And Then There Was Math

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Part One is here; Part Two here.

Student feedback after all was done: they thought the reading part was helpful, but the math part was awful. Let’s go back to the scene.

Most of the students were there for the reading. They had already passed the Algebra 1 requirement. A few students wanted to stay anyway. Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) told them they could stay but only after they went and let their classroom teachers, who were expecting them to show up, that they would be in the prep session.

Because there were only eight students left in the room, GOT allowed them to mute their computer screens, take off the earbuds, and listen to the audio from one computer. As a plus, it also allowed him to attend to the presentation.

Frankly, the Zoomer (the man presenting from afar) didn’t have a clue about math. But that was not the point. He was not on screen to explain how to solve math problems; he was there to explain how students could suss out the right answer when they did not know what to do.

The students were frustrated by this until GOT explained it: today, it’s not about knowing what to do or how to solve a problem. It’s about how to mark a right answer when you don’t know what to do.

The entire morning was devoted to nailing the test. Even so, there were problems. The Zoomer spent ten minutes fumbling through a problem involving similar triangles. Even GOT with his math certification couldn’t understand him. Finally, as the students were expressing their discomfort, he said, “What he’s saying is that 26 is about 24 times 2, so if you multiply 5 by 2, you get 10, and that’s your best guess.”

The students said, “Why didn’t he say so in the first place?”

The actual problem involved two distinct steps, one that involved the Pythagorean Theorem. The Zoomer tried to acknowledge such by asking the students what they used to find the area of a triangle. It’s a theorem that begins with P.

Oops! The Pythagorean theorem has nothing to do with area. It invokes the relationship among the sides of a right triangle if one builds squares along them. Of course, in these Common Core days or the many aliases Common Core now uses to disguise itself in prevailing state standards, no one bothers with actual deep understanding. A squared plus B squared equals C squared is good enough if only the questions are answered correctly.

There was the PEMDAS, but somebody put PREMDAS in the chat. That confused the students and, frankly, GOT didn’t get the R. But he knew that PEMDAS is now presented as BEMDAS because math uses many types of brackets, not just parentheses.

GOT understood the purpose of the day so he didn’t explain how unnecessary PEMDAS is when students know numbers, arithmetic, and properties for what they are. (For those interested, there are really only two operations: multiplication and arithmetic. If you understand mathematical notation, you don’t need Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. Multiply before you add, but if you want to add first, use parentheses.)

12:30 approached and the Zoomer made sure to wrap it up. Was it because he knew four hours was more than enough or was it because he was only paid to do four hours and he wasn’t going to give a minute more?

Before you condemn GOT, reflect on how edutech breaks into the piggybank and how committed it is to actual student achievement.

Sayonara. GOT plans many posts about testing in schools. Look for the posts about infrastructure trials and WIDA, the test for measuring how well ELL students are progressing in learning academic English.

Problem in the Chat

This post is Part Two of a three-part series. Part 1 is here.

Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) brought work to do. The Mastery Prep, billed as an ACT boot camp but was really a test-prep session, should have been an easy gig. However, as seasoned teachers know, never count out the need to ride herd over bored teenagers.

But as it turned out, none of his work got done. The teenagers needed his full attention.

There was the cell phone problem. There was the breakfast problem. There was the power problem.

Welcome to the real world, all readers who don’t work in an actual school and that includes district staff, all of whom hold some kind of education certificate but decided somewhere along the way that they wanted out of the classroom and maneuvered themselves into a district position, who have forgotten what it’s like. (Another rant over, let us hope.)

The cell phone problem? Kids can’t put them down and, if we adults are honest, we can’t either. But as the introductory part rambled on, about how the ACT is scored, what the numbers mean, the score needed for a college app, the score needed to concordanant the way past Florida law to the worthy goal of a diploma … yeah, you’re scrolling through your texts now, aren’t you?

Every time the online session hit a lull, including the first time the students were told to do a 10-question mini-test and the presenter’s computer crashed (apparently, it couldn’t do video and gather test data at the same time, ha-ha-ha!), they pulled out their phones.

