Monday, July 18, 2005


NY Makes Huge Scoring Change to 8th Grade ELA Exam
Look for a dramatic reduction of students scoring in the lowest level (Level 1) in the 2005 exam results
May 3, 2005

MAY 18, 2005 UPDATE: I'm beginning to wonder whether the state is creating scale scores and cut-off scores after the exams are given. If that's the case, the whole testing enterprise has been corrupted.

I have reported on several occasions that the state has been manipulating exams to produce better results. This year's 8th Grade ELA exam is one of the best examples of what's going on. Take a look at this chart, which compares the Raw-to-Scale-Score Conversions for 2003 and 2005:

Score Comparisons

In 2003, students had to answer 25 or more questions right to escape from Level 1, which the state defines as "indicating no proficiency."

In 2005, students needed to answer 9 fewer questions to escape the Level 1 designation.

More Stories on Regents and State Exams
Compare your salary to any teacher's

Now that, in and of itself, might not indicate a lowering of standards if exam difficulty was higher in 2005 than in 2003. To get an idea of whether that's the case, one would like to see the distribution of raw scores on the two exams. Assuming students were equally skilled in both years, if, for example, the number of students answering 15 questions correctly in 2005 fell in relation to 2003, then that would indicate the exam was more difficult. Consequently, that would justify lowering the cut-off score for Level 1 in 2005 so as to make a fair comparison with 2003.

Unfortunately, the state hasn't published the frequency distribution of raw scores on its website for a number of years. So, people are expected to take it as an article of faith that the tests are fairly calibrated and that standards are not being lowered.

But is that likely? We know the state has been altering other exams to make them easier and to obtain politically acceptable results. We also know that No Child Left Behind creates strong psychological and financial incentives for states to show Adequate Yearly Progress. Is performance on state exams really improving? Is it just a coincidence that exam difficulty is supposedly increasing so as to justify lower cut-off scores? Or might exam difficulty be relatively stable with cut-off scores being lowered to show progress? Without the raw score frequency distribution tables, it's difficult to know.

The state says raw scores cannot be compared from one year to the next because of changes in exam difficulty. That's why it converts raw scores to scale scores. A 650 scale score in 2003 is supposed to be equivalent to the same score in 2005. That means scale scores can be compared from year to year.

A scale score of 650 in 2005 required correct answers for 14 questions. The same score in 2003 required correct answers for 21 questions. That indicates a substantial increase in exam difficulty--at least for the "easy" questions. Again, to know if that were the case, one would like to see the tests and the distribution of raw scores for both years.

We know that well-written tests should produce a bell curve distribution of scores. The curve for 2003 closely approximates a bell curve distribution. But the 2005 scale-score curve is highly skewed. This raises the possibility that the 2005 8th-grade ELA exam was poorly designed psychometrically. If that's true, then any inferences drawn about improvements in student performance are suspect.

Here's the percentage of questions students must answer correctly to score in each level in 2003 and 2005.

Level Definition 2003 minimum score 2005 minimum score
4 Meeting standards with distinction 91% 93%
3 Meeting standards 80% 74%
2 Not fully meeting standards 58% 37%
1 Not meeting the standards Below 58% Below 37%

Based on the changes in cut-off scores and raw-to-scale-score conversions, I have a prediction about what the 8th-grade ELA exam results will look like when they are released within the next few days:
See, also, the following related articles:

Regents scoring is a shuck
Carl Strock / Schenectady (NY) Gazette Columnist
June 30, 2005

See this follow-up commentary, Strock out-of-date on Regents' scoring.

The state Board of Regents is raising standards, you have perhaps heard. No more passing grade of 55 on the famous Regents exams taken by high school students. Henceforth the passing grade will be 65.

But what do you think 65 (or 55) means? Do you think it means the percentage of an exam gotten right, as it did when you went to school?

No, ladies and gentlemen, not in the wonderful world of educational bureaucracy, it doesn't.

In fact, it can mean almost anything, as dictated only by the stirrings of a magic potion deep in the basement of the State Ed building in Albany, but the one thing it does not mean, ever, is that a student got 65 percent of an exam correct. It never means that.

See NY Makes Huge Scoring Change to 8th Grade ELA Exam.

In fact, on the recent "Math A" test, given mostly to freshmen and sophomores, a passing score of 65 equated to just 43 percent.

Yes, 43 percent, which a student could get by answering correctly 18 out of the first 35 questions, and blowing off the rest of the exam if he so chose.

The highest that 65 has meant in the sampling of exams I have looked at is 60 percent, and there was such an uproar about that one that the state went back and rejiggered the scores, dropping the passing percentage to 55, though they didn't put it in those terms and you had to do the calculation for yourself.

(The basic data is available at www.nysedregents.org/testing/hsregents.html.)

The idea, pretty clearly, is to give the appearance of high standards by fudging scores, that's all. And if the fudging doesn't yield the desired result, as it did not on the recent "Math B" test, then the state Department of Education fudges a second time, retroactively.

