On standards

I’ve done this rant before– so, so many times– so I’ll spare you the full version right now. But two pieces of information have recently crossed my radar and I thought I’d take a moment with them.

First, a report on Twitter– I’m not going to dig it up, just trust me– that half of American adults can’t read at an 8th grade level. Which … y’know, that sounds pretty alarming! 8th graders are kinda young and have a decent amount of school left to go through, so you’d hope that adults would be able to read as well as them, right?

Second, and I found this out today, that less than five percent– rather significantly less, unfortunately– of the students in my school passed the Math portion of the ILEARN last year. Lower than one in twenty, to phrase it differently. And the scary thing is, looking across my district, my school doesn’t really stand out against the scores most of the rest of the schools got.

I’m going to make two points here. Well, maybe three, depending on how you count the points. First, that if half of American adults can’t read at an 8th grade level, it stands to reason that more than half, in fact probably significantly more than half of actual 8th graders probably cannot read at an 8th grade level. Which, okay, we can all shake our heads sadly at that if we want to, and we probably should, but it brings this question to mind: what exactly does the phrase “8th grade reading level” mean in this context, and who decides what an 8th grade reading level is? Because if (to make up a number) 70% of American 8th graders and half of American adults can’t read at an “8th grade level,” I feel like it stands to reason to suggest that perhaps whatever that level is, it isn’t actually an 8th grade level. Further, that we can talk about having high standards as much as we like, but at some point does it ever make sense to suggest that the bar we’ve set for our kids is actually and genuinely too fucking high? And that if less than a twentieth of 8th grade students can’t pass what is supposed to be an 8th grade test, maybe we should blame the assessment and not the kids?

The problem is, of course, that I and every other teacher I know who has been doing this job for more than a few years are fully aware that our kids have been getting dumber, every year, for our entire careers. My 8th graders fifteen years ago make my current 8th graders look like kindergartners. They know nothing, and it’s not a demographic thing, because I’ve been working in the same kinds of communities for more or less my entire career. They get dumber every. Fucking. Year. They know less every. Fucking. Year.

Go ahead, find an educator with more than, say, seven or eight years of experience who disagrees with me. You won’t be able to do it. As soon as we started focusing on Test Scores Uber Alles a couple of years into the Bush administration, the kids started knowing less and less as every year went past, and at this point they’re so far behind that the notion of them actually internalizing 8th grade work is laughable. I can get some of them to be successful in the moment. Two weeks later none of them will remember any of it. Then there’s the third of my class that is literally in school for no reason at all, who go all day without a pencil and do no work of any kind. I never had to deal with that shit earlier on in my career. Maybe a kid or two. It’s literally a third to a half of every class now that does nothing all day. I mean that literally. Not a single stitch of work. No supplies. Nothing.

Now, this “eighth-grade level” thing is probably more a failure of journalism than it is of pedagogy; what it probably is referring to is some sort of lexile scale or something similar, where some lexile (YES AUTOCORRECT LEXILE IS A FUCKING WORD CUT THE SHIT) band has been arbitrarily assigned to “8th grade level,” and currently half of adults are below that. But you can’t tell newspaper readers that half of American adults read at lower than 1000L or whatever; it’s not meaningful information and “8th grade level” makes sense in a way “1000L” doesn’t even if the lexile level is more technically accurate.

(It’s still arbitrary, btw, but it’s nonetheless more precise.)

Anyway, long story short, I’m shit at my job apparently, and while I haven’t been able to gain access to my kids or my grade level’s results, I’m willing to bet that the school as a whole outperformed them anyway, so it’s not like it’s going to put me in a better mood.

tl;dr education is bullshit, Americans are awful and I hate it here.

Sure, this’ll work

This was day two of our yearly standardized testing, which we’re still being forced to administer for some reason. And, honestly, this year, my approach to the damned things is whatever, just get it done. I’m making a cursory effort to encourage the kids to do their best but the simple fact of the matter is that the entire exercise is bullshit and absolutely everyone involved knows it. These tests aren’t going to tell us one single thing about our students that we don’t already know. Not one single fucking thing.

Had a situation with a kid today that really drove it home (as if I need any more evidence) just what a poor job these tests do in measuring what they’re calling learning. My strong suspicion is that they do actually measure something related to knowledge for the kids who do well. There’s probably a real difference between a kid in the 70th percentile and a kid in the 90th. But the kids in the bottom half of that distribution?

Those kids aren’t having learning measured. For those kids, the tests are measuring two things: compliance and motivation. And that’s really it.

I’ve got this kid this year; let’s call him Che. Che is smart as fuck. But he has this pathological fear of success that is holding him back in a major way. he spent most of last year on half days and/or expelled or on long suspensions. This year, we’ve been able to mostly keep him in class, and he’s got several teachers (me included) who he knows are going to ride his ass until it falls off to keep him as close to the straight and narrow as we can, and so far he’s had a much more successful year than last year.

He’s in my room for testing. Tuesday he basically disrupted the room until I felt like I had no choice but to throw him out. And that was basically the move he chose; he was going to keep escalating until he got what he wanted, and in a situation where I’ve got other kids in the room trying to test, my tools for dealing with that type of bullshit are limited. I put him out of class and sat down with him and the principal later that day and did a combination of reading him the riot act and giving him a pep talk, and got a promise out of him that he’d behave in class today. And he did! He tossed out a couple of jokes and/or smartass comments while I was reading the (utterly unnecessary at this point and overly wordy under any circumstances) instructions, but the rest of the kids didn’t really react to him and once a couple of interruptions fell like a lead balloon he cut it out.

And … well, in the strictest sense of the term he completed the test, but this one was the written essay part, which has some number of short prompts that they want maybe a paragraph of material for and then another where they want a longer essay.

His entire essay was “I don’t know,” and he told me flat-out he didn’t read any of it.

Which tells me exactly nothing about whether he can read any of it. Che’s going to get the exact same 0 on that section as a kid who doesn’t have the slightest idea how to read in the first place would get, but Che can read. He’s not half-bad at math either when he wants to show off. And I’d say easily 60-70% of the kids in our building fall into a similar place as him, where their score on a standardized test on any given day is less a measure of their abilities than how interested they were in participating in the test on the day it was administered.

Why are we wasting all this money on these things again?