On “high expectations” (part 2 of 3)

3pg00dYesterday I talked about some of the problems that we run into when we try and use standardized test scores as a measure of student, teacher, or school progress.  One of the ideas that always comes up when we talk about this is that we should have “high standards” and “high expectations” for our students, and that when we acknowledge that some people aren’t starting the race at the same place as others we’re somehow not properly Standarding and Expecting things of them.

Sounds good, right?  High is better than low!  Standards and Expecting Things are good, too!  So we should definitely have High Standards and High Expectations.

Well, great.  Sure.

What’s that mean?

No, really.  I’ll wait.

And there’s the problem, see.  You aren’t really saying much of anything useful when you say you have High Expectations and High Standards, and you run the risk of saying something incoherent if you’re not careful.

Let’s address high standards first.  “Standard” has a pretty specific meaning in the education world.  The Common Core is a set of standards; most states still have their own, as the Core isn’t completely phased in yet across much of the country (and is a subject of no small amount of controversy on its own, I should point out).  To say that we should have High Standards is basically just saying that we should be teaching kids material that challenges them to some extent or another and (usually) what the speaker actually means is that kids nowadays should be learning either the exact same stuff they learned in that grade or something more complicated.

You can argue the merits of individual sets of standards; I happen to believe that, at least in sixth grade math, Indiana’s standards are pretty solid, and while I have a quibble or two with how the Common Core handles things I don’t have much of an argument with it.  Just tell me what to teach; I’ll get the job done.  What we don’t have, in any state or jurisdiction or locality that I’m aware of, is any situation where the standards are different for black students or white students or girls or ELL kids or anybody else.  Standards are standards; they’re out there and they’re not disaggregated at all.

So what we’re really talking about here is what we expect from our kids.

And for expectations to be meaningful, they have to be specific.  You can say that you expect everyone to do well.  Great!  Also pointless.  Heck, you can expect anything you want.  I can expect that my students will bring me cookies and milk every day and hurl a virgin sacrifice into the smoking maw of a nearby volcano for me once a month, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Lemme say it again: expectations must be specific to specific students in order to be meaningful.  

A few examples, all based on real kids I had last year:  Velma had the highest math score in the fifth grade before landing in my room.  Velma, frankly, doesn’t have a lot of room for growth.  She was already pretty close to getting as high a score as scores can get.

I told her she’d gotten the highest score in the fifth grade.  She was excited and proud.

“I expect the highest score in the school this year, y’know,” I said.  Which, honestly, was asking her for maybe a ten-point bump in her score.  In all seriousness, my challenge with Velma last year was to keep her realistic.  I haven’t seen her ISTEP score for sixth grade yet, because reasons, but when you start off with a score as high as hers is and there’s an upward limit to how well she can do, the simple fact of the matter is no matter how good a teacher I am her score is likely to drop.  Demanding perfection from her would have been stupid.  It would have stressed her out and stressing her out would not have helped her performance.  I used the “best score in the school” line once or twice over the course of the year, mostly to hassle her, but short of a nosedive there’s not much she could have done to disappoint me with her score.  She’s a great kid and I know she did her best.

“Do your best!” sounds like weasel language, doesn’t it?  That’s not high expectations!  Should I have ridden the kid like a donkey all year about driving her enemies before her and hearing the lamentations of their women to avoid the “lacks high expectations” canard?  No, of course not; screw that.  Expecting a kid to do his or her best is really all you need to do if you have a kid who actually will do their best, and there was never any risk of Velma giving me less than 100%.

Fred, on the other hand, had the lowest math score in the fifth grade.  His math score was seriously a hundred points lower than the second-lowest kid I had.  It was so low that I was seriously wondering whether he got off by a number or something and had managed to answer every question on the wrong line.

Early on in the year, Fred’s mother requested a parent/teacher conference with me and asked me flat-out if I thought he was going to pass ISTEP with me as his teacher.  And I told her that there was basically no chance whatsoever of that happening.  I more or less guaranteed her that her son was going to fail again.  He was just too damn far behind; too far to catch him up to grade level in a single year barring a miracle or him moving into my damn house.

And then I told her that I wanted to see a higher point gain from Fred than any other kid I taught this year, and spent about fifteen minutes explaining exactly how we were going to do it, and then worked my ass off all year keeping him as close to on-track as I possibly could.  And now, eight or nine months later, there’s maybe one kid out of the fiftysome I had last year whose score I want to see more than I want to see Fred’s.  I bet I got a 200 point gain out of the kid– not remotely enough to get him to pass, mind you, but about 166% of the score he got last year.

And now there’s Daphne.  Daphne missed passing the ISTEP in fifth grade by something like five pointsbasically a single question.  I looked her mother in the eye on Open House night, which is before school even starts, and guaranteed her that her kid was going to pass ISTEP this year.  Dumb?  Yeah, probably, but I was in a grand mood.  Daphne spent the year ricocheting from one emotional crisis to another; I caught her cutting herself on two separate occasions (note that I’m the one doing this, not her parents,) rarely turning any work in, etcetera.  Daphne had a terrible year– but a terrible year that had basically nothing to do with her math class or her math teacher.  Do I expect Daphne to have made strides in my math class when Daphne probably did well by keeping herself out of a mental hospital over the course of the year?  Of course not.  I’d like to see that she made some improvement and, honestly, I suspect she did– she didn’t turn in any work, which meant she spent most of the year failing all of my classes (and that’s a discussion for another time) but she seemed pretty on the ball whenever I was assessing her on anything other than turned-in assignments.  But her ISTEP score?  I really don’t care anymore.  Staying the same is just fine.

You tell me: which kid do I have higher expectations for?  Which kid is going to make me look better when and if our test scores get reported solely on pass rates?  And, again, notice: for Fred and Velma, the answer is neither.  One kid failed and will fail again; one kid passed and will pass again.  Neither of them is going to move my numbers at all if we’re using a pass-rate-only evaluation of our test scores.  Daphne is a perfect example of a bubble kid (and, I can’t make this clearer: all three of these kids are real) and so my skills as a teacher and my building’s probation status are going to depend on whether one kid who takes one test on one day spent the night before using erasers to scar her own arms or not.

This is unacceptable.

The pass model fails because it does not encourage high expectations.  It encourages a narrow focus on a narrow band of kids who can be motivated, bribed, pushed or dragged across that line.  And if the state doesn’t particularly like their pass numbers from a test, all they have to do is manipulate the cutscore and– voila!– we had more kids pass than we did last year!  We’re Doing Things over here!  I am certain that Illinois did this while I am teaching there; I had kids pass the ISAT my second year in Chicago who had absolutely no business “passing” anything at all, and the state and CPS crowed and crowed about our pass numbers.  They manipulated the test scores; while I’m not going to go so far as to claim that I didn’t teach my own kids anything, what they did learn from me had precious little to do with their test scores at the end of the year.

I hoped that one of my kids didn’t fall by too much, that one kid failed, and that a third kid just didn’t crater.  And I maintain that all three of those things represent “high expectations.”

Any chance of me convincing anyone of that without 1658 words of explanations?

Tomorrow: A method that I think might actually work.