It's called cheating. It's no different in effect than teachers helping students with their answers while taking tests.

Too many students failed the "Math B" test, taken by juniors and seniors, so State Ed stirred the vat of brew down in its basement and came up with a new "conversion chart," as they call it, which changes a student's "raw score" into a "scaled score," or final grade.

It's not simple, or we could all follow it and see the deceptiveness of it. It's as complicated as a teachers' salary schedule or a school budget - designed, in other words, not to reveal but to obfuscate.

Which totally undermines the utility of the exam scores and the purposes of the standards movement.

Remember when you went to school and took a test and some questions were worth maybe two points each, and some were worth 10 points, and so on, and they all added up to 100? You got your score, and it was the number of points you got out of 100.

Not anymore. Too clear, too easily understandable, too difficult to fudge.

Here's what they do now:

They still weigh the questions by difficulty, which is fair enough - most worth two points, a few worth three or four, some worth up to six. But the point value doesn't add up to 100. It adds up to something offbeat like 88, or 84, or 85 always different, so it's hard to do comparisons.

The number of points you get for your right answers is called your "raw score" - let's say, to take an example, 45 out of a possible 88, which would be about half.

To convert that raw score of 45 to your final grade, the teacher consults the official "conversion chart." If the test in question was the Math B test of June 2004, the teacher would find that 45 out of 88 (roughly 50 percent) equaled a "scaled score" of 65, the passing grade, and that would be your grade. Just like that! By magic!

A lousy 50 becomes a 65. Isn't, that beautiful?

And to make things as obscure as possible, and as difficult to follow as possible, the conversion changes from test to test. You can't say that just because 50 percent on one test converts to 65, that 50 percent on some other test will also convert to 65. Each test has its own magic chart, sort of like a deck of tarot cards.

A few examples:

On the Math A test of June 2004, a 50 percent score (42 out of a possible 84 points) converted to 70.

On the Math B test of August 2004, a 50 percent score (44 out of a possible 88 points) converted to 68.

On the Math B test that was just rejiggered, a 50 percent raw score (again 44 out of a possible 88) converted first to 58 and then to 61.

Not only is the transformation variable from test to test, it's also variable within the same test.

You can't say that just because one score gets jacked up 10 points they all get jacked up 10 points, or that they even get jacked up by the same percentage.

It would be greatly amusing to boil the system down to an exam question and see if any students - or even teachers, for that matter - could get it right. Of course, they could not. No one in the world could.

I derive this from the recently rejiggered Math B test:

On a visit to another planet, Susie took a test and got 71 out of 88 points. That translated to an official score of 85.

Her friend Jim got 44 out of 88 points. What official score did Jim's result translate to?

It's a simple ratio: 71 is to 85 as 44 is to X. Put it into fractions and cross-multiply. The answer is 53, meaning, if 71 somehow translates to 85, then 44 translates to 53.

But not on the state's conversion chart for that particular test. It translates to 61.

Why? Why all these irregularities and inconsistencies?

I asked a spokesman for the Education Department, Tom Dunn, and all he did was try to impress on me that the exam questions are weighted differently according to their difficulty, which is not the point.

Don't take just my word for any of this. Check out the Web site I mentioned, and also check the letter from a teacher today on page A11, under the headline, "Regents need to be more honest about test results." Teachers know all about this. It's no secret to them.

Regents need to be more honest about test results
A Schenectady Gazette Letter to the Editor
June 30, 2005

I was astounded and, I have to admit, somewhat amused to read your frontpage headline (June 22) touting Commissioner Mills' big announcement, "State sets tougher Regents standards."

The big hype was that students are doing so well on New York's exams, the state feels comfortable "raising standards." However, before everyone jumps for joy, your reporter may like to see the "magic charts" that are issued for each exam.

In most academic settings, the grade on an exam is the percent correct. So a 65 means the student answered 65 percent of the questions correctly. Now, however, for our Regents exams, a conversion chart is used to convert the raw score (the number correct) to the scale score, the one reported by the State Education Department. The scale score is not the percent correct!

So this year to reach the vaunted score of 65 on the Living Environment, my biology students only needed to earn 46 percent of the 85 possible points! A student who successfully answered 65 percent now receives a score of 78. This year, a score of 55 on my exam means the student only answered 35 percent of the exam correctly. So for me, at least, "raising the standards" means State Ed waters down the curriculum and then simply changes the way the exam is scored!

According to State Ed, "the conversion chart may change from one exam to another." In fact, this year, so many students failed the math B exam, Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said, "We decided we needed a new conversion chart." So how can the state compare the grades from one year to the next, and from one subject area to the next, when the conversion charts keep changing, sometimes even after the exam is given?

I realize someone is sure to point out all the statistical analyses that go into making the charts. However, I have been teaching for over 20 years, and I firmly believe that the Regents exam grades are inflated so that the Regents can show how successful they are at raising standards. This gives our students, their parents, and the general public a distorted picture of our students' academic achievements.

