Measuring Up

The statistics are public now.  The scores on the first Benchmark tests are online.  In the four Upper Elementary classes at Denison, there are approximately 48 fourth graders distributed equally among the classes, which also have fifth and sixth graders in their student populations.   The teachers looked at the performance of these new fourth graders as a cohort in order to ascertain the cumulative status or “state of preparedness” of the entire fourth grade.  Looking only at the Math scores on the first Benchmark test, there were 5 students among our 48  new fourth graders who scored “Proficient,” the rest divided among “Partially proficient” and “Unsatisfactory” scores.  None of those who scored Proficient is in my classroom.  All twelve of the fourth graders in my classroom, then, scored below the proficiency mark for beginning fourth grade students.  Beyond that fact, the fourth graders in the other three classes are pretty much the same, with 5 exceptions.

What does this mean?  First, it means that these fourth grade students’ math knowledge was measured by items drawn from the Everyday Math Curriculum that is used in almost all of the Denver Public Schools, but not ours—not “their” Montessori school.  Whatever they learned in their Lower Elementary class, where they spent three years using Montessori math materials, was not measured—or did not measure up to the district standards.    This is not surprising.  The sequence of math concepts in the Montessori curriculum is vastly different from traditional math programs.  There is, of course, a strong rationale behind the Montessori sequencing that differs fundamentally from the rationale of Everyday Math.

The next thing that these deficient scores of my fourth graders tell me is that as a teacher, I am being expected to jump-start a kind of rehabilitation program that will not only overcome existing deficits, but move the students quickly ahead to score proficiently at their grade level.   Anyone who has studied the learning curve of math understandings in a student of average intelligence knows that this is unrealistic—math concepts build slowly through multiple experiences, exercises and practice.  However, it is probably quite fair to say that many of the fourth graders under consideration are not of average intelligence.  Some have reading problems; quite a number of them have emotional and social problems related to family and personal idiosyncracies often associated with youngsters of the human species.   There is nothing “wrong” with these students.  They each bring to school a unique set of needs and abilities that challenge a teacher’s patience and understanding.  What is certain is that they will not all learn math in the same way; they will not move ahead in their construction of math concepts at the same speed.  They are NOT deficient or proficient.

But the statistics are in.  The fourth grade class at Denison is low-performing.  Unless there is a concentrated effort to individually tutor or otherwise coerce these students into understanding faster, the school’s rankings or ratings—their reputation for yearly academic progress—will embarrass the principal and possibly put our school program on someone’s list for possible extermination.

We all know this.  Some of us believe it more than others.  The principal is distributing colored graphs to show how Denison compares poorly with other schools, two of which are Montessori schools.  (One of them is only partially Montessori; the other barely Montessori, but both include the word in their official titles.)

The squeeze is on.  How can we push these children ahead, speed up their learning curves, apply pressure to make them perform better?

One idea, just barely launched at our school, is called “Rtl,” which is ” a process of ongoing assessment and immediate responsiveness to needs, where children have support before they have a chance to fail.”  “With a combination of ongoing data anlysis to inform academic and behavioral instruction and intervention, flexible use of building personnel with students and ongoing collaborative problem-solving among staff, parents, and students, all students’ performances can be maximized. ”  Furhter, it involves a “Core curricula,” (get rid of all the interesting “side” topics), and targeted interventions when students are not making adequate gains.  The Intensive Level intervention increases resources, time and intensity to accelerate student response.”

If this does not read “Hurry Up!,” it says even worse things about the classroom:  ” Teachers can’t be trusted to provide appropriate instruction for different kinds of children.  More assesssment and more analysis of scores will target children’s weaknesses and then more adults will get involved to push them ahead to score higher on the measures deemed valid? or reliable? for measuring academic progress.”

The initial document that explains the Rtl approach is 6 pages of flow charts, each one a little more complex and inscrutable than the last.   Rtl stands for “Response to Learning.”  The document also includes “ILP,” “CBM,” “BOE,” and “SIT.”  I shall reveal the meanings of these acronyms when I am clear on their meanings.   You, dear reader, must surely be eager to know what they mean and how they will advance the case.

What is clear to me is that the idea of “teacher-proofing” the classroom is alive and well.  Teachers “teaching to the test” will be rewarded.  “Gaming the system” to raise scores in the right places in order to make AYP targets is not just okay; it is encouraged, ubiquitous.  Civil rights are being violated:  what if you score in the “proficient” zone?  Will you get equal attention from all the professionals around you trying to speed up those in the unsatisfactory and non-proficient categories?  No.  You are on your own.  Your teacher is busy assessing deficiencies and designing interventions that will speed the non-proficients into a higher zone of performance.   Will that learning be lasting?  Will that hurry-up increase the intelligence, the problem-solving abilities of future workers and citizens?  I doubt it.

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