Tuesday, July 27, 2010

California could adopt national English, math standards

The moves below are all well and good but the fallacy is the "one size fits all" approach. Less bright students probably need a more drill-oriented approach while others do not. The deplorable final standards achieved by many students could probably be significantly remediated by a more drill-oriented approach. It worked in the past

Think of what you've read in recent days, and the list might include a Facebook post about a friend's Grand Tetons vacation, an online review of the Droid X phone and an explanation of why your insurance isn't covering your latest doctor's visit.

Yet children in school read mostly fiction, from "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to "Macbeth."

In a few years, K-12 students' reading lists may expand to include more of that other stuff: more multimedia texts, scientific and technical articles, persuasive arguments and other nonfiction — and fewer storybooks and novels.

On Aug. 2, the state Board of Education will consider this major shift in how California's public schools teach reading when it votes on a controversial set of national Common Core Standards. If proponents prevail, California will join the majority of states in adopting the first nationwide standards for public education.

The goal in adding informational texts to the English-language standards is to prepare students for real-world reading, to use other courses such as science to teach reading, and to improve literacy and comprehension.

Although California standards currently include nonfiction — by 10th grade, for example, students are supposed to be able to analyze some workplace documents — the proposed standards progressively shift the focus.

"By grade 12, it's closer to 50-50" literature and information, said Gregory Geeting, a Sacramento County school board member and chairman of the state's 21-member California State Academic Content Standards Commission that this month recommended the standards.

If the state Board of Education approves the Common Core Standards, it likely will be several years before new curriculum will appear in classrooms and on state tests.

But particularly at a time of budget distress, why would California rewrite its 1997 standards and embark on an expensive venture to redo curriculum? For one, meeting next month's deadline will strengthen the state's résumé to compete for federal stimulus funds known as Race to the Top.

Still, some say California's current standards are just fine. A new study by the Thomas Fordham Institute said California standards already deserve an "A," ranking among the most rigorous in the nation.

But those stellar standards have failed to produce stellar students. California pupils languish near the bottom on national comparison tests.

One theory is that "California standards seem to be a mile wide and an inch deep," said Kathy Harris, a Santa Rosa teacher and member of the state commission that reviewed them.

California children are adept at learning grade-by-grade skills but don't master them, she said. In reading, for example, they focus on phonics, word recognition and other discrete skills, but not on comprehension. "They start to falter pretty much as soon as comprehension is addressed" in higher grades, she said.

And it's the same in math, as kids power through fractions and then decimals, but too often arrive in middle school without a solid footing in either. The Common Core Standards simplify standards and deepen learning at each grade level so students have more time to nail and to apply other new concepts.

Studies have shown that teaching reading through subjects such as science or social studies can be more effective partly because they reinforce words.

"In a book about electricity, you're going to see the word 'electricity' 15 times. Informational texts are a terrific way for kids to learn reading and vocabulary," said Jacqueline Barber, associate director of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and codirector of a science-literacy project.

The Common Core Standards will likely involve science and social studies teachers at all levels in teaching literacy rather than just content. Experts believe this will help address a problem reflected in another dismal statistic: about 60 percent of California State University freshmen last year needed either remedial English or math or both. As Harris put it, "They know what mitosis is, but they get into college and can't read the text."

While perhaps the most visible shift in the curriculum will come in English, the most heated debate on the commission focused on math. The commission ended up tacking on California's requirement for eighth-grade algebra to the Common Core's regimen that allows students to take the course in the ninth grade.

That means that the K-7 curriculum will prepare students for eighth-grade algebra, but those students who still aren't ready may take some pre-algebra in eighth grade. In effect, the state will no longer insist that every California student take algebra by eighth grade.

Williamson Evers, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a commission member, voted against the math standards. "This will have the effect of destroying the algebra in eighth grade program as we have known it," he said.

Literature advocates were less vociferous. But those concerned about the Great Books losing out to iPhone diagrams in the high school curriculum shouldn't worry, commission members said.

The standards still are more focused on preparation for college rather than the workplace, said Kenji Hakuta, a member of the national committee reviewing the proposal. "There's a very thin representation of auto-repair manuals in the Common Core."


More private universities for Britain

The pronouncement by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, that the UK should have more private universities is very welcome.

He has also confirmed that BPP, the business and law college, has been granted ‘university college’ status, the first such award for 34 years. Of course, BPP is very different from a conventional redbrick university but it shows that new thinking is afoot in higher education.

Currently, the UK’s only private university is at Buckingham, which first admitted a small student body – less than 70 – in 1976. Ironically, given today’s severe financial constrains, it was also set up during a period of real economic stringency – 1976 was the year of Britain’s infamous loan from the IMF. Moreover, at that time, there was genuine hostility, especially within the higher education system, towards a new private university.

In the subsequent 34 years, the University of Buckingham has prospered, with a student base almost 1,000 strong, recruited mostly from overseas.

The Buckingham experience provides three crucial lessons for any putative investor in a new public university.

First, Buckingham has specialised in offering the cheaper undergraduate courses – law, economics, politics, history, languages etc. Until relatively recently, there were few courses in the more expensive science-based subjects.

Secondly, the attraction of two-year courses is compelling. Most university courses elsewhere are longer, albeit with extended holidays – hence, a major cost for taxpayers.

Thirdly, the availability of substantial rental accommodation is key to boosting financial returns, since it markedly reduces the marginal cost per student. New universities generally need either expensive on-site accommodation or rely on rental properties in nearby suburbs.

Willetts is hoping interested parties will come forward. But will they?


One in five British grade-school exam results is incorrect, say exam watchdogs

Exam results could soon come with warnings that the grades may not be accurate. The move is being considered after exam watchdogs said as many as one in five children is given incorrect SATs marks.

A report from Ofqual revealed that 17.4 per cent of grades awarded in English reading tests could be wrong because of inconsistencies in marking and flaws in the test design.

But the findings will shake confidence in SATs in the week before national results are issued. Pupils received their grades this month. Ofqual is considering issuing cigarette packet-style health warnings alongside results in SATs, GCSEs and A-levels to serve as a reminder that grades cannot be totally accurate.

Meanwhile, teaching unions called on ministers to consign SATs ‘to the dustbin of history’ because it was ‘highly dangerous’ to rely on the results. The findings will strengthen their resolve to stage a repeat of the testing boycott that saw 25 per cent fewer pupils take SATs this summer. The tests are supposed to be taken by all 11-year-olds in maths and English.

According to a report issued yesterday, 1,387 pupils who sat a sample reading test in 2007 had only an 82.6 per cent chance of being graded correctly.

The accuracy of the grading was measured by analysing the given result using a series of statistical formulae.

The chances of receiving an incorrect grade were substantially higher for pupils on the borderline between grades.

Pupils on the line between levels two and three, for example, had only a 37 per cent chance of being given the right level, it emerged. If these pupils were to have taken another similar but completely reliable test, 63 per cent would have been given a higher level.

Further analysis showed that only 70 per cent of the 1,387 pupils who took the English reading test achieved the same grade when they took a separate but similar test. Reading test results are combined with writing to give an overall English mark.

Teachers fear that the results for writing are even more variable than reading. Maths is less vulnerable to marker error.

Ofqual suggested that, in future, grades in public exams could be accompanied by figures giving an idea of the likely inaccuracies involved.

This practice was already widespread in the U.S, it said. The watchdog is looking at grade accuracy in GCSEs and A-levels as part of an ongoing study into the robustness of exams.

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: ‘The Government would be incredibly foolish to continue to keep its head in the sand and ignore this.’


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