And that distorted picture all inures to the benefit of educators. It keeps the heat off by passing off hamburgers as steak. As I said more than a year ago, the standards movement is dead. It's all about politics and acceptable scores, now.

In real life, there is no magic chart. It is unfortunate that our educational system is being sacrificed to make political points.


Science education needs tough standards
An Albany (NY) Times Union Letter to the Editor
July 8, 2005

Jason Goldberg's June 25 letter regarding the utter lunacy of promoting students based on a raw score of 39 credits out of 85 possible on the recent Regents Living Environment exam underscores that the "higher standards" reforms are just a lot of hot air.

An analysis of the exam shows that reading comprehension plays a more important part in it than knowledge of scientific concepts. So we claim to raise the bar and allow students to walk right under it.

Meanwhile, Mary-Ellen Seitelman, in her June 26 Perspective article, "Mark of failure," lamented the lack of a "gifted" program for higher achieving students who can sleep their way through these "higher standards."

We do not push our students enough, especially in the sciences. A student can earn a Regents diploma with credits in earth science and living environment. Where is physics? Where is chemistry?

The bar has been set abysmally low, and many are slapping each other on the back to congratulate themselves on the "progress" being made in New York with regard to higher passing percentages on exams with ridiculous curves.

True progress in science education is a fading dream unless the public wakes up to the charade being played out with our kids.

Except in wartime, there has been no time in this country's history when the need for good scientists, engineers, doctors and researchers has been greater. The global competition that our children face for good, high-paying jobs depends on their ability to live in a highly technological and scientific world. Yet, at every turn, we choose to make science education a low priority in the high school setting.

I challenge educational policymakers to take a hard look at where the "higher standards" that we have set for science education have left us.


Strock out-of-date on Regents' scoring
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette Letter to the Editor
July 7, 2005

I write in response to Carl Strock's June 30 column ("Regents' scoring is a shuck"). Thomas Friedman, in his book "The World is Flat" reminds us that we live in a world where many of our assumptions must change if we are to compete internationally. Mr. Strock's longing for the good old days when a score of 65 on a Regents exam meant 65 percent correct, is one of those old assumptions.

The "old" Regents exam system began changing in 1996 when the Board of Regents adopted the New York State Learning Standards in every subject area. These Learning Standards define what students need to know and be able to do to become competent citizens, workers and pursue further education.

That's questionable. Basically, the standards are a compromise among what students need to know, what most students are capable of learning and what most teachers are capable of teaching. Students need to know lots of things that aren't covered by the standards. See, generally, Modernizing the Curriculum & Schools.

The Regents exam for each subject is developed to test key skills and concepts of the Learning Standards. Any reader who doubts the difficulty level of the Regents exams is invited to try taking any of the tests on our Web site (www.emsc.nysed.gov.) These are tough exams!

I've read the standards and the exams. They aren't that "tough." Anything that all students must have a chance of mastering can't be that tough. If they are that tough, then exams have to be graded on a curve so enough students pass without creating a revolt.

New York teachers, create all the test questions on the Regents exams. Some questions are written to be more difficult than others, based on what skills they require students to use. Before a test is administered statewide, questions written for the test go through field-testing in classrooms across the state. This pilot testing by actual students allows teachers to rank the questions by level of difficulty from easiest to hardest. Teachers determine the minimum amount of information students must know to pass each exam (set at 65). This information is subjected to statistical analysis that determines what number of questions right will correspond to a 65 and what number will correspond to an 85 the scaled score.

Think about this. Teachers write the questions and field-test them. That lets them know the distribution of the number of students who answer 1, 2, 3 ... x number of questions correctly. Based on that and the past performance of students on the exam, they decide how may questions students need to answer to pass. Even after this is done, State Ed has still found the pass rates unacceptably low and ordered the rescoring of exams, most recently the Math B exam. Whether passing rates are set based on the results of field tests or readjusted after students have taken the exams, the result is the same--scoring scales set to politically correct pass rates, which may or may not be reflective of what students should know.

Beyond that, a test design that results in a scale score of 65% with 39% of the questions answered correctly is psychometrically flawed. It can't produce a bell curve, which is assumed for statistical analyses. Without a bell curve, statistical manipulation is required to approximate the results that would have been produced had the exam been properly designed. This introduces a source of error into the scoring process.

For more on how State Ed develops exams and determines scores see CAUTION: Falling Standards.

A conversion chart differs for every test and converts the raw score to a scaled score. This approach is fairer to students. By using a scaling method rather than a straight percentage correct, the difficulty of each test's questions can be taken into consideration, ensuring that test scores mean the same thing from year to year.

The assumption seems to be that it's not possible for teachers to write tests of equal difficulty from year to year. Yet, it is possible for the same teachers to identify the relative difficulty of each test and set a scale score that makes the tests equivalent. How do they do that? They combine field tests with a statistical model to predict how many students will correctly answer each question and then they set a pass rate at a subjective and arbitrary level that should produce the illusion that academic performance is improving. See NY Makes Huge Scoring Change to 8th Grade ELA Exam.