Lesson learned: next time, make the students put their phones into their backpacks and the backpacks in the front of the room–out of reach. Too bad no one thought of this in advance …

The breakfast problem? You haven’t lived until a child shows up at your classroom door with a tardy pass and a bag of food with the explanation that the drive-through was too slow for them to get to school on time. A savvy teacher knows not to let them into the room, the smell will set everyone off with hunger pangs, but to direct them to sit outside until they have finished eating.

Lesson learned: do the same with these prep sessions. If you need to be reminded, we had no idea what to expect. The principal came into the session halfway through and mentioned that he was told to provide snacks. But OMG! Did the district want a serious learning experience or a party?!

The power problem? We’re a one-to-one district. We don’t have spare computers for children who come to school without the laptop we issued to them the same as we issue textbooks. And then there are those who don’t bother to keep their devices charged. GOT brought extension cords and multiple outlet charges, but that meant the students were clustered together, too close to maintain focus, and their overwhelming developmental stage need to socialize overrode the purpose of why they were there.

Lesson learned: the chosen venue wasn’t the right one. Next time, GOT will gather them into the testing classroom at his disposal. Power will be provided, but the students will not sit facing one another at round tables.

The Chat. Several schools and GOT estimates hundreds of students with access to chat … the presenter was doing the traditional thing, trying to answer questions and prompting responses in the chat to maintain the interactive nature of the session, but the students were having none of that.

They began by asking what schools everyone was at and moved on to asking who had what result. As the hilarity (from their view) evolved, some posts were … inappropriate.

The first clue was the laughter as they ignored the presentation and began talking about what other students were posting. The second clue was when the chat was wiped of all posts. Yes, there was a lot of chatter about that. The third clue was when GOT’s principal walked into the room. He had received an email about students making inappropriate comments.

The real problem? The proctors, GOT among them, had no access to what was taking place in the online session. He could only watch over students’ shoulders and squint at the tiny laptop screens to see what they were doing.

Lesson learned? [Censored opinion about how no one listens to an actual teacher about what’s actually taking place.] The adult in the room also needs to log in to the session to monitor what’s taking place. It helps to know when the Zoomer takes a break and not jump on students for getting off task. It helps to have access to the chat on a computer to monitor what the students are posting. It helps to see what the students are doing and to interact with them to explain what the Zoomer is trying to show them.

As best as he could gather, the reading part focused on helping students figure out the grammar questions: where to place commas, semicolons, and colons and where to not use them.

New rant: Total BS. Not from the Zoomer, who was doing his best to show teenagers how to answer these questions, but from a system that does not recognize that often the solution to grammar problems in writing is to rewrite the sentence so the punctuation question disappears.

But the tests will carry on because if they need to judge an actual piece of writing, the companies have to hire actual humans to make judgment calls. Even if they do, the economics of scoring means that the humans have too little time to actually make a good decision. Far better to present multiple-choice questions instead. Yes, about writing.

Maybe this is why standardized testing fails. It is inherently unable to measure student ability because it is not economical, maybe given the proclivities of testing companies and their investors to say not profitable, to actually judge writing. Only a classroom teacher can do that.

Oh, wait, but we don’t trust them, do we?

1000 words and another tl;dr break. Part 3 to come.

Mastery Prep or How to Nail the ACT

For the 2021-2022 school year, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) was put in charge of all testing at his high school with the exception of International Baccalaureate exams. This includes traditional state testing known as the Florida Standards Assessments and End of Course exams, Advanced Placement exams, PSAT and SAT in-school testing, ACT in-school testing for the purpose of helping seniors get a diploma, district baseline, end-of-course, and progress monitoring, and whatever else the district thinks up, including figuring out how to get students through a quickee CPR training (watch a 30-minute film and do some chest compressions on a dummy) and exercises like the one you are about to discover.

Mastery Prep is the moniker masquerading as a boot camp for high school students about to take the ACT, one of the two mainstay standardized college entrance exams that students have taken for decades.

