In which it really isn’t

Every 8th grader in the corporation takes the PSAT right around this time each year, mostly as an indicator of high-school readiness; if a kid enrolls in a high school out of district one of the things they pull as they evaluate the kid is the PSAT score. Now, we let them know early and often that this isn’t precisely the best measuring tool for this purpose (and I don’t know who made the decision to start using this test, but I’d like to have a word with them) and that, particularly on the math portion of the test, there’s gonna be some stuff they don’t know.

Now, the thing is, we’ve only been using the PSAT for a couple of years, and last year, I didn’t administer it, since I was working from home at the time. So I haven’t actually seen what the math content on the PSAT looks like since I took the PSAT, sometime in the early fuckin’ nineties. And here’s the thing: advancing your skills in reading and writing doesn’t really work the same way as it does in math. A talented 8th grader can handle a reading or language test pitched at 9th graders, because reading is still the same thing, and there really aren’t any actually novel skills taught after, like, the middle of grade school or so. Math? Math doesn’t work like that. The PSAT is basically an Algebra 1 test, and if you’re not in Algebra 1, the notation alone is going to make the thing entirely incomprehensible. Like, my kids have never seen f(x) in any capacity, and that renders even something like f(x) = X + 6 when X is 10 somewhat incomprehensible. Some of them will figure out (or, probably more accurately, correctly guess) that they can just add 10 and 6 and get 16, but the majority of them are going to look at the function notation and just fall apart, and a whole lot of the questions used function notation some way or another. There were two math tests on the PSAT, one that was meant to be done without calculators and lasted twenty minutes, and another that allowed calculators (which weren’t going to do most of my kids a bit of good) and lasted 40. I glanced through an extra copy of the test booklet (true to expectations, attendance was miserable) and found maybe three questions on the first test I thought my kids might be able to do, and perhaps 50% of the questions on the second test were possible, or at least would be by the end of the year– second- or third-quarter material, for example.

I’m not writing this to complain about the test, mind you; it’s just not going to be as useful to evaluate where an 8th grader is mathematically than it will be to evaluate where they are as readers. I’m writing this because, as a math teacher, I spent the entire test ignoring pointed glares from at least three or four students– not because they were actually mad at me, but because they decided it was funny to blame me for the math on the test being hard and a couple of them just decided they were going to spend an hour staring at me– because it’s not like they actually thought I was responsible for the questions on the Goddamned thing. I just kept telling them not to panic and didn’t worry about it’ it’s nice, for once, to have them taking something that isn’t used to evaluate me or my school in any way. All the pressure to do well was on the people actually taking the test!

Crazy, innit?

On giving up

My kids took the NWEA this week, which ate up my Tuesday and Wednesday, and will knock another couple of kids out of class on Monday while they finish up. I would, in general, prefer not to have to worry about standardized tests, but as such things go the NWEA isn’t bad. It hits most of my checkboxes for what I want for these things: first, it’s a growth test, meaning that it’s keyed to individual students and it’s possible for a very low student to demonstrate a lot of growth and have that treated as a positive thing even though they don’t do objectively as good as a more advanced student who stayed the same. Second, there’s no notion of passing the test. Their score is keyed to grade levels, yes, but there’s no cutscore where a student is arbitrarily determined to have “passed” or “failed” regardless of their grade. And while we administer it three times a year, any given administration doesn’t take very long– I was able to get most of my kids tested in a single block, and two blocks got basically everyone who was present to take the test in the first place done. That’s not that bad. Realistically, we’ll lose more days this year to me being sick or absent for training than we will to the NWEA.

The median percentile score (also: percentile scores are more useful than arbitrary scores, although the NWEA generates both) of my three groups, nationwide, was 19, 16, and 13. Meaning, in case you haven’t studied measures of central tendency recently, that if 100 randomly-chosen kids took the test, 81 of those kids would outscore half of the students in my first block, 84 would outscore half of my kids in 2nd block, and 87 would outscore half of my kids in 3rd block.