Mr. Strock calls for honesty about test results. The State Education Department describes how the Regents exams are scored on the web site (www.emsc.nysed.gov).

We publish not only the exams themselves, but all of the results of the Regents exams on the annual school report cards since 1997. No other state or test publisher provides as much information about the tests and the results It's no secret that our tests are tough and fair. They must be to ensure we have an edge in our competitive world.

The writer is Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Elementary, Middle, Secondary and Continuing Education at The State Education Department.

Scoring of Regents is still a shuck
Carl Strock / Schenectady (NY) Gazette Columnist
July 10, 2005

As for the scoring of Regents exams, perhaps you noticed on the letters page the other day that no less a personage than James A. Kadamus, deputy commissioner of the state Education Department, wrote to protest a critique of mine that appeared in this space.

He accused me of "longing for the good old days when a score of 65 on a Regents exam meant 65 percent correct," as if that were some horribly quaint thing to long for, like a one-room schoolhouse with a woodstove in the corner.

How silly of me to expect that a grade of 65 might mean 65 percent correct! How silly of me even to expect that 65 might mean the same thing from one exam to another, when we have such resources available to us as conversion charts and psychometric consultants.

Not possible, ladies and gentlemen, not in this time of international competition and whatnot.

Why, the Regents exams are developed by teams of teachers, Mr. Kadamus wanted us to know. They are field-tested on actual students, and, as he emphatically put it, "These are tough exams!"

Which, of course, is not the point.

The point is not whether the exams are tough - I believe they are. The point is that the scoring of them is fudged so the toughness is negated.

As indeed it must be if you think about it.

Back in 1996, when the state Board of Regents decreed that all high school students would have to take the Regents exams instead of local exams in order to graduate, it was obvious that something was going to have to give. You couldn't just all of a sudden set a higher standard or the obvious result would be that a great many students would fail, and that would be politically unacceptable. There would be a popular revolt.

The first thing that gave was the passing score. The Board of Regents lowered it from 65 to 55 for a transition period of a few, years, and then they extended the transition period.

But the main thing that gave was the scoring of the exams.

The passing grade of 65 that is being phased in can actually mean as little as 43 percent, as it meant on the "Math A" exam given last month, and it never means 65 percent or even close to that. The highest I have found it to mean is 60 percent, and that yielded such a dismal result on one particular test that the Education Department had to go back and rejigger its magic chart to make 55 equal 65.

Mr. Kadamus knows all about this, since last year it fell to his lot basically to quell an uprising by local teachers and administrators when a passing grade of 55 on the Math A exam for freshmen and sophomores arose out of a laughable 33 percent score.

Can you imagine anyone passing an exam with a grade of 33? A lot of teachers couldn't either, and they protested.

Mr. Kadamus got off a memo to them, or to school superintendents, dated Feb. 4,2004, patiently explaining that the conversion chart which transmogrified 33 into a "scaled score" of 55 had been analyzed and approved by "psychometric experts," no less, and would therefore stand.

If I handed a 60-question, multiple-choice, high-school level exam to a third-grader requiring only 20 questions to be answered correctly for high school credit, statistically a fair number of third-graders would pass the exam while knowing nothing about the subject being tested! Random chance plus an occasional good guess based on test strategies or actual knowledge would produce third-graders performing at the high school level!! In fact, State Ed should start giving high school Regents exams to third-graders to show how good our schools are! Please. Any test with a substantial portion of the score coming from multiple choice questions that requires only a 33% to pass is not psychometrically sound. When a passing score is lowered to the point where students can pass by random chance, the test is no longer valid.

That's how Regents exams are scored. It doesn't matter if the passing grade is officially 55 or 65 or what it might be, since that number is made up anyway. It's not a percentage, it's not anything.

My strong suspicion is that the Education Department does whatever adjusting or "scaling" is necessary to make the politically acceptable number of students pass, that's all.

If they have to reach as low as 33 percent to come up with a 55 or a 65, they do it.

Mr. Kadamus wrote in his letter that by performing such conversions, as they call these devious increases, "the difficulty of each test's questions can be taken into consideration," but that's bogus, and he gets a C, at best, in the art of argumentation.

The difficulty of questions on Regents exams is already taken into account in assigning points to them, as in any other exam. Most questions are worth two points, some are worth three or four, and so on.

When I talk about a percentage score I mean the percentage of available points. I mean 28 out of a possible 84 points, for example, which is 33 percent.

When you then fiddle with those percentage scores, you're giving weight to the difficulty twice - once for the questions and then again for how well students do on them, which means you're pushing scores up so more students will pass, plain and simple.

Then you can praise yourself for meeting higher standards.

It's not a question of me longing for anything, except maybe for basic honesty.

I would love to see a Regents exam question on this subject. An essay, maybe, worth about 10 points.