As we get underway, GOT first has to indulge in his usual gripe about using military metaphors in educational settings. Boot camp is what new inductees into the Armed Forces undergo. It is formally known as Basic Training, in which young men and women learn how the military functions, how to use and maintain high-grade weapons, the cohesion of units, and discipline. It is said that boot camp breaks down the individual in order to build an in-sync group that acts as one; if that does not happen, they will be disoriented in battle and killed.

How the H-E-double hockey sticks does that have anything to do with the learning and assessment process in a school?! (All right, rant over.)

What took place was a 4-hour test prep session, two hours for the reading part and two hours for the math. Wait, wait! you say. Doesn’t the ACT also have science? Yes, it does, but students needing to meet the statutory graduation requirements don’t have to worry about that section. They need to score 18 on two ELA parts, English and reading to receive a concordant score, which means Florida says, “Okay, you couldn’t pass our [censored] test, but we’ll give you this one for 10th grade ELA.” A score of 16 for math does the same for the Algebra 1 requirement.

Participants were selected according to their status. All juniors and seniors who had not passed one or both of the graduation requirements were chosen.

Right away, we had problems. The district’s data system (Focus) has date fields for every student record that shows when the student passed each state exam. Sadly or ridiculously, updates to the date fields lag behind by several months the updates to the test history. There were two girls who had passed the tests, but since we pull them out from their classes based upon the date field, they were told to show up.

GOT offered them the chance to leave. One, the girl who scored a Level 5 on her FSA reading (a superior performance) six months ago, decided she would rather return to class as she had a test for a teacher and didn’t want to have to make it up. The other thought staying would help her.

GOT had already identified these two the day before when he received the participant list. In talking with the school counselors, they couldn’t believe it. How does this happen? The data management system lags. All GOT could say was welcome to my world. I spend hours looking up history individual by individual because the data system lags. GOT refuses to pull students from class for a retake test when the student has already passed the test, but the system is faulty. (Hoo boy, another rant over.)

Unlike other testing or get-ready-for-testing activities, this one came with no training. Everyone at the school level was scrambling as they tried to figure out what they were supposed to do. All GOT knew was that he was told to proctor, which means he was the adult in the room to monitor behavior, and a spreadsheet that listed the participants and the website address they needed to log into the online activity.

Yes, you read that right. No one came to the school, no one conducted anything in-person, what we had was a glorified Zoom session (sorry, district, we are a Microsoft thrall, GOT should have said Teams.)

Once we moved beyond the problem of getting all the students into the online platform, a problem well known to every teacher who has to conduct online testing, we proceeded into the actual session. Since the students were to watch and listen to some dude ensconced in his office (never trust a Zoom/Teams background, he could have been in his bathroom and we wouldn’t have known,) they turned on their laptop’s speakers.

35 computers all playing sound, not totally in-sync because the network had trouble handling the load. GOT had to retrieve earbuds from his supply closet.

Could someone have told him in advance? Maybe, but that didn’t happen. The superintendent was at a conference, interacted with the vendor, and decided she had found the best thing since someone invented sliced bread. One pilot project later (and when it’s a pet project of a super, what staff is going to organize a pilot that will be anything but a resounding success?), and the endeavor was dropped on schools. Communication was lacking.

One of the school counselors who had come to see that everything got underway said to GOT, “You must be really frustrated.” GOT’s reply? “I’m not going to get frustrated. I was told to show up and I did. I’m here for the ride.”

That’s all anyone can do in these circumstances. Thrown off the dock into the deep water, swim as best one can, learn what needs to be done, and maybe the next time will be better.

Because there will be a next time. GOT learned we will do this every month, which creates another issue in that Spring always brings a crowded testing calendar.

Time for a tl;dr break. Part Two coming.

Stayin’ Alive

Every time you think the Brothers Gibb have finally passed from the scene, another classic song is remembered because it perfectly captures the times we live in.

The pandemic theme song for all who work or learn in a public school.