Eight of my students are in the 1st or 2nd percentile, meaning that 99 or 98 of those randomly-chosen kids would outscore them.

Let us, for the moment, simply postulate that there are a number of possible reasons for these scores including but not limited to that a large percentage of them effectively took 1/4 of 6th grade and all of 7th grade off and then lay that aside. I’m not especially concerned with why for the purpose of this post.

We are supposed to discuss these results with our kids, which for the record is something I support. If we don’t talk about how they did, the test becomes meaningless to them, and there is absolutely nothing that is more of a waste of time than a standardized test that a student isn’t taking seriously. So it’s useful to let them know how they did, what it means for them, and what they might want to do to improve.

Where I am struggling right now, though, is this, and forgive me for another post whose point gets boiled down to a single sentence after five paragraphs of lead-in:

I do not know how to tell a fourteen-year-old kid “99 out of every 100 people who took this did better than you” in a way that does not sound functionally identical to “You should give up.”

I can couch it as as much of a pep talk as I want, and I already know that at least one of those eight kids is going to work her ass off for me this year because that’s who she is, and if I have her at a third- or fourth-grade understanding of math by the end of the year it will be a triumph. And unlike many years, I think all of these eight kids are at least potentially reachable still. There have definitely been years where I had a kid at 1% who I was privately convinced was going to stay at 1% out of sheer spite for the rest of the year, and these aren’t those kids.

Similarly, it is difficult to communicate those median percentile scores to a classroom of kids without a number of them concluding that they’re just dumb and should give up. When the highest-scoring kids in the room aren’t past the 60th percentile (which is the case) they all need extra help, and I can’t provide “extra” help to 27 kids at once. One of my classes can barely get through a basic lesson right now because of the number of behavior issues I have. And that’s before I have to give them information that demoralizes the hell out of them for what are, unfortunately, entirely reasonable reasons. In most circumstances, if 99 out of 100 people are better than you at something, you are probably going to stop doing that thing! So what the hell am I going to do in a situation where not only are 99 out of 100 people doing better than my kids in math, but many of them don’t even want to be good at it? Remediating this would be a Herculean effort from someone fully invested in improving. And right now I just don’t know how the hell to ask for that kind of effort (and expect to actually get it) from people who, to be charitable about it, don’t have academic success as a high personal priority right now.

Sigh.

A serious question

When was the last time you had to do long division?

Let me take a second and define my terms here– by “do long division,” what I mean is that you had to solve a division problem that you were unable to do in your head, where a quick estimation wasn’t acceptable, and where calculators of any kind were not available– like, you actually had to take out a pen or pencil and a piece of paper and actually use the algorithm to work the problem out to get an answer. Bonus points if you weren’t able to end with a remainder and actually had to solve the division out to decimals.

It’s June, y’all

June first seems as appropriate a date as I’ll find to replace the Pride flag in front of the house with Pride II: The Repridening. The old one’s brown stripe had turned orange and the pink stripe had disappeared, and it had started to fray around the edges, and I figure if the thing is literally called a Pride flag I probably ought to care about its appearance. So: new flag! Yay!

Today was the third of the four Last Days of School, this one being the one where now all the kids have gone away. Tomorrow is a teacher record day, and if I’m at school past noon something has gone terribly wrong. Then I’m going to take a couple of days and do nothing but try to beat Returnal. After that, it’s time to start heavy-duty planning for next year and reteaching myself All of Mathematics.

I think I’m going to have to start doing stations next year, guys.

I have been thinking about two things lately: how to handle transitioning back into a two-class-period block, meaning I will have half as many students (good) but will have each of them for twice as long (which I have mixed feelings about.). My kids were already wildly behind, and over a year of quarantine has NOT helped. I got a look at this year’s ILEARN results for my kids, and while I’m going to spare you any sort of standardized testing rant right now, they weren’t good. They weren’t good at all. And regardless of how I feel about this particular method of assessing my kids, the simple fact is that there is no method of assessing my kids that doesn’t lead inescapably to the conclusion that they’re well behind other kids their age.