Standards' fraud finally exposed
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette Letter to the Editor
July 11, 2005

It was about 10 years ago that I started telling reporters from both print and TV media that they should investigate what was going on in the so-called "standards raising" that-was being promoted by Education Commissioner Mills. I tried to tell them that this was not really raising standards at all, but a fraud being perpetrated on the people of New York by the educational bureaucracy.

Speaking of frauds, see New State Performance Index is a Fraud.

It was clear to most of us teachers that standards were in fact being lowered. I had worked as a mathematics teacher for almost 30 years, but eventually retired early, realizing that by the time that this would all come to light, I would be well past retirement age.

I read the letter from Ms. Butterstein (June 30), about biology Regents scores, and the column by Carl Strock (June 30) about Regents scoring in general, and realized that maybe the time has come that the charlatans in Albany will be unmasked.

I am sorry that the news media didn't listen more closely 10 years ago when I and a few others tried to alert them.


The standards movement had something to do with setting standards but the bigger objective was to make teaching easier by informing teachers exactly what it is they should be teaching. I call it teaching by number--a reference to painting by number. It doesn't produce great art (or academic excellence) but it does ensure that at least something productive is happening. Prior to state standards, teachers could do almost anything they wanted and call it education, even if students didn't learn much and even if it produced large percentages of high school graduates who couldn't read or do math at an eighth-grade level. See, e.g., Student-directed learning is disaster for education, Worry less about dropouts, more about learning, Flabby theories turn middle schools into a muddle and Education's self-esteem hoax.

Regents has made a botch of things with "standards"
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette Letter to the Editor
July 16, 2005

I must, yet again, compliment Carl Strock on his superb and cogent expose of the Regents scoring scam, "Scoring of Regents is still a shuck." (July 10 column).

Strock skillfully and convincingly exposed the reality of the Regents "conversion chart" as a desperate, deceitful attempt to ".. make the politically acceptable number of students pass." If, God forbid, real percentages were used, the state education "standards" program would be revealed for the miserable failure it truly is - illconceived, fatally flawed, politically motivated; feckless at best, tragically wasteful for sure. These are very harsh words, but justified.

The underlying assumption of the Regents plan had to be that students were simply not trying hard enough to perform well academically; they needed to be "motivated," even coerced, to do better. Voila! Why not force all students in the state to pass Regents exams to graduate? And, just a little perk for the bureaucrats in Albany, imagine the tremendous power the Regents could wield over the teachers and administrators of every school in the state. How brilliant, and so simple!

And, yes, let's simply ignore the truth, that the roots of academic failure lie deeply embedded in the souls of failing students - broken families, neglected children, abject poverty, hopelessness, and emotional abuse. Better yet, let's not even identify those as problems; then we don't have to address them. Let's go instead with the lack of motivation thing; then we can snap the whip and show the people how "tough" we are.

See Investing in families improves learning, also written by Vince.

Well, folks, the results are in. The commissioner and his pinstriped cronies are scrambling desperately to somehow cover up their dismal failure. Almost 10 years into this "program," the best they can come up with is pathetic "conversion charts" analyzed and approved by "psychometric experts" to disguise the incredible failure rate.

Students who once eagerly hoped to earn a high school diploma have become completely discouraged, robbed of the dignity and self-esteem they could have had with a non-Regents diploma. Many teachers are no longer working on creative, stimulating lessons; they've become paranoid, focusing all their efforts on students passing the required state exams and Regents. School administrators live in dire fear of being "identified" as leading a "school in need of assistance" - a terrible stigma that invites the bureaucrats into their school to "instruct" them in cleaning up their mess.

I can't help but lament what could have been accomplished with the money and human resources wasted on this folly. We could have employed school social workers and psychologists to truly help our kids, provided daycare programs to give pre-schoolers a healthy environment while single mothers worked to survive, developed vocational programs for students with alternative talents.

How shameful! It's time to end this farce and really help our students.

The writer is a former teacher.

Vince got almost everything right. The thing he got wrong was the underlying motivation for Regents testing. It wasn't poorly motivated students; it was poorly motivated faculties who let their own standards of academic quality slip so low that not even politicians could ignore the thousands of students being given diplomas with reading and math skills no better than those of eighth-graders. It wasn't the students who brought this pox on the schools. It was the faculties.

Regents exams an exercise in self-deception
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette Letter to the Editor
July 18, 2005

More often than not, I find myself at serious odds with Gazette columnist Carl Strock's opinions relating to public servants, whether police, firemen or teachers. In a recent instance, however, I think he's onto something. I am referring to his column of June 30 on the scoring of Regents exams in New York state.

Strock has criticized the practice by the State Education Department of using conversion tables to interpret Regents scores, a practice which, at the extreme, has resulted in a student score of 33 on a Regents being converted to a passing 55. He goes to the roots of this confusion as he traces the problem to the Board of Regents' 1996 edict requiring all students to pass specific Regents exams in order to earn a high school diploma. The concept was that all students, when reasonably motivated and adequately taught, can pass high-standard Regents exams, Strock claims that the conversion table approach was devised to counter the public dismay that would have resulted from the number of failures that would have followed if traditional Regents scoring had continued.