As the Omicron variant drives another surge in Covid-19 illness, reaching new highs daily, we who work in education keep looking for ways to stay alive. Just this week, Chicago teachers stayed home to force a switch to remote learning. The mayor and school system leaders met that move by locking them out of their online accounts.

New York City reopened with new protocols in place. With increased testing and revised quarantine rules, in which classroom children will be tested, not automatically sent home when a positive case is detected, officials believe they can, in the words of the new mayor, “normalize education” because “the virus is dictating that the safest place for children is in a school building.

Teachers in other places, like southern California, routinely discuss on social media the measures their school systems are taking or not taking. Teachers from all over the country report on the increasing absence rates. This past week, 25% or higher is typical in many places. Speculation is rife as to whether or when schools will be forced to remote learning because too few are able to be or allowed in the building.

Stayin’ alive. It’s on everyone’s mind because when people are told that Omicron is more mild, few ever explain what that really means. The World Health Organization notes that calling it milder is misleading as its higher contagion is causing higher numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. No studies exist (how could they?) as to the long-term effects of an Omicron infection.

But never mind all that. Florida, under the intrepid or clueless governor, Ron DeSantis, and its surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, have got this:

Schools will remain open even as they are unable to require vaccination, mandate mask-wearing, or take any other common-sense public health measure to mitigate the spread. DeSantis saw to that in November with a special legislative session to pass the desired laws.

Schools remain constrained in their ability to purchase needed PPE, address ventilation, and find ways to help children learn because the governor is sitting on the federal aid. The reason? We might need it later.

Oh, Florida, how do you stay alive? When the Penguin is your governor, the Joker is your state official in charge of public health, and the Catwoman is the spox defending it all, what do you do? The Bat-signal is broken.

Wear a mask, get a test, and physically distance as much as you can.

We’re stayin’ alive!

New Laws and Old

It’s a practice that goes on in various parts of the country: when a teacher is absent, they have to pay for the substitute. In North Carolina, a new law has taken effect for those days when a teacher needs to use their leave. It used to be that $50 (about half the cost) of a substitute would be deducted from their pay. Now, it seems that the reason for the absence will be reviewed and if it does not satisfy the administrator, the full cost of the substitute will be deducted.

Surely the legislators who enacted this new law had the best interests of teachers in mind. Ha, ha, haw! This is North Carolina, a Florida wannabee. No, to a certain mindset, a punitive measure will stop these teachers from taking off for all sorts of ridiculous situations, like a funeral, closing on a mortgage and a new house, and other life events that don’t conveniently schedule themselves for summer break.

“Teachers were taking sick days to do personal type items, to attend the funeral or sign paperwork. Really that’s not the purpose of a sick day,” NC House Rep. Jeffrey Elmore said.

–WGHP, Fox News 8, in the Piedmont, North Carolina

Mr. Elmore is apparently unaware that teachers bargain leave for both sick days and personal days. In Grumpy Old Teacher’s (GOT) district, we get 10 days of leave of which we may use 6 of those days for personal reasons. In addition, in the case of the death of a close relative (spouse, parent, child, sibling), we get two additional days of bereavement leave.

Lest Mr. Elmore think that teachers will abuse this, let it be known that teachers have to provide proof upon their submission of the leave form: an obituary, funeral service program, death certificate, etc.

But the new North Carolina law brings up an old law, a law as old as human civilization itself, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Consider:

  • Taking sick days for personal reasons: In other words, teachers need to lie on their leave forms. Instead of saying they were attending Grandma’s funeral, they have to say they had a 24-hour stomach virus. GOT is not saying teachers are devoid of moral character, but is taking note that the law sets up an incentive to lie.
  • If no sub was hired for the day, teachers will be refunded the amount: In other words, teachers should wait until the very last moment to put in a sub request. If they know they will be out a week ahead of time, the job is likely to be filled and they’re out $85 to $120 depending on their district’s pay schedule for subs. If they wait until the morning of the absence and put in a sub request about 7 AM, the chances of the job being filled are zilch and the teacher pays nothing. The end result? Few jobs being filled for the day and we know how disruptive that is to a school.
  • School districts find the law’s language vague: In other words, no one knows what to do. Some places will be okay; in others, it is an opportunity ripe for abuse as ultimately, it is principals who will make the decision. Hope you have a good one, teachers, one whose identity is that ‘I have your back’ rather than those whose administration philosophy is that of Yertle the Turtle.