So I’m thinking right now that the way I’m going to handle my two class periods is that that first class period is going to be nothing but remediation. That’s going to look very different for different kids. Some of my kids are still struggling with basic operations; I have a handful who couldn’t multiply their way out of a paper bag. Others may just need extra time with 7th grade standards. There may even be some I can push past the 8th grade curriculum, although that won’t be many. The second class period is still going to be 8th grade standards, and I’ve still got thinking to do about how to do that given the things I learned this year, but that first period is going to be the focus of most of my attention.

The problem, of course, is that the kids are all over the place in terms of what they can do, and if I’m going to do this right I’m going to need to be pitching differently to all 70 or so of them. There are ways I am very good at differentiation and ways I am not good at it, and one thing I have never been able to manage properly is a room where 32 kids may be working on 8 different things. There are teachers who can do this beautifully; I am not one of them. This will have to change. (Frankly, given the emphasis that NBCT puts on differentiation, it had to anyway, so it’s useful that that’s dovetailing with something I need to do instructionally anyway.) So first I need to figure out what I’m going to do, and the next step is to figure out how to do it– and the how, of course, is very much the tougher part. And I’ve got to figure all that out. I need to hit the ground running next year to a degree that I never have before, and I need to run the year perfectly.

It’s gonna be a fun summer. But it’s going to have to wait until next week to start.

In which modernity is stupid

You may not be aware of this, if you’re not a math teacher or a middle school student: did you know you can just, like, Google any equation, and it will not only solve it for you but it’ll actually explain how to do it? I’ve talked about calculators here before, and my policy remains more or less the same: that I allow calculators on any assignment where calculation is not the point, because I don’t want a kid’s issues with basic multiplication to get in the way when they’re trying to internalize the Pythagorean theorem.

This one is … a bit more annoying. I mean, sure, it explains how to do the problem, which is an actual advantage over calculators– it’s not like the calculator is going to walk you through the multiplication algorithm or anything like that– but the Venn diagram of the types of kids who are going to Google equations rather than solving them and the types of kids who will read explanations is two completely separate circles. Also, I’m a little hamstrung right now by the fact that I need to present my assignments on computers; the easiest way to ensure that more of them do the work properly is to simply present the assignment on paper and restrict device use during those classes. I could also require them to give me answers as decimals, since Google always puts theirs as fractions, but that’s just going to add a different confounding factor to my grades, dragging down the kids who don’t know how to convert fractions to decimals and the kids who don’t read directions.

There is also the possibility of simply writing more complicated assignments than a list of fifteen equations to solve, of course; I could do word problems or any number of other things, but the problem is the specific skill I need them to have actually is solving equations. I need them to understand the logic of modifying both sides of an equation at once, the idea that constants and variables alike can be moved willy-nilly from one side of an equals sign to the other as needed, so long as you follow the rules properly … because if they don’t get this shit at this easily-Googlable level, life’s going to suddenly get much harder in high school when they hit equations that you can’t, at least yet, easily feed into Google. I think anything requiring a superscript or any actual math symbology might be a problem, for example, although I haven’t tried to test that.

I’m going to choose to ignore this particular problem, for the moment. There are ten instructional days of school left and I have two days of equations practice planned before we get back into systems, and I’ll make sure to write those assignments so that they’re not as easily Googled. Frankly, most of the kids who are cheating have grades so deep into failing territory that it barely even matters, so I’m not going to waste the energy necessary to stress about it other than maybe barking at them about it tomorrow. It will, children, actually hurt you much more than it will ever hurt me if you don’t get this stuff. You may think I’m training you to solve equations, which, true, you are unlikely to be presented with as an adult! However, mastering basic fucking logic is a life skill, as it turns out.