Say Anything?

Old NCLB meme:  This law is forcing schools to dumb everything down and it’s all basic skills. But too many schools can’t clear its unrealistically high bars.

New NCLB meme:   The standards in this law were unrealistically high.  So we’re going to replace it with more ambitious ones…

6 Replies to “Say Anything?”

  1. As a science teacher dealing with NCLB I’d say both memes are simultaneously true.

    The standardized science tests given in Texas high schools (TAKS tests) do indeed force us to dumb down the curriculum and focus on the basic skills and concepts that are covered in the TAKS tests. For at least 50% of the student body it is a shrinking of the curriculum and a move away from critical thinking as we drill for the tests.

    At the same time, the idea that we can continually ratchet up the passing percentages until “no child is left behind” and everyone passes is ridiculous. I have mainstreamed special ed students in my 11th grade physics classroom who’s math skills are at a second grade level at best. They can barely add and subtract integers and don’t know their times tables. Yet under NCLB they are expected to pass the same science test as everyone else. This means using stoichiometry to balance chemical equations, using trigonometry to work out force vector problems in physics, and being able to work out DNA-RNA transcription problems in biology.

    It is indeed the case that the focus on a single standard means that the curriculum is dumbed down for a significant percentage of students while at the same time unrealistically high for a small percentage at the bottom.

    And the idea that every student will eventually pass? Out the 110 students that I have on my grade roster in my mixed demographic suburban high school, 4 are currently incarcerated in juvenile detention for various assault and drug charges and several more are serving extended alternative school detentions. One I haven’t seen since the first week of school and two others since October. Yet they remain on my class rosters and both my school and I will be held accountable for their test scores or lack of them. Under NCLB every single one of these kids is expected to pass every standardized test?

  2. Kent,

    If you were really dumbing down the content to meet the basics covered on the TAKS, wouldn’t your state be seeing exceedingly high scores on said tests? It seems like covering the basics would be useful if there are a good number of students still struggling with the content as is?

    And if you are moving away from critical thinking as you drill for the test, perhaps you could rethink how critical thinking could be used to help teach these basic skills and standards that some students are failing to master?

  3. Chris: What goes on in my classroom has no relation to the rest of the state. The scores of my students are exceedingly high. My students have about a 95% passing rate and I teach ordinary Physics I to ordinary juniors, not pre-AP or AP Physics to selected high-achievers. The ones who fail? The majority are either special ed students or students who are failing the class anyway and just couldn’t care less. I always do have a few who really put out an effort and despite their best efforts they still fail. But they are rare. And the stress some of those kids go through is intense.

    As for the basics? Who says the TAKS tests the basics? It covers certain selected areas of biology, chemistry, and physics and leaves out other areas entirely. I teach no nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, or relatively. Those topics are fundamental to understanding modern physics and I would certainly consider them basics. But they aren’t TAKS tested and the weeks in the spring that I might otherwise be covering them are consumed by schoolwide drill and review for the TAKS.

  4. You’re either a great teacher, or in a high-performing district, or a little of both. If your students excel at the standards, the question is: are they excelling because you are focusing your energies on covering them thoroughly, or because they are brilliant kids that understand everything without much teaching involved?

    In the former case, keep doing what you’re doing, since it’s obviously working. Your state’s scores are better than mine, but still there is room for improvement, particularly with certain subsets of students, which is reason for why a focus on standards would benefit those students in other classrooms.

    In the latter case, why don’t you extend the rigor of the standards and introduce some higher-level thinking into the lessons? Drilling is not going to be nearly as helpful or obviously as in depth as what you could do with your instructional time. You could even introduce a new unit on related but different material, some way to sum it all up or to extend their learning into a new field?

    You also mention that most of your students do really well, but then disregard the failures of other students for reasons outside your control. Since you are the teacher for ALL of your students, your job is to get them all to show some sort of learning growth. Your SPED kids aren’t as equipped as the others to do physics, but the question you want to answer is, how can you get them to improve from how they would have performed had they not had you as a teacher?

    To your next point: you said that you need to “dumb down the curriculum and focus on the basic skills and concepts that are covered in the TAKS tests.” Those are the basics I was referring to. For whatever topics the standards cover, the basics for those topics ought to be covered until mastery. That doesn’t seem so terrible.

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