This isn’t going to end well. But maybe that’s what Mr. Elmore and his legislative buddies intend. And THAT! is a pun intended.

What is Love?

It sparked a response. After some thought, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) decided not to embed the tweet. It’s not about who said it and firing off a snappy reply. It’s about the difficulty of reducing complex opinions into 140 characters. “If teachers don’t love their students they need to reevaluate themselves as teachers.”

A LOVE story for Valentine's Day: How Robert Indiana's sculpture (not statue)  came to symbolize Philadelphia - 6abc Philadelphia
What is Love? Easier to sculpt than define.

Some responses ran along the lines that love is for family and friends. Others talked about the need for boundaries, something GOT can agree with. Among the more cringe-worthy phrases for him is when teachers talk about their “babies,” because our students are not our babies. We did not conceive them, we did not nourish them and grow them in our bodies for nine months, and we did not go through the pain of childbirth to bring them into the world.

Yet others said that they cared about their students. Isn’t that the same as love? Maybe, maybe not. In the English language, we use the word love for multiple things, including emotion and procreative activity. If we say that teachers should love their students, what exactly are we saying?

To answer the question, GOT turned to a classic definition of love: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trust, always hopes, always perseveres. (The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, NIV translation.)

Certainly, the ideal teacher is one who is patient, kind, not easily angered, one who is not haughty and demanding obeisance from children (although good ones earn such respect.) Teachers do take pride in the accomplishments of their students, getting excited over those a-ha moments when students master a difficult skill or understand a difficult-for-them, new idea.

Teachers do report the happiness of the learning that takes place for their students, but they do not seek praise for themselves. That should not be mistaken that teachers should not be thanked; everyone deserves recognition and appreciation for the work that they do.

The lack of self-seeking does not equate to self-sacrificing. If the tweeter meant that teachers should be willing to give so much of themselves that they lose their health, sufficiency, and families, that is, if teachers are not willing to become martyrs who give all, then they should not be teachers, that is not love and those who suggest teachers should be martyrs should not themselves be among the ones doing the killing.

Do teachers love their students? They, along with schools, do keep records of wrongs known as parent contact logs when a phone call, email, or note home is sent to inform parents of misbehavior. If a series of behaviors continues to the writing of a discipline referral, those contacts must be documented showing that the teacher tried to resolve a problem before invoking an administrative consequence.

But perhaps the apostle meant that love does not hold past offenses against another, it carries no grudges, and it moves into a restoration of relationship. That too is a part of teaching. Those who think that ‘if only we could get rid of the bad kids, then we would be fine,’ are warned that even if a student goes to alternative school, they will come back. Teaching involves knowing a way to move forward, to always have hope.

Teachers protect their students. While we have school shootings on our minds, there is more to the job than knowing what to do during a drill or actual event. Children are seeking and growing, a process that involves vulnerability and risk. Teachers create safe places where students do not face ridicule or humiliation, places where they are willing to fail so that they may learn.

If this is what the tweeter meant by love, then GOT can agree that teaching involves love.

(But the second part of the tweet deserves its own response.)

Safe Schools

Sculpture by Manuel Oliver, father of Joaquin Oliver, a 17-year old student who died February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

TBH (to be honest,) when Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) first saw this image circulating on Twitter, his mind went back to the 1950s nuclear safety drills in which schoolchildren were told to huddle under their desks if the Soviet Union was attacking the United States with nuclear bombs.

Fortunately, those doomsday scenarios never came to be. We can’t say the same about mass homicide events on our campuses that take place every year.