The Regents exam program of my experience as a student and educator in New York state (1940s-'70s) was geared to students of at least average, and more often above average, academic promise. The Regents were highly demanding. The average would squeak through in the 65 score area, a score regarded as minimal achievement. The more successful students in the Regents program were college-bound. Impolitic as it may be to say so, when it comes to academic ability, there are wide differences among students from not very smart at all to genius, with many, many stops along the way. Unlike the students in Garrison Keillor's fictional village of Lake Wobegon, the students of New York state never have been and never will be "all above average."

The state policy requiring all students to pass prescribed Regents in order to graduate has been flawed from the get-go. I have been dismayed that superintendents of schools and leaders of teachers' professional groups have prostrated themselves before this policy rather than organize a parents' revolt against it. This misguided policy promoted by the Board of Regents and its commissioner of education has led public education into a stifling quagmire of testing and preparation for testing.

New York state is not alone in fostering this debacle undermining the infinite promise of public education. It has been a national movement promulgated by the conservative political forces that have come to the fore in our government. Conservative "think tank" types seeking ways of wresting power from the liberals came up with the idea of a massive attack upon public education. Who could defend against an onslaught of accusations that the schools are shortchanging our children, that our children can do better than this, that our children deserve better than this?

I had no idea that improving education was just a conservative idea. Anyone looking at students' scores on standardized tests over the decades and the scores produced by students in other countries knows that what was passing for excellence in American education had fallen too low. Something had to be done and with bipartisan and nearly unanimous support, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law, which mandates lots of testing.

Rote learning and teaching to the test is certainly not an entire prescription for achieving academic excellence. However, rote learning is better than no learning, which is what students were being served in great proportions prior to standards' reforms and testing. The ideas of fun, high self-esteem and an aversion to requiring "correct" answers so infested education that genuine learning slowed to a crawl.

If someone's looking for a culprit, there's only one group to blame, and amazingly it's not the politicians. It's the professional unions of the teachers. They looked at the data and treated it too lightly. They spent too much time on bread and butter union issues and not nearly enough time on quality control and better academic outcomes. In other words, they gave short shrift to their professional responsibilities, preferring to pursue higher wages for declining performance, and by inaction invited the politicians in to do something about education outcomes that had become intolerable.

The "no child left behind" slogan is interpreted by parents to mean, "my kid's every bit as smart as any other kid, and if he isn't doing well, there must be something wrong with the school (the teacher, the system)." The slogan implies fallaciously that all the children of USA Wobegon are above average academic ability. Sorry, but that's just not the way that human beings are put together.

Back in founding fathers' days, Alexander Hamilton urged that education and politics should flow in widely separate channels. Contrarily, the national conservative political movement has made public education a sacrificial lamb in pursuit of its own ends. It has exploited and manipulated public education and led us into a morass of self-deception. When will we as a people wake up to this disaster?

No group has worked to insert politics into education more than liberals. See, generally, Social/Cultural Agendas in Public Schools. However, I completely agree with Hamilton. Education and politics should be as separate as religion and government. And that means the government has to get out of the education business. Of course, that won't happen, most importantly because liberals don't want it to happen. I have repeatedly attempted to show that government-run public schools are fundamentally inconsistent with the First Amendment. The proper role of government is to provide the funding so every child can be educated, not to run the education institutions. As long as government runs K-12 schools, you can be assured that politics will play a large and increasing role.


Monday, July 04, 2005

Proposal on teacher probation hijacks due process 

Dr. Douglas Sexton / Special to The Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun
July 2, 2005

Intent on bypassing the legislative process, Gov. Schwarzenegger has called a special election for November.

It's something the law wisely provides for as a check on the legislature.

In particular, he hopes to pass a proposition that raises the number of years teachers receive probationary status from two years to five years.

For many voters who aren't teachers, the arguments for doing this might at first have some merit. But as Californians begin to learn more about this proposition, they will soon realize that it is this proposition that is really without merit.

More Stories on Tenure & Job Protection
Compare your salary to any teacher's

First, let's clear up something about teacher tenure. Legally, tenure means that a teacher's contract can only be terminated if the district has a reason to do so and follows the appropriate procedures. That's it. All of this nonsense about how difficult it is to fire teachers is, frankly, baloney. Any competent administrator who has a valid reason and follows the district's procedures can terminate a teacher's contract.

The "reasons" for which teachers may be fired are extremely limited. The procedures are extremely complex and costly.

When problems in firing a teacher do occur, they can usually be traced to an administrator who has failed to act in a competent manner. So ask yourself this: Where is the legislative focus on removing incompetent administrators?

Second, this proposition contains a provision that could limit a non-tenured teacher to two less-than-perfect evaluations. Now, administrators are fond of stating that the purpose of evaluations are to help teachers improve. In fact, many districts frown on principals turning in evaluations that tend to rate their teachers too well; after all, isn't there always room for improvement?

