Sliding Scores

I don’t think standardized tests should be the be-all and end-all in terms of measuring an individual student’s knowledge or preparedness, but when the overall average scores on standardized tests start to reveal long-term trends, we might want to start paying attention.

boy-in-classroom-articleThat’s why the ACT’s announcement earlier this week about a significant slide in college readiness — based on testing of more than 1.9 million high school graduates, which amounts to more than half of the 2018 American high school graduates — should be a cause for concern.  According to the ACT, the “percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math—suggesting they are ready to succeed in a first-year college algebra class—fell to its lowest level since 2004” and “students’ average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years—down to 20.5 (on a scale of 1 to 36), continuing a slide from 21.1 in 2012 to 20.7 last year.”  Readiness in English, reading ability, and science also declined.

Even worse, the ACT announced that “[a] growing percentage of students are falling at the bottom of the preparedness scale,” with 35 percent of 2018 graduates met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks — which means they are likely to struggle in math, reading, English, and science as they move on to college.

It’s hard to tell how well our public schools are doing at preparing kids for college, but falling average test scores are a pretty compelling indication that things aren’t moving in the right direction.  We should once again be taking a careful look at what our public schools are teaching, and how.  If we aren’t teaching our kids what they need to know to live productive lives, we’re failing them — and failing the country.  For years now, people have been talking about how the jobs of the future are going to exist in technology-related fields.  Who is going to fill those jobs and allow America to compete globally if our kids can’t read or do math and science?

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36

Today, Kish and I celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary.  On April 3, 1982, on a cold, snowy, blustery day in Vermilion, Ohio, we exchanged our vows, walked down the aisle, and began our married life together.

36-birthday-istockAt first blush, 36 doesn’t seem like a special enough number for such a special day.  After all, it’s just one of those even numbers that you zip right past if you are counting up to 100.  But if you delve into it, 36 is a pretty interesting number.  It’s the product of two prime numbers multiplied together (2 x 2 x 3 x 3), and it’s the sum of two prime numbers, too (17+19).  It’s a perfect square number, with a square root of 6.  It’s also a triangular number, which refers to the number of dots you need to form a triangle with six dots to a side, and a circular number, which refers to a square number whose last digit corresponds to the square (i.e., 6 x 6 = 36).  So, if you were a hopeless math geek, you’d celebrate 36 as a special number that is a square, a triangle, and a circle, all at the same time.

But the specialness of 36 doesn’t stop there.  A perfect score on the ACT is 36.  There are 36 inches in a yard.  The atomic weight of krypton is 36.  In Judaism, Maori legend, and Shaivism, the number 36 crops up as a number of significance.  And 36 also is important in games of chance.  The number of different possible outcomes if you roll two dice is 36, and 36 is the highest number on a roulette wheel.

So 36 is, in fact, a number with a lot to recommend it.  When you think about it, it’s a pretty apt number to commemorate the day when Kish took a gamble on getting married to a guy like me.

Should We Show The Door To Common Core?

These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration.  One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards.  In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core.  This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.

The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states.  Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them.  Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.

Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s.  At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.

With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process.  I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school.  Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core.  One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems.  When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said:  “Mom, we don’t do it that way!”  The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change.  NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.

I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond.  Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy.  Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it?  Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?

A House Divided On President Clinton’s Speech

The Webner House was a house divided last night after President Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen President Clinton giving a speech on the national stage, but he hasn’t changed much.  He still has that crinkly voice, the habit of starting every second sentence with “Now” or “Look” or “This is important,” and the finger-wagging and finger-pointing.  He still exudes a kind of roguish folksiness.

Kish thought President Clinton knocked it out of the park with his vigorous defense of President Obama’s performance and critique of the Republicans.  I thought the speech was too long and too unfocused, flitting from topic to topic on hummingbird’s wings without establishing any kind of theme, and not very convincing besides.

Consider President Clinton’s point on gas costs.  He said we should be grateful that the Obama Administration has issued regulations that will require cars to be twice as fuel-efficient in the future, saying that means we’ll be paying half as much for gas because we’ll be driving cars that need only half as much gas.  The problem with that argument is that the federal government has been issuing fuel-efficiency regulations for years, yet our costs increase because the rising price of gasoline outstrips any fuel-efficiency savings.  Is any American paying less for gas these days than they did, say, in 1994?  And, of course, President Clinton only focused on the cost of gas, and not the cost of the car.  How much will it cost to buy a car that meets the new standards? How many people will be able to afford them, and how many of the cars — like the Chevy Volt — will need to be sold with a government subsidy to even approach the range of affordability?

I also was struck by President Clinton’s point that the big difference between his tenure and now could be summarized in one word:  arithmetic.  He argued that Republican proposals don’t add up.  The use of “arithmetic” is interesting because a popular t-shirt in Republican circles these days is a play on the famous 2008 Obama “hope” poster; it features a silk screen of Paul Ryan with the word “Math.”  Republicans argue that it is President Obama’s budget proposals that violate basic principles of mathematics and are based on phony “savings” and overly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.  Is President Obama well-suited to attack Republican arithmetic when he has presided over a series of years that have produced trillion-dollar deficits, and his own budgets forecast enormous deficits for the foreseeable future?

Finally, President Clinton argued that no President, including Clinton himself, could have fixed the problems President Obama inherited in only four years.  The fundamental premise in that argument, of course, is that President Obama hasn’t repaired the damage in four years.  Even if you accept that conditions when President Obama took office were historically unprecedented, the problem is that President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other members of the Administration confidently predicted that the problems would be fixed and that the economy would be roaring ahead at this point.  Obviously, that hasn’t happened.  Some Americans may pause to wonder why we should reelect someone who hasn’t delivered on his assurances and now is saying that the job was tougher than he led us to believe.