The sculpture depicts the terror on a child’s face, desperately seeking cover and wanting to live. There’s a strong feeling of despair about it as if we will never know how to stop the mayhem … as if an Oxford, Michigan tragedy is coming to a school near you.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have yet to experience a true lone wolf who gives no signs, makes no drawings of violence, posts no warnings on social media … that’s the lesson we fail to acknowledge even as America’s premier security agency, the one that’s tasked to protect the president, studied school violence and issued their report. The updated version can be found here.

The Secret Service, which has prevented even an attempted assassination of a president since 1981, realized that their threat assessment techniques had wide application outside of their protective services. In particular, threat assessment works in detecting threats of school violence and preventing them.

As long as the adults carry through–

There is no profile for a perpetrator of violence or a school target. All kinds of schools have been threatened by all kinds of demographic categories. There is no one or two to watch out for.

Often, but not always, the perpetrator has grievances involving bulllying, neglect, or abuse that have gone unaddressed. Social stressors gathered in a cloud as the shooters experienced turmoil in their relationships.

All behaved in concerning ways leading up to their atrocities. Most of the time, the behavior is noted and the person involved communicates their intentions.

We CAN prevent these tragedies.

Threat Assessment Teams empowered to act before the threats manifest are one way.

Preventing access to weapons is another. America has a gun problem. It’s less about the right to bear arms than it is the right to RESPONSIBLY bear arms. Trigger locks, gun safes, unloading the ammunition and locking it in a separate place, and keeping the keys away from children would not only help to prevent school homicide but also the many tragedies that we read about every year when children play with loaded firearms.

A well-regulated militia … yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what the military does with soldier or sailor weapons? They lock them up. The officers keep the keys and only when the weapons are needed are they issued. In a war zone, of course the enlisted keep their arms about them. But other places? Nope, no weapons.

In civilian life, if no one had a gun, no one would need a gun. Don’t tell me about criminals–they get their weapons from legal, careless owners. There’s a reason GOT’s city issues a gun reminder at 9 PM every night: Secure your weapon. Lock it up, Lock your car.

You mean, GOT, it can be as easy as walking down a city street and searching unlocked vehicles?

Yes. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will tell you if you don’t want to believe GOT.

We did our monthly Code Red drill. GOT had a senior TA (teaching assistant) sitting by himself in the testing classroom because the senior’s teacher was absent. Immediately, when the call came, GOT jumped up from his office and went to the room. In a rare lapse, GOT forgot to put his mask. on. Even for a drill, there have to be priorities.

GOT was glad to see the senior had retreated to the hard corner of the room. But he didn’t know what else was needed: turn out the lights, cover the window, etc. GOT took care of that and moved into the hard corner himself.

After all, art is art and expresses deep emotions and great ideas, but when you scroll up to that sculpture, don’t you really want to say that this is one piece where art should not be life?

Gingerbread Crime Scenes

They were fantabulously wonderful! Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) received permission to share pictures and will insert a few below.

The Forensic Science teacher came up with a project for students to build gingerbread houses in which they could demonstrate everything they had learned across the Fall semester.

How do police forensic technicians and experts process a crime scene? How do they gather evidence? What are those little number markers used for? Why do they use the crime scene tape? What goes into a crime scene report? How strong a stomach do they need for such work?

Yeah, you could give a multiple-choice test, run the bubble sheets (Scantrons for insiders) through the machine, tap a few numbers into the online grade book, and call it a day. Quite boring for students whose response might be ‘O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! How I love to bubble ye!’

If you’re not laughing, you need to make the acquaintance of public school teachers.

Or, you could design a project that jaded teenagers could get excited about and throw themselves into.

That’s what happened when a science teacher at Grumpy Old Teacher’s (GOT) school decided to do something original. The students were to build gingerbread houses (very appropriate for the Christmas season) that a crime took place in or around, They had to create a scene that showed the police technician processing, take pictures, and write up a crime scene report for the teacher to grade.

Amazing work! As the teacher works through the projects, pictures, and reports, she gathers a much better understanding of what each student actually learned across 18 weeks (4 and a half months) than what a standardized test can deliver.

