Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The MEAP-ing and the Meaning of a B

Since the MEAP test is being given over the next few weeks, I thought it would be appropriate to meditate on the MEAP-ish meaning of the (letter grade) B.

If you know about the MEAP cycle, students now take the test in the fall. Schools get the results in the spring, and part of the school's score under the No Child Left Behind Act is based on the aggregated students' scores on the MEAP. Depending on the results, schools get graded as having made or not made "Adequate Yearly Progress," and they get a letter grade too.

Well, last year, Skyline High School got a B.
Skyline High School missed the cutoff for an A by just a little bit. Just a little bit.
You might be thinking, "Well, that's pretty good! What's wrong with a B+?"

Skyline High School missed the cutoff for an A because one group of students--students with disabilities--missed their cutoff. And guess what? They also missed that cutoff by just a little bit. Just a little bit.

if I remember correctly, the letter we got back in August said something along the lines of "by one student."

Surely, parents of students with disabilities had visions of the principal pointing to one particular student: "Joe, if it hadn't been for you failing that test!" As if students who qualify for special education services don't get enough negative attention! I know some parents who were outraged by the letter. And yet I don't think that's what Ms. Jackson meant. If "passing" meant 80 out of 100 students getting a good enough score, and only 79 students got that "good enough" score, well...any one of those 21 students who didn't score well could have changed the entire metric.

The whole thing reminds me of the old saying:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; 
for want of the shoe, the horse was lost; 
for want of the horse, the rider was lost; 
 for want of a rider the battle was lost; 
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost, 
and all for the want of a horseshoe nail!

Here we have a situation where the scores got the school, essentially, a B+, and yet--we are labeling that B+ as failure.

The great irony of all this, to me, is that Skyline High School has implemented a Mastery Learning program that I think is excellent. It sets "mastery" at mastering 80% of the material on a test and is geared toward helping students do well in their classes. So, if you get an 81, you've mastered the material. And that's a B-. And we're labeling that B- as success.

So--which is it? Does a B designate success, or failure?

At Skyline's Capsule Night I got a much clearer idea of the MEAP scoring--and you can read about it here if you'd like. There are a lot of worrisome trends out there in the world of MEAP scores.
First of all, the "cut scores" for how many students need to show proficiency is going up. And up. Eventually, it's supposed to reach 100% under NCLB, and I think we all know the likelihood of that happening (0%).

The state could request a waiver from the federal government to NCLB, but there is a huge downside to that, as described very well--and succinctly--in Susan Ohanian's article about whether Vermont should seek a waiver.

Also at Skyline's Capsule Night, I heard what is in store for kids who are not succeeding at the MEAP, and essentially--it sounded like it came down to more test preparation, and more homework (geared toward test preparation).
So, I'll say out loud: I don't think that's a good solution. Sure, taking tests is a part of life, and it's good to get skilled at it.
But--test prep is boring. Test prep does not teach students to think or learn. Test prep turns students off from learning.
Homework that is busy work (aka "drilling") is boring. Busy work does not teach students to think or learn either. And when kids don't do that boring, busy work homework, that's when they get poor grades. [As an aside: Middle schools are notorious for giving students boring, busy work homework so that they "learn to get organized." Kids who aren't well organized end up with a lot of Ds and Fs because they didn't turn in that work, and some of them get used to failing.]
The worst part about all of this is that the reason for pushing kids into test prep and busy work homework has nothing to do with the kids: it's not really the kids who are getting evaluated. Although I've generally found my kids' MEAP tests to fairly accurately describe their knowledge, if my 7th grader does poorly on the MEAP, it doesn't affect him. It does affect the school and the teachers though...
There are solutions. They're not quick or easy. They involve lots of reading and project-based math activities. 
It's a great irony that the long-sought-after B is no longer a good grade.
It's an even greater, and sadder, irony that a test that was designed to evaluate students is now being used to evaluate schools and teachers.
And it's the worst irony of all, that nobody seems to know how to effectively fight back against this.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for stating the obvious but often unspoken truth, Ruth. As an educational consultant and instructional designer who works with students at risk of not completing school, I can tell you what to do. Speak out. Get your fellow teachers to speak out. Look to the Wall Street occupation for examples. Fight for the students. There is only one victim in the ed reform war and that is the student. They have one frontline soldier-the teacher.

    I do know that it is a scary time to be speaking out due to the instability within our state relative to union protection. But, if enough teachers raise their voices? And they do so in a way that shows legislators that they will not stand by idle as their students and schools are set up to fail? Protection will come. It may not be immediate and there may be times of despair but in the end? Positive change only comes when people "rebel". I suggest teachers unite to show policymakers who the real experts are.