September 28, 2003

SAT scores and HOPE scholarship in Georgia

Splashed over the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (Sun Sep 28) is the headline: Perdue wants to add SAT score to HOPE requirement.

As was extensively reported last month Georgia ranks 50th in average SAT scores, and this is a matter of some local embarrassment. (The state ranks 15th in participation rate, so the low score is not as bad as may be thought at first.) A few days ago I reported here on the response of Georgia's Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, to the low SAT scores, and I explained why I think that her focus on test preparation misses the mark. In the present AJC article, reported by James Salzer, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue voices his views.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Perdue argued that forcing students to obtain a minimum SAT score to earn the HOPE scholarship - combined with the only current requirement, a B grade average - would help boost Georgia's dismal national education rankings. [...]

"Knowing that there is a perception of grade inflation, I got to thinking about where our SAT scores would be today if, 10 years ago, they had been a component of the HOPE scholarship," Perdue said Friday. "My theory is, we wouldn't be 50th out of 50 states."

The question is, he said, "Are we willing to think of this [HOPE] as a merit-based scholarship which addresses a serious issue of lagging behind in SAT scores?"

[HOPE - Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally - provides financial assistance for study at eligible Georgia public and private colleges and universities, and public technical colleges.]

Governor Perdue's suggestion looks as misguided as the policy of Superintendent Cox with regard to the low SAT scores, and I don't think the proposal is advisable policy for the HOPE scholarship either. With regard to the SAT scores the state will have to focus on instruction in grades K-8, and then not expect an effect on the scores next year, or the year after that. (Please note that "SAT" refers in all the local reporting to the SAT-I; the traditional math and verbal test with focus on aptitude.) For a college scholarship it looks not unreasonable to take into account SAT scores, which are generally held to be a good predictor of college success, but one should not confuse the issue and present it as a way to improve high school education. For the latter purpose, and it would be a fine objective for Gov. Perdue, one should consider scores on some proper test of school learning. The SAT-II subject tests come to mind, or something like the traditional New York State Regents examinations, or some good quality statewide high school exit exam.

The AJC article raises the familiar sensitive issue and reports the Governor's response.

"States have seen a much lower percentage of minority students qualifying [for scholarships] when they add test scores," said Gary Henry, a Georgia State University researcher who has studied the HOPE program for much of its 10-year existence.

Perdue said that doesn't have to happen in Georgia.

"I think that's an example of falling prey to the bigotry of low expectations to say that African-American children can't be successful on the SAT," the governor said.

That is a rather harsh response to something that wasn't said. As the AJC article points out, the average score of Georgia's white students was 1035 and that of the black students was 852.

Henry, the GSU researcher, offers this perspective.

"The SAT is not based on the curriculum that students take during high school," he said. "I think the SAT [requirement] would undermine students' current incentive to work hard all four years of high school and further, it would potentially put the whole scholarship program in question."

I'm with Henry on this matter, and I think that Governor Perdue's suggestion to include the SAT score among the HOPE requirements is poor policy. This balloon should not fly. It won't fly, I'm convinced, but this for an entirely different and irrelevant reason. If the SAT becomes part of the HOPE requirements then more students will take the SAT and this will be a burden on the average scores. I think that the Governor will have second thoughts about the matter, and the suggestion to add the SAT score to the HOPE requirements will quietly disappear.

Posted by Bas Braams at 09:25 AM | Comments (4)

September 21, 2003

Biology textbooks in Texas

In Search of Intelligent Life at the SBOE, by Michael King (Austin Chronicle, Sep 19, 2003). The Texas State Board of Education devoted a marathan session (the first of two) to a hearing of arguments for and against the proposed adoption of high school biology textbooks. The proposed adoptions represent mainstream science, and the anti-Darwinian forces claim that the adoptions are factually in error by being insufficiently critical of evolutionary theory. The article reports on the testimony and the testifiers, and also provides a good background on the relevant rules for textbook adoptions.

Posted by Bas Braams at 12:04 PM | Comments (0)

Core curriculum at Harvard

Start making sense, by Patrick Healy (Boston Globe, Sep 21, 2003). Speculations about the direction of reform of the core curriculum at Harvard. Subtitle: "Critics say Harvard's curriculum fails to provide rigor, coherence, and basic knowledge. [President] Larry Summers is on a mission to change all that."

