all that breathing room working on the brand new subject class AND…

…my Algebra 2/Trig class, and to explain what’s up with my A2/Trig class I have to discuss administration a bit, and so I want to be really clear that I’m not criticizing. Not only am I not criticizing, I fully acknowledge that there may be facts on the ground of which I am unaware.

Algebra 2/Trig is becoming, in many schools, an advanced class. It combines both algebra 2 and trigonometry in one class. So the kids currently in my trigonometry class took algebra II (also known as intermediate algebra), taking two years to go through what A2/Trig covers in one year. However, as most math teachers will tell you, it’s insane to actually cover second year algebra and trigonometry in one year (particularly in half a year, as our classes are set up). Trig often becomes little more than the unit circle, a brief run through identities, and lots of graphing (amplitude, period, and so on).

Lordy, I just cut two paragraphs of the history of Algebra II/Trig and a rumination on where the hell Pre-Calc started (does anyone know? I’d love a link). Stay focused, Ed.

The point is, I insist on teaching something approximating advanced math in Algebra II/Trig, because if I pass a kid, the next stop is Precalc. But there are only 14 kids in my A2/Trig class right now. And of those 14, only two, maybe four have any business being in A2/Trig. The rest should be in Algebra II, and they wouldn’t be getting an A.

But I couldn’t boot any of them down, because the Algebra II classes are filled to bursting—36 in two, 33 in the other. And I could only boot one of the advanced kids up to Honors A2/Trig (don’t get me started) because that class also has 36 in it.

I emailed all the administrators and saw two personally, pointing out what I thought was the obvious solution: convert my class to an Algebra II class, move some of the overloaded classes into mine. Take the two or three kids ready for A2/Trig and move them into honors, or just switch their schedule around. I pointed out that not only was this a better allocation of teaching resources, but also made a more equitable solution. For various reasons, my Math Support Class For Kids Who Hadn’t Passed the Exit Exam, had been cancelled because of section count. If I was only going to be teaching 14 kids, shouldn’t it be kids who really struggle and can benefit from the direct attention?

And for some of the same and some different various reasons, none of my suggestions were taken. Keep in mind we still don’t have a math teacher and are using a sub (but firing teachers–that’s the big pain point!). One history teacher left mid-September (for good reasons) and they had to hire someone. We were also dealing with the usual beginning of the year craziness, district mandates, and so on. Admins have their own insane workload, which is why I always laugh like a fiend at the idea that they should also be teaching experts.

Then, of course, what I proposed meant altering a lot of students’ schedules. I can’t blame them for saying no. You haven’t been to hell until you’ve done a master schedule, is the AVP motto, and filling that schedule is second.

So I’ve got 12 kids who struggle with most algebra one concepts in a class that, if I pass them, leads straight to pre-calc. I’m planning on putting most of them into trigonometry after this, assuming it’s allowed. The class has other problems on which I won’t elaborate, but planning takes much more time than one would expect for the only class I’ve taught before.

There are about a million and a half high school teachers. I can guarantee you that half or more of them right now have a story about this year similar to one or more of the three I’ve described above: new class in new subject, new class, weird class caused by administrative hassles. Or some other story, maybe like my second year of teaching All Algebra, All the Time. Or just administrative problems—unavoidable, or deliberately inflicted. And for those that are having a smooth start this year (as was true for me last year), we can all come up with another story from another year. Then there’s a whole group saying what, you’re only teaching three classes? Shut up with the whining! and then we can go a few rounds on block vs. traditional.

I’m not writing as much because I’m working my ass off, because even when I’m not working I’m thinking crap, I should be mapping out my next week, making copies, making tests, building some new curriculum, thinking up activities. Even now, I’m writing this because I think I can kick it out in an hour and get “my blog is being neglected” off my list of obsessions so I can go to Starbucks to read up on a topic to plan some lessons. I rarely can’t think of job-related tasks right at the moment. And remember, I’m not a workaholic and definitely not a control freak, two attributes commonly found in Teacherville.

How do teachers react to the demands of the job? It depends on their personalities. I would wager to say that most are like me and work harder when given a new challenge—whether effectively or not, who knows? Some undoubtedly just shut down and get stubborn. Still others meander around incompetently—not because they are incompetent, but because their job has been defined in such a way that it’s now no longer recognizably their job.

At this point, many teachers aggravate me by going the martyr route. See how hard it is to be a teacher? See how hard we work? And all for the kids!

No. I do this for the intellectual challenge. I see nothing incongruous in doing hours more work a week for the same pay, work that will not enhance my resume in any meaningful way, that won’t make it any easier to find a job should this school decide to dump me—and please God, they won’t. (Nor will doing this new work increase or decrease the likelihood that they will keep me, by the way.) I’m an idiot who spends hours a week researching for my blog unpaid, though, so I’m weird.

But can you blame people who do? Say your job for the past decade involved teaching AP Physics 5 times a day, and helping motivated kids learn how the world works, helping them pass a test that gives them college credit, and you were suddenly told great news! You’ll be teaching integrated science to 9th graders who don’t give a damn. So now you’ve got hours more work a week planning activities in an entirely different field for entirely different kids. And, by the way, you are pretty terrible at working with unmotivated kids.

Now if you’re me, the idea of teaching one subject for ten years is grounds for divorce. But not everyone’s me.

I’m not asking for sympathy or understanding. I’m asking for an awareness that no one has a clue what teaching is. Even other teachers can’t be certain what the job means in any universal sense.

The job of teaching is very nearly unknowable to outsiders, because outsiders don’t understand that teaching isn’t one job. Any one teaching position is actually a million interactions between the teacher’s personality, the subject(s) taught, the balance of classroom ability and interest, sculpted by administrative dictates, district and parent socioeconomics, state policy, and school logistics. What I think of as teaching another would consider anarchy. Other teachers hold jobs that I view as little more than sinecures, through little more than luck.

(Edited to add in what I thought was obvious, but comments here and at Joanne’s site (thanks for the link) seem to need explication:)

Obviously, many professions have similar complexity. Lawyering, doctoring, police work, nursing, professional atheletes–all have an enormous range of features from which the individual jobs are sculpted. And should we ever be seeking to describe one huge profession adequately in order to advocate for policy or position changes in the hopes of improving outcomes, saving money, or changing the nature of the people who enter that profession, its unknowability will also be relevant.

**end addition**

Which means please stop surveying 1600 teachers out of a group of 20,000 or so and trumpeting the results as indicative of teacher sentiment on Common Core. Which means stop coming up with plans to create world class teachers because no one agrees on what that is. Which means stop letting teachers testify about tenure and LIFO as if their opinions or experiences are in any way relevant (on either side). Which means, reporters and education writers, please stop saying “teachers” when you mean “elementary school teachers” because this, at least, is a distinction that’s easy to grasp and incredibly relevant.

For good reason, people are reluctant to acknowledge the many aspects of our population that makes teaching so many different jobs, so impossible to easily categorize. But as long as y’all are going to flinch on the big issues, stop pretending you understand teaching.