Apr 29, 2009

CAHSEE Schmahsee.

I'm dating myself, but I was actually part of the first graduating class that the Big Guy and his constituents decided would use as Exhibit A for the California High School Exit Exam. That's the Class of 2006.

I remember leaving the test site as a 15-year-old sophomore thinking, "that's all that the state wants me to know in order to graduate?" My teachers did little to prepare us for the test because none of us really knew what to expect. Turns out, all we needed to know was 8th-grade math and reading/writing.

Fast forward five years: I'm in high school yet again, this time preparing a 10th grade algebra student, S, for her upcoming CAHSEE. By the end the class period, I remained in my seat, my head in my hands, dazed and exhausted.

I'll get back to this in a bit, but first I want to write about a talk that I attended this afternoon. It was held at UC Berkeley by a Professor Emerita of Education, Lily Wong Fillmore.

"The CAHSEE is easy," she began. "The CAHSEE is supposed to set the bottom line in order to graduate... it is comprised of two sections: language arts and math."

Easy? I spent this entire semester learning about shortcomings and unfairness of standardized testing, tutoring (and failed at tutoring) kids on standardized testing, and here, a professor stood before me saying that the CAHSEE is too easy?

She then handed out released test questions from both the CAHSEE and the state test issued to high school students in New York. Apparently, the New York Regents require that their students pass exams which tests knowledge in five subjects: math, science, U.S. history, world history, and comprehensive English.

We compared sample questions from California and New York. For comprehensive reading, we found that California tests used narratives while New York tests used expository texts. See here for NY's sample test questions (CA's was not as easy to track down, but here's one sample).

Basically, it boils down to this -- New York exam: Difficult. Appropriate for high school. California exam: Not so Difficult. Appropriate for middle school.

Regardless of where a student’s home state sets the bar, S was not able to complete or comprehend a single problem from the bank of practice questions. She was frustrated because she felt that she didn't know anything. I was frustrated because the questions were complex and multi-step, meaning although she knew enough math to get her through the first half of the problem, she did not know enough math to get her a right answer. In other cases, the math problems were too wordy; she couldn’t understand what the test was asking of her.

I felt bad for S. What was she going to do? I was pretty confident that she was going to get a big, fat zero on the test that was coming up in a few days. There wasn’t enough time to cover everything that she would need to know for the test. After she takes the test, she will forget about it and go on with schooling for the next year until it’s time to retake the very same test. Who is going to teach her eight grade math and language arts by then?

The kicker: after I took the CAHSEE back in 2004, I received a letter in the mail informing me that I did not pass the test and that I would not graduate high school until I retook and passed the exam. It turns out there was some kind of administrative mistake in the mail room, and they accidently sent that letter to me and all of my classmates.


Kate Nowak said...

I'm sad that someone somewhere is using the NYS Regents as an example of what to do.

They might be more difficult than your tests, but do you know how low they have to cut off the passing grade? Last year on the Integrated Algebra exam, a student could pass with something like a 38%. Observe my comments on last year's conversion chart.The breadth of topics they test is ridiculous. The NY math curriculum is the DEFINITION of "mile wide, inch deep", which even NCTM has come to admit is a bad way to learn math.

The math tests require too much reading. They are just as much reading comprehension tests as math tests.

On thing they do right, for a standardized test, is that each question is tied to only one performance indicator. There is very little "you did half the problem right, but didn't know enough math to finish it, so you get the wrong answer".

Scout said...

haha! I misread "I'm dating myself" as "I'm my own significant other"

wow. one track mind 'o mine.

Anonymous said...

The problem isn't the tests. The problems start LONG before the tests. The schools are failing the kids.

I have a son in special education and I fought tooth and nail against his teachers doing things like allowing the kids to keep multiplication charts on their desks instead of having the kids do the math in their own heads/on their own papers.

(On a side note, it saddens me to see this shortcut mentality making its way in the English language. You ever notice how, when someone misspells something, people will admonish them by saying, "Don't you know how to use spell check?". Well, the fact is that people should know how to spell and should never have to refer to a spell checker.)

My son has a speech impediment which causes him to mispronounce words that end in "th", pronouncing them with an "f" (such as "tooth"). When I asked if the speech therapist would be working with my son to rectify the situation, I was told that it was a"cultural" thing that would not be addressed (you now know that I am Black).

I had to remind the school staff that I am educated and well-spoken, and so is everyone else they met (my other child, my father, my siblings). This was NOT a "cultural" thing but a speech impediment thing. I had to fight them in order to get them to agree to work on the problem.

I've also noticed that many teachers are in need of additional education. I can't tell you how many times I've seen things written on classroom chalk boards and in letters sent home with grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors. Yet these people are expected to pass knowledge on to our kids.

I had to supplement the materials my kids received with lessons of my own. My son with disabilities continues to struggle (which is expected), but my other child was able to score at college-level English when he took the assessment at the local community college. This was in grade 9. He took courses at the community college from grade 10 and maintained an A average, all while continuing full time at his high school.

The graduating seniors visit the college and take the assessments at the end of their senior year. In contrast to my son, the majority of them test in junior high-level English and math. I know this because I worked at the community college. My son hated all the extra work I gave him along the way but, once he went to college and saw how far behind his classmates were, he was grateful for my efforts.

As I said, the schools are failing the kids and that failure starts pretty much upon the start of Kindergarten. The system is defunct. it needs to be totally revamped.

I'm done ranting now.

Anonymous said...

The true problem with this test is that a test made to see if a 12th grade high school student can get out of high school is approximately at 8th grade standards. This test does not test to see if a person learned anything in school, but rather, learned the basics.

How is it that most students pass this test in their sophomore year if it is needed to exit college after four years. what happened if someone tries to make standards according to what they should know?

the answer to that is nothing. if we raise standards, we have to start with 1st and 2nd grade, bringing a government sponsored test to each grade level to pass, not basing it on a biased teachers who could change grades to get rid of a kid. if there were requirements for each grade, I believe it would awake the students that they actually will need to apply themselves to the school they attend.

Our country needs more discipline, yet all we seem to do is spoil the generation. to be honest, this is all the government's fault, for caring more about votes then actually helping the country, that's how we go to place where we are now.