The students have a more accurate and discerning evaluation of their work. The feedback the teacher will give will be priceless.

A standardized test cannot do this. Why do we insist upon such nonsense? Short answer, because the politicians have convinced the public that teachers cannot be trusted for reasons that involve building politicians’ power and wealth.

So much more to say, but sometimes less is more. You get the point.

SWAT team if you’re wondering about the toy soldiers.

The PSAT Report

You have to hand it to the College Board. Given that colleges are giving up on SAT scores as a meaningful input into admission decisions, the College Board has worked to add value to the standardized testing it markets to high school students and their families as well as middle schoolers with the PSAT 8/9 test.

Ima B., an unfortunate choice for a student pseudonym.

If you want to see an upbeat, cheery-voiced video that promotes the wonders of the PSAT, you can watch it here.

If you’d rather have the executive summary to the blog post, it’s rather simple: the College Board understands that its target audience has changed and that to continue selling its products, it has to deliver a value-added model. (Pun intended!)

Paper reports are out. No more mail for you, eager students, you need to log into your College Board account and read it online. Most will because, just like teachers, even if they think the exercise pointless and stupid, they still want to see how they did.

The summary page delivers the number, the overall score that is a sum of the reading … oops, excuse Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT), the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score, which the College Board abbreviates as EBRW … and math scores. Those individual numbers are also given, and then the College Board adds detail. They show a range for the student because most students are taking a PSAT product multiple times, perhaps beginning in 8th grade, and continuing year after year until they move into the big time, the 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT that gives them the chance to qualify for a one-time freshman scholarship of $2,500.

Nothing to sneeze at, but it brings up collateral issues like many college scholarships are for the first year only, leaving a continuing sophomore scrambling to replace the funding, most of the time borrowing to finance the tuition. The scholarship is merit-based, which means the students who scored the highest and then went through a grueling application process to move from semi-finalist (score-based) to finalist (panel selected.)

About 16,000 are asked to apply, and that gets winnowed down to 8,000 finalists, and that gets winnowed down to about 3,000 winners. Lordy, lordy, what we put kids through even as we ignore the racial bias that has been present in the SAT from the beginning. Fellow blogger Steven Singer explains it well.

Let’s go back to the report. The PSAT gives the range in which a student has been scoring because they have been taking this test multiple times. The data point should drift upward because the reporting scales shift as well. From the PSAT 8/9 to the SAT, the min-max moves from 120-720 (PSAT 8/9) to 160-760 (PSAT 10 & PSAT/NMSQT) to 200-800 (SAT.)

Students are given a percentile rank, not based on actual test results, but based on research samples that attempt to fix how scores would look if all students at a given grade level took the PSAT.

With this information at hand, the score report now delivers a deep dive into … something. Students are given subscores and cross-scores that attempt to tell them their strengths and weaknesses and point them to areas of focus.

Students are prompted to connect their results to Khan Academy and spend their spare time practicing for the SAT. (Take that, Tik Tok!)

Students are given an analysis of which Advanced Placement (AP) exams/courses they would do well at and that they would … cough, cough, oh, I’m gonna do it … suck at.

Students can look at the College Board’s ideas about what majors they should decide upon and what careers would fit them.

Students can go back, read all the test questions, look at the answer choices presented, and see what they chose and what the correct answer is. Kudos, sincere kudos, to College Board for this one. They understand that test results are meaningless if no one can go back to the actual test and review the performance.

Looking at you, Pearson et al. Your cost-cutting secrecy over test questions makes annual state testing pointless. How is a teacher supposed to know what a Level 2 means without having access to the test and questions to pinpoint where a child struggled?

In GOT’s day, there was no advance warning. One day, we were marched to the cafeteria, sat down at the tables, and handed a test to take. GOT supposes he eventually got a piece of paper with the results, but no one ever talked about it or what it meant.

Now, we take a half-hour of the school day so all teachers could have students access their score reports, go over all the resources and value-added, online features, and encourage them to do what few kids ever do … study and practice on their own.