Today, every aspect of the curriculum is on the table -- the Core, the concentrations, faculty-student advising, students' writing skills, and even their speaking abilities. But there is a widespread belief on campus that the president is hoping most of all to transform the Core and its perceived emphasis on methods over content.

"When we consider the importance, embodied in the core, of exposing students to 'ways of knowing,' I hope that we will think more rigorously about the level of mastery we ask of our students, and more flexibly about how we let them acquire it,'' Summers declared at commencement.

It is an interesting article, placing the present curriculum reform in the context of the earlier core curricula created under the direction of James Bryan Conant (1945) and Derek Bok (1978). The present direction appears to be away from Bok and towards Conant.

Addendum (Sep 22): Michael Lopez at Highered Intelligence liked the article too. He offers an extended and ultimately pessimistic commentary.

Posted by Bas Braams at 11:38 AM | Comments (0)

SAT scores and Standards revision in Georgia

Bloggage has been a bit light on this page for the past month. I've been busy with a move from New York to Atlanta, and from New York University to Emory University.

What's up with K-12 education in Georgia? Well, the state came in last on the SAT scores (this is old news; it was all over the Georgia press in late August) and the state Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, knew she had to do something.

As we all know, the SAT (more precisely, the SAT-I, which is the one at issue) primarily measures aptitude, and the formal schooling required for the SAT is concentrated in K-8. It looks as if education in Georgia has a problem with basic skills in middle school and before, and an appropriate response for Ms. Cox would have been to say "thank you, thank you, thank you" to the ETS and College Board for putting the finger on the spot, and then to work very hard to understand what is wrong and what must be done differently in the early grades. Instead, in a press release of August 26 Ms. Cox announced that in order to improve SAT scores statewide the education department would do four things: (1) [we'll get to that]; (2) expand availability of Advanced Placement classes; (3) increase participation on the PSAT; (4) institute professional development on PSAT analysis. This response, with its depressing focus on test preparation, rather misses the mark.

Item (1) in the press release is the following:

1. A Revised and Strengthened State Curriculum

Work on the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) will be complete this fall, resulting in what Cox calls a "world-class curriculum that will establish high standards, maintain clear expectations, and place our schools and students not just at the top of the southeast, but at the top of the nation and the world."

I'm observing the work on that QCC revision for mathematics, and Ms. Cox's description is hubris of the highest degree. The process is managed, if not manipulated, by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE), and will result in their kind of "performance standards" that emphasize "authentic work" instead of basic skills. These new standards will do nothing to lift education in Georgia. I'll have more to blog about this in due time, when the new standards are released in draft form. In the mean time I point the interested reader to a posting by Donna Garner and a follow-up by myself on a Georgia teachers email list.

Posted by Bas Braams at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

No more F grades in Britain

It's official: you can no longer fail your exams reports the Daily Telegraph (UK). The British Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has directed that the "F" grade be replaced by an "N" (for Nearly) on the national curriculum exams. In a related piece of verbal inflation, Right and Wrong are replaced by Creditworthy and Not Creditworthy. The chairman of the Campaign for Real Education described the changes as "political correctness gone stark raving bonkers".

Posted by Bas Braams at 08:51 AM | Comments (0)

Talk of the Town on NCLB

Making The Grade, by Malcolm Gladwell (The New Yorker, issue dated Sep 15, 2003). In this Talk of the Town comment Gladwell takes on the NCLB's "Fordist vision of the classroom as a brightly lit assembly line, in which curriculum standards sail down from Washington through a chute, and fresh-scrubbed, defect-free students come bouncing out the other end". The article makes a useful point that in school ratings both the best and the worst performances are predominantly small schools, but this is presumably because small schools are more affected by statistical fluctuations. The article also points to the perverse incentives of the NCLB Act; an issue that was addressed with more care by Chester Finn in a Gadfly comment, A field guide to low academic standards, last year. Gladwell's concluding observation, that learning cannot be measured as neatly and easily as the devotees of educational productivity would like, misses the point, I think. Students can document their learning perfectly fine when applying to college, and States could make a better effort.

Posted by Bas Braams at 08:49 AM | Comments (0)