But let me set something straight: The purpose of evaluations is to ensure that the taxpayer is getting what they paid for.

That's not the purpose of evaluations. In 90% of the cases, evaluations serve no purpose. They're done essentially because that's what other professionals do. They generally have no impact on promotions, salary, firings or job assignments. They're based on extremely few observations of limited duration.

Professional improvement for most educators is an important but separate issue and needs to be addressed separately. It implies a partnership with the administrator that requires trust and allows risk-taking.

Employee evaluations are universally used for identifying employee weaknesses and setting goals for improvement. Evaluations don't prevent partnerships, trust or risk-taking.

Sadly, too many principals use evaluations as a punitive process. I remember meeting with one particular superintendent who instructed one of his principals to "mark down" several teachers who were officers of the local teacher associations.

Just because the teachers were union officers doesn't mean they didn't deserve to be marked down. Douglas doesn't tell us why the teachers were marked down, preferring that we infer it was because they were union officers.

In my experience as a principal, this example is far from anecdotal and is something that is all too common. Administrators are subject to the same failings that all human beings must face and deal with.

I just love how teachers complain about administrators. They rarely ascribe the kinds of failings they see in administrators to themselves.

This is why the system has procedural safeguards. And by the way, probationary teachers can have their contracts non-renewed at the end of the year without any reason being given to them.

Administrator misuse of evaluations isn't why the system has procedural safeguards. It's a convenient rationale. The reasons for procedural safeguards have to do with education traditions more than anything. These traditions were developed in a context very different from today's, which is reason enough to re-examine them.

An arbitrary number of poor evaluations is simply designed to circumvent these due process safeguards and opens up enormous loopholes that are just waiting to be abused.

Lastly, think about how long your probationary status was in place on your current job. What was it - 90 days, six months, perhaps a year? Would you like being yanked around on a probationary chain by your boss for five years?

This is comparing apples to oranges. Many workers and most professionals outside of government are at-will employees. Even after their "probationary" period, they may be fired for any reason. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch annually fired the bottom 10% of workers no matter how good they were. It was a continual process of improvement that created one of the world's greatest companies. See Executive Who Saved G.E. Is to Train School Principals.

What kind of due process was due to GE professionals? The privilege of keeping their jobs as long as they weren't in the bottom 10%. That's it. Were some people fired because their bosses gave them poor evaluations based on personal rather than professional issues? Undoubtedly. Part of the professional's responsibility is to keep the boss happy. If the boss isn't happy and can't work well with the employee regardless of the employee's professional talent, s/he is "let go." That's what process is "due" for many professionals.

In this case, a 15-year veteran prosecutor in Albany, NY was fired for failing to consult with the district attorney before disposing of a misdemeanor charge. Assistant prosecutors routinely dispose of misdemeanor charges without consulting their boss. But in this case, the D.A. felt he should have been consulted first. Since he wasn't, he fired the A.D.A. That's all the process that was due.

Tenure has benefits and disadvantages. The history of tenure reveals that its sole purpose was to protect teachers from being fired for exercising academic freedom, which is essential for the pursuit of truth and its free expression. That's it. It had nothing to do with protecting teachers from firings for other reasons, including personality clashes with bosses and performance in the bottom 10% of the faculty. Today's misuse of tenure forces school districts to employ less capable teachers than they might be able to find in the labor market and that not only slows progress, it deprives students of the best education possible.

Isn't there a process used to dismiss or terminate employees where you work? Aren't there rules or due-process procedures that your bosses must follow before they fire an employee? Of course there are.

So ask yourself - why are teachers treated so differently than everyone else?

Douglas wants you to believe that tenure simply treats teachers like everyone else is treated. It's not true. They have far more protection and far more due process than almost any other professional in any other job. See, e.g., Can't teach? So what. Why are teachers being treated differently, indeed?

This November, as you wonder just why it is so important for the governor to spend so much of your money by-passing the legislative process, also ask yourself this question, "Isn't it time we start evaluating the governor and begin supporting our pubic school teachers?"

Dr. Douglas Sexton, a former middle school principal, currently teaches for both Palm Springs Unified School District and Chapman University.

Union goes to bat for pervert teacher
A New York Daily News Editorial
July 3, 2005

Cary Hershkowitz, a city teacher who tried to seduce a student, has no shame. Three months after a Manhattan Supreme Court justice described him as "every parent's nightmare," Hershkowitz is suing for reinstatement to the classroom and back pay. And he's represented by a lawyer for New York State United Teachers, the teachers union umbrella organization. It, too, has no shame.

The Department of Education has tried since 1999 to fire Hershkowitz, only to be stymied by the teacher disciplinary system. Regular readers may remember that we featured his case in calling on Mayor Bloomberg and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to overhaul the contract.

At that time, state Supreme Court Justice Ronald Acosta had ruled that Hershkowitz deserved to be canned. He threw out an arbitrator's decision suspending Hershkowitz for a year and making him eligible to return to teaching once his time was up. Finally, sense seemed to have prevailed. How wrong we were.

