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.

Yikes

I’m sitting in my classroom right now, typing this on my work laptop, and trying to figure out the next nine weeks of my life. It is possible I have overscheduled myself; I got an email today from this course design thing I’m doing with IU that describes what they think the schedule is going to look like, and it’s … a lot, potentially. Then there’s the new committee I’m on at work, which is a few extra hours after school a week, then (eventually) there’s going to be National Board certification, which is just a meeting here and there right now, but soon I’m going to have to start actually doing stuff for it, and I looked up what the content area test was going to be like the other day and, well …

This is for their adolescent (11-15) Mathematics certification, which is going to be the one I’m going for. I teach Algebra, y’all, and I washed out of Calculus in high school and never looked at it again, but, like, right now I think I want to do the content area test first, and the notion that I need to relearn Geometry, Trig, Discrete Math and Calculus in the next few months when I never really learned Calculus in the first place, plus a refresher on stats?

I mean, on the one hand, at least I have something to do this summer, and on the other hand, I’ve wanted to go back and conquer Calculus, because it’s always sort of stuck in my craw that I bailed on it, and on the third hand, the one I don’t have that’s kind of a lot.

Like, I pass standardized tests. Passing standardized tests is my thing. I’ll be fine. But my studyin’ muscles haven’t really had much of a workout for the last, oh, fifteen years or so– who am I kidding, it’s longer than that, because I’m pretty sure I didn’t have to do a single second of “studying” for my M.Ed– and I’m gonna have to rediscover some skills with a quickness.

Plus, like, even just planning out how to approach all this is intimidating. I’m sure there are plenty of self-paced/free or inexpensive study guides out there, both specifically for this test and for these subjects in general, but that’s basically all of high school math that I need a refresher on plus some stuff I never really touched until college. While designing a course in Quantitative Reasoning for IU, doing whatever I need to do for this other committee, and, oh, teaching the last nine weeks of 8th grade math from school when I haven’t taught physically in my building for literally over a year and figuring out how to keep the kids who are staying home connected to everything else that’s going on.

One step at a time, I suppose.

First step: find a study guide for the test itself; Amazon probably has one. Second step: relearn all of mathematics.

It’ll be fine.

Pictured: Not my school

I have never been under the illusion that it would be difficult to find me if someone combined the desire to do so with a decent amount of time, this website, and some small ability to search for clues. I have never named any school I’ve worked at and rarely specifically name my district, but I’ve never hidden the fact that I teach middle school and frankly there are only a limited number of middle schools to search through. Finding my name would be a touch trickier, but my teaching license– which is under my real name– is public information, and many schools post staff lists. I have always figured that, given that making myself impossible to dox is probably impossible, I would make it require a bit of legwork and not worry about it too much beyond that. I’ve never said anything here that I wouldn’t stand behind were my name attached to it, frankly.

That said, occasionally shit gets specific enough around here that my inability to talk about it without giving too much away gets on my nerves. My district is going through a spate of consolidations and closings right now, and … well, lemme see if I can find this comment real quick.

I do not understand why my local newspaper’s website even allows comments, frankly, because every article and I mean every single fucking article will generally have one or two spam comments about working from home and one or two blatantly racist comments from the same three or four local Nazis and nothing else. Like, there are clearly people who spend a substantial portion of their day reading articles on this site and then leaving racist comments. It’s like a job. So I was surprised to see this comment, which goes on in a similar vein from here, and is from someone who is at least trying to be fair.

The thing, though, is that bit about the students being a “normal mix of average, below average, and above average.” I’m going to leave out the word potential, because I do genuinely believe that all of my kids have potential even if they either choose to or are unable to rise to it. And this is always a tricky conversation to have, because I don’t want to look like I’m shitting on my own students. But my district’s schools, particularly at the middle school level, are not normally distributed; not remotely, and it’s not just because of the neighborhoods the schools are in either.

Because, see, we have a middle school honors academy, and if that’s not bad enough, the honors academy is the biggest middle school. I have talked about this before, but not for a while; honors schools are great if you are looking at the individual student level for benefits. But they are toxic to the overall community of the district they’re in, because they hoover up the top (making up this number) 20% or whatever of students from each of the other schools at their level, and then those schools are expected to perform at the same level as they were when they had those students.

You see the problem here? Let’s imagine that Honors Academy houses 50 students that otherwise would be students at my school. Chances are that of those 50, 45 are going to be passing their standardized tests. Those 45 would still be passing their standardized tests at my school. I promise you, the teachers at the honors school are not any better than the teachers at any other building; first of all because I know a lot of them and second because I know how the hiring process works, and it’s not like you need any sort of special training or a number of years of experience. The staffs are functionally the same. Those kids, provided with competent educators and no massive family crises, are going to pass their tests. And good for them! They can take classes with other like-minded students, probably have fewer disruptions and quite possibly less violence at their school than at ours, and they’ll do just fine.

(Certain kinds of disciplinary issues are less prevalent at the honors school, which is to be expected to some extent. Fascinating thing, though, is they have a much bigger problem with drugs than any other middle school, so read into that however you like.)

The point is, one way or another, those 45 kids would still be passing at my school. But they’re not. They’re passing at some other school, and instead I’m expected to produce average or better results– because no school can ever be below average, even though that’s mathematically impossible, all of our children must be above average– with the bottom 80% of the students.

In other words, if we were to get the same results they got, or even close to them, it’s because we’re doing a better job.

Sadly, we are not. And does the state care? No, not one whit. We are expected to pass X% of our students, period, and if we don’t, it’s our fault, even though they have literally stacked the deck against us by siphoning off a substantial number of our kids to this other school.

What do you think that does to the culture of the building, by the way? And forgive me for pointing out something that’s probably obvious, but the fewer examples of success the kids have around them to see, the less reason they have to be successful, and the kids who do care about their grades find themselves in a small and shrinking minority.

So, no, sir, the students are not a normal mix. The students who are most likely to pass standardized tests are all concentrated in the same place. And that is absolutely 100% on purpose.

You want to improve the rest of the schools? Close the honors academy.

Oh, let’s see…

Can confirm: I will be pursuing National Board certification. So we will see how that goes.

I spent another nine hours staring at numbers today, then went to the comic shop and had dinner with my dad, and I actually do have stuff to talk about (short version: read Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist and Tochi Onyebuchi’s Rebel Sisters, full reviews probably coming, and there might be a video game review in the near future too) but right now all I want to do is put a wet rag over my eyes and sit in the dark for a while. Tomorrow will be another 8-9 hours of test watching plus avoiding spoilers for WandaVision.

I really do need to make “tired” one of my categories.