The College Board has taken a test and turned it into an experience. The effort could not have been cheap, but when the relevancy of one’s products is being questioned by the market, it’s time to pull the new, improved, advanced version off the shelf with slick sales pitches built-in–here are our AP tests you should take!

This points to the existential crisis for the College Board. How do they keep teenagers taking their tests? After all, would you voluntarily go take a driving test if your state didn’t require you to pass it before you can operate a motor vehicle on public roads? Somehow, GOT doesn’t think the promise that you would get a report identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a driver would motivate you.

The Meatgrinder

3 Best Manual Meat Grinder in 2021 - The Video Ink
Not making sausage, the usual reference to the legislative process.

We move through Hannukah, toward Christmas and Kwanzaa, and other winter holidays of major and minor religions. As the song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Maybe not for the students for whom we have once again set up the meatgrinder. The period between Thanksgiving and Winter Break is also the next testing window for those who have been unable to pass Florida’s arduous graduation bar known as the Algebra 1 End of Course exam.

It is time for testing. Time to remove from class those least able to miss it, the ones who struggle to understand mathematical principles and execute mathematical procedures, the ones ground down by the prospect of taking the test for a third, a fourth, maybe even a fifth time.

It is a daunting prospect. Those of us who turn the handle sometimes forget how the chunks of meat feel as they are pushed through the gears that disgorge them from the other end as sloppy strings of muscle and gristle.

Children internalize failure. “I failed” easily becomes “I am a failure.” Adolescents, intensely focused on their developing personalities, are prone to this type of thinking.

We see this inside the testing room. The thinking manifests itself in testing behaviors: students who blast through 34 algebra problems in 20 minutes or less, put their heads down, and go to sleep; students who stare at the screen immobile as they take large chunks of time to answer one question; students who never pick up their pencil and work out a solution on the work folder they are given–it all takes place in their heads even if they need to use the quadratic formula.

Quadratic Equations - Quadratic Equations How to Solve
Didn’t someone set this to music? Why yes, grasshopper, yes they did: https://youtu.be/E2eVZFy9yzk

The heartwrenching sight of teenagers sitting in a test room and the light goes out of their eyes as they despair of ever passing this test, which in Florida means they will not receive a diploma even when they complete high school … Florida hands them a participation trophy known as a Certificate of Completion. Thanks for playing, kid, better luck in your next life.

The fact is that a lot of young people do not test well. The fact is that many students, whose knowledge and competence their teachers will attest to, have too much trouble negotiating the test platform. They calculate correct answers, but they enter them wrong.

The fact is that many students understand the math, but the way the test presents the problems, the test is a foreign language they do not comprehend.

The most wonderful time of the year–bah, humbug! It’s the time of year when Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT), now tasked with coordinating all testing that goes on in his school except for IB, transmogrifies into Krampus, the Christmas demon. The one who steals the joy from the season with showers of coal.

(Although, given energy prices and fuel shortages these days, maybe we need to revise that cliche.)

But there are those moments when a teenager walks into the testing room to ask why they weren’t given a testing notice, why they weren’t included on the testing roster, and when they will test.

In the twinkling of an eyebeat, Krampus transmogrifies into Grumpy Old Santa, still grumpy but …

He looks up the PSAT score to be sure he will not say something wrong. “You did not pass the test in September, but you scored a 440 on the PSAT in October. That PSAT score is concordant, which means Florida accepts it as passing the Algebra 1 EOC. You are done. You do not need to test anymore.”

A wild flash of joy crosses the teen’s face. Elation! The skies have opened and the angels are singing. Christmas has come indeed, perhaps a few days early, but who’s complaining?

That is how you come to understand the deep and malevolent nature of the meatgrinder. The intense joy is born from the deep despair of someone who thought they would never make it.

GOT (Krampus, GOS, call him what you will) does not live for such moments. He lives for a time when such moments are no longer necessary, a time when the test has been burned in the fireplace to heat the schoolhouse and is no more.