Since then, it turns out, Hershkowitz's union-supplied lawyer has kept the department tangled up in disputes over naming a new arbitrator to decide the teacher's fate. (Yes, under the UFT contract, the schools chancellor still needs an arbitrator's permission to dump Hershkowitz.) And now, Hershkowitz and his mouthpiece have the gall to argue in court that, because his suspension was overturned, Hershkowitz deserves a year's salary plus all the benefits of an employee in good standing. Which he is anything but.

It is a sickening tale, but by no means an unusual one in a disciplinary process that puts teachers' interests over students'. Weingarten has said she was appalled by the Hershkowitz case and offered to negotiate automatic termination for sexual predators. Her NYSUT colleagues, who represent all accused teachers, take a different view. They're trying to reunite a predator with his prey.

Price of Kindergarten Cop's ego
Little respect for vexations of teaching
Jaime O'Neill / San Francisco Chronicle
June 26, 2005

My daughter has just finished her fourth year of teaching middle school, a job as demanding as any I can imagine. It is a life-consuming effort, drawing on vast emotional, physical and mental reserves. It is a job that invades sleep, that pokes itself into the recesses of her life.

When she is at the movies, she is thinking of the papers that await her at home. On weekends, she is either working on those papers, or she is feeling guilty because she is not working on those papers. Students haunt her, and each semester of her four years in the classroom has been accompanied by a handful of problem children who vex her patience and exhaust her imagination as she seeks ways to reach them, to help them, or simply to deal with them.

Early adolescence is a rough age -- rough for the kids, and rough for the people who must deal with them. The smell of my daughter's classroom is ripe with hormonal change; a sweet and metallic funk mingles with the smell of cedar pencils, mucilage, pulp paper. The classroom is nearly bursting with relentless youthful energy.

My daughter, and all her teaching colleagues, work in a cross fire between administrators (whose reputations ride on high test scores) and parents (many of whom cannot imagine their own offspring turning in inferior work). It's a difficult zone to occupy. Like many other teachers, my daughter often spends money from her own pocket to make up for the shortages of materials available to her. She also gives up evenings to serve as a chaperone, to confer with parents, or to meet with former students who are suffering one of the many kinds of confusions that torment people who have left middle school for high school.

I have listened to my daughter on the phone after a particularly trying day, her voice choking up as she fought back tears. This student, or that student, had given her attitude in a way that hurt her feelings, and she'd spent the rest of the day keeping those hurt feelings hidden until she got home from work. Or the work students turned in had shown less thought and effort than she had hoped to see. Or a special presentation she'd spent hours preparing had been greeted with bored indifference. Or the litany of excuses about this or that had finally just grown too tiresome to bear.

Most of all, there is the persistent desire to do more, to do better. No matter how trying some of her students might be, she truly loves them -- or most of them. Many of them are experimenting with adult temptations they are not yet equipped to handle. But they are fragile vessels of hope, and that makes them literally precious.

One of the things that makes my daughter so good at her job is her vivid memory of this stage in her own life. She remembers how indifferent she was to her teachers at that age, how remote and nearly irrelevant their teaching seemed at a time when she was so preoccupied with so many other challenges. She is, therefore, fiercely empathetic. It is not something she learned in the often useless education classes she was made to take in order to get her teaching certificate. Caring is not a skill, and it's probably not teachable.

It is also not a quality that could ever be adequately compensated, but my daughter's annual salary of $40,000 does not strike me as extravagant, especially when compared with the annual income of the sort of people who sometimes pretend to be teachers in the movies, people like our governor who made more for playing a teacher in a single movie -- "Kindergarten Cop'' -- than all the kindergarten teachers in California will make in any given year collectively.

It turns out that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a problem with my daughter and with the work she does. He's concerned that people like her are not held to high enough standards, and he wants an $80 million dollar special election to change the rules so that people like her are denied tenure for a few more years. My daughter got her modicum of job security last year, but if Schwarzenegger's special election referendum on my daughter passes, she would not have gotten that little bit of job protection until next year. What an extraordinarily petty issue to set off such an expensive exercise in gubernatorial ego.

Would that temporary denial of tenure have made my daughter a better teacher? Would her students have been better shielded from poor teaching? More to the point: Would my daughter -- and the hundreds of fledgling teachers hired each year -- have felt any sense of support as she, and they, gained competence at this most demanding of jobs? How helpful is it when the government that employs its teachers assumes a suspicious and adversarial posture toward them?

And, given all the problems California faces, how strange is it that the most fearsome villain the governor has been able to find looks like my daughter?

In the interest of political grandstanding, the governor is determined to spend a big chunk of scarce state money to pick a fight with my daughter, and a legion of people like my daughter, people who are already beleaguered by the challenges of the jobs they do. But then the governor wouldn't know about those challenges. He's not a teacher; he merely has played one in the movies.

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