Friday, May 20, 2011

In which I confess my secret

(This entry is about one of my major failings as a teacher. I assure you that I am not fishing for compliments or anything from the community here--just needing to get it off my chest.)

It's finals week at our school and this brings up one of the most shameful aspects of my classroom.

My students consistently do poorly on standardized tests.

The two sections of precalculus that I teach have, in local lingo, Common Course Exams. The district writes the exams for all precalculus students in the county to take and this counts as the final exam for every precalculus course (no curve). It consists of 50 multiple choice questions and we teachers are not meant to look at it until we are handing it out to students to take.

This year, my averages were 41% (high of 74%; 21 students took the exam) and 45% (high of 70%; 19 students took the exam) for the two sections I teach.

The issue doesn't just start there, though. For other courses I've taught with these CCEs in the past, the same issue has arisen. And most ashamedly, in my students' AP scores. Last year, for example, not a single one of my 19 Calculus AB kids passed with a 3 or better on the AP exam.

What makes me feel worst about this is that I don't know why this is an issue for my classes.

I have a list of excuses below, but ultimately I feel like I am: 1. Misrepresented by the data (which has cost me the chance to teach calculus next year since the principal is not happy with the scores from my previous classes) and B. Letting down the students who do seem to be trying.

Some excuses:
  1. I do not get to see the exam before it is given, so I cannot easily prepare students for what is expected
  2. I teach mostly seniors, so many of them are not focused at the end of the year
  3. At our school, seniors can be exempt from the final exam if they: A. Have an A in the class and B. Have not missed more than 6 days of school. This will bring down my class averages since the best students will not be taking the exam.
  4. Alternatively, students may be exempt from the final exam if they take the AP exam (regardless of how seriously or whether they are seniors or what their grade is in the class or attendance). This artificially lowers my AP scores since many students (who admit it before going in) will sign up to take the AP exam just so they can be exempt from the class exam.
  5. Many students who are already failing in my class have just "given up" on the class and do not even attempt the exam. Still others play the numbers game and calculate things like, "I can still pass the class (or maintain a B) if I get a 25% on the exam."
  6. The exam was 50 multiple choice (4 choices) questions to be finished in 2 hours. Every question missed lowers the grade by 2%, so to get an A, for example, you can only miss 4 questions.
  7. The same CCE is given to both honors and standard levels. What's more, the exam was written by 3 teachers who have exclusively honors level classes. I teach all of the standard level classes at our school. The honors teacher had an average of 66% (high of 86%)

Rebuttals to excuses above:
  1. This is an issue for every teacher and not all are having the same results as myself.
  2. This, too, is not specific to my classes. Also, if the students know the material well enough, this shouldn't be a very big issue
  3. In the class with the 45% average, I had at least 4 juniors with an A in the class who were not exempt.
  4. This is a big issue and a problem I have with our district's policy. It still does not account for all students and having none pass last year is abysmal.
  5. This does not account for all students, and I know many of them worked hard to review and of the 2 hour exam, most took at least 80 minutes, so they thought about it some.
  6. Most students took between 80 and 110 minutes to finish the exam. Nobody was still working at the bell, so time did not seem like a true issue (although they may have been watching the clock and gave up a few minutes early).
  7. We are still in the middle of exams, so I don't know what other numbers from the county may be like. The honors teacher's numbers seem more reasonably explained by these excuses than my own.

So, I don't know what to do about this. Whenever I get results like these back (which is too often), I get depressed and want to give it up. Not teaching, because I couldn't give that up, but maybe these "new fangled methods." If I'm going to be judged on standardized tests, maybe I should go with the tried-and-true methods of drilling homework for grades and a standard quiz/test system that gives students one high-stakes chance to get it right.

I don't know. I'll have all summer to get over it (until AP scores come in, I guess) and should come back around. I know my students know the material. They have it mastered from what I can tell in class, but they can not show it when the data counts. I took it as flukes the first couple years of this happening, but now it has become a pattern.

Altruistically, I know my students are learning and enjoying learning. They master all of the skills on the curriculum and then some. They are challenged and enjoy me as a teacher. An interview with ANY of my students (even those who gave up on the class and failed) would let you know what kind of teacher I am. Ultimately, they learn and that's what counts. I just hate that I may end up a martyr for it.


  1. First off, I commend your braveness. Not easy to put things like this out there in a public forum. Also, know you're not alone. I have my own list of reasons/excuses for why my students don't do as well on standardized timed tests (especially ones that predominantly assess procedural skills).

    Ok, enough with the compliments. :)

    A few questions...
    1. Do you "believe" in the exam? In other words, do you look at the questions and think "Yeah, my students should be able to answer that correctly." "Yeah, these are skills/concepts that I think are important."
    2. Are there things you're teaching that you think are important that don't show up on the exam (skills, concepts, habits, attitudes)? While it may not be possible to change the district wide exam, would it be helpful for you to get some feedback on whether or not your meeting these goals.
    3. Are you able to read into the data at all and see if there are particular skills/concepts that kids aren't doing well on across the board?
    4. How much practice do the students get with things that are formatted like the test? How careful are you to use the same vocabulary, notation, etc. This is something I'm not very good at (partially by accident and partially on purpose). Unfortunately, just the act of taking 5 practice AP tests will probably help students on the AP even if it doesn't lead to any additional understanding.
    5. What kind of culture is there around these tests? Is the AP "the big game" where students will spend hours and hours cramming for? Is there a different culture in your classroom than other classrooms in the district?

  2. 1. I took the exam today along with the students. It was all stuff they knew at one point and should have been able to do. I don't know that I think all the skills are important, but they are all ones we had worked through previously and they knew.

    2. I am definitely teaching more problem solving than was on the exam. The exam was almost entirely the standard math exam where you are given a lot of problems to solve/evaluate.

    3. I have not looked into this year's data analysis yet.

    4. For the AP exam, I do give more than a few practice AP exams and mix in free response questions with my own quizes/tests. I do not, however do much multiple choice in either class. That may be something I could try to improve their test-taking skills, but I don't think it would significantly increase their learning of nor my assessment of the content.

    5. This school definitely has the worst cases of "senioritis" that I've ever witnessed. It's taken as almost an "earned right" that they can mentally check out for the last 5 weeks of school. As an anecdotal example, this year, a girl walked out of the AP Calc exam at the break and never came back (invalidating her score) and at the AP Bio exam, a couple kids spent the entire time making noises and tossing a pen back and forth which may or may not invalidate the entire room's scores. That being said, there are a handful in each class that take it very seriously. Many of the students at our school need scholarships to get through college and risk losing those by bringing their GPA too low and others just genuinely want to perform well on the AP exam.

  3. Sounds eerily familiar to my AP class. What a shit show that turned out to be.

    Ugh. I just typed and deleted a couple major rants. Just know that there are plenty of others out there with you.

  4. FWIW, these sound more like explanations than excuses to me.

    A couple of thoughts:

    One of our dirty little secrets that bears mentioning is that there will always be a trade-off when we divert class time towards problem-solving and away from procedural practice. If anybody figures out how to cram more time into the time we get on this earth, I'd love to hear about it. Alternatively, if anybody knows where I can get a working time machine cheap...

    I also think Avery's questions are really useful (but that was predictable).

    I would also like to know how the students from the classes of the designing teachers do on these tests as compared with your students. Given all the above-mentioned constraints, are their classes *really* scoring any better than your students?

    - Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)