Putting Education Reform To The Test

The New SAT Is Coming Soon

SAT pic

Like many parents of high school juniors, I’m getting anxious about upcoming college applications and what it’ll take to get in, such as doing well on the SAT. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the College Board, creator of the SAT,  is debuting a new test in March and these are the first changes in more than a decade.

But I’m not sure my son Daniel is worried about it enough!  He’s a student at Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland, and he was doing homework in front of the television when I decided to speak to him about what he’s doing to prepare for the entrance exams.

Me:  “Alright, I think you should turn the football off.”
Daniel: “I think I can just do both, because it’s the pro bowl….I’ll mute it!”
Me: “But don’t you think you should get serious about studying for the SAT?”
Daniel: “I AM serious about studying for the SAT.”
Me: “How?”
Daniel: “I have an app.”

His app is called “Daily Practice for the new SAT.”  It’s put out by the College Board, and a company called Khan Academy. The College Board has contracted with Khan Academy to provide SAT test preparation to anyone, online, free of charge. That’s something new, and it’s an attempt to level the playing field between families that can afford to hire expensive testing tutors — and those who can’t.

I’ve heard several counselors say the Khan Academy prep is very good. But wouldn’t face to face coaching be even better? I thought I needed to talk to a highly regarded testing tutor in St. Petersburg, and see what he said about the revamped SAT.

Richard Estren has been preparing students for these tests for around 25 years. Among the many postcards tacked on his wall, I saw a graduation announcement for Stanford, one of  several of his students that he said was admitted to that elite school.

One reason that the College Board is making changes to the SAT, said Estren and others I’ve talked to, is because the other college entrance test, the ACT, has been taking over the market share in the past few years. In response,the new SAT is taking its cue from the ACT in its changes, and becoming more aligned with what kids should be learning in class, including common core standards.

One of those big changes on the way is those esoteric SAT words, like “lachrymose” or  “raconteur,” going away in favor of more commonly used words. There’s no penalty for guessing now. Also, the essay is becoming optional.

Reading passages — not just math sections — will include charts and graphs to interpret.

“I’m guarded about the new SAT,” Estren said. “I think it will be harder for many students. It’s going a little more analytical in its approach. They’re raising the bar, they’re raising the bar. And that’s okay, I just don’t think a lot of students are quite ready for that yet.”

Estren said he’s advising kids to skip the March SAT and wait for later sittings,or just stick with the ACT. But he said the College Board did a “great thing” by providing free Khan Academy training to any students that want it.

The key, he said, is what he calls “P3.”  Practice, practice practice.

I asked my son Daniel about that. He said so far he’s just been trying to keep up with his schoolwork, sports and extra-curricular activities.

Me: “So you mean you feel like there’s not a lot of time to  study for these tests, is that what you’re saying?”
Daniel:  “I pay a lot of attention to my classes. So I guess I haven’t paid attention a lot to the SAT or ACT. I try not to be overwhelmed about it.”

Oh, well. Maybe Daniel is right not too stress over the tests so much. He’s a good student, and he’ll be fine. Estren said he has faith that most  students wind up where they belong. And anyway, at last count, almost 900 colleges are making the tests optional for admission.

The Anemic State of High School Physics in Florida

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Robin Sussingham

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Physics is the most  fundamental of sciences; it’s an essential stepping stone for  careers in engineering or science. But around the country, fewer than 40 percent of high school students take a physics class. In Florida , that number is much lower — only about a quarter of high school students take physics. Experts say that the trend affects the future earning potential of the state’s students.

Alan Kramer is a fifth year graduate student in physics at the University of South Florida. He’s working in his Tampa lab, which is noisy with the sound of a cryo pump.

“It’s an air conditioner,” he explains, “but instead of using refrigerant, we use helium so we can get the contents of this ultra high vacuum chamber down to around 10 Kelvin or so, which is close to the limit of being cold.”

He’s studying what happens at the atomic level on the surface of solid materials. Besides his research, he teaches undergraduates, and says “what they gain by coming out of a physics class is thinking rationally.”

Kramer says he’s very aware of the importance of a high school physics education, because he once taught it. He taught high school physics in New Jersey, but in Florida, could only find openings for teachers for introductory classes in general science.

Instead, he taught high-level math classes briefly in Sarasota County. When he lost his job in a round of teacher layoffs, he says, he took the opportunity to get his doctorate.

High school physics classes in Sarasota County are hard to come by.  According to data collected by Florida State University Physics Professor Paul Cottle, only about 20 percent of students in that county take the class.

In the state overall, that number is about 25 percent.  And Cottle says, in comparison with the rest of the country, “that’s a third fewer students that have the door opened to the kind of opportunity in physics and engineering careers.”

But even these low physics enrollment numbers don’t illustrate the real extent of the problem, because only a fraction of the existing physics classes are being taught by a qualified teacher.

Cottle says Florida does fine in other STEM classes, like math or chemistry.

“It’s physics which is the science course where we really seem to have gotten stuck,” he said. “It’s a course where you really need a teacher that understands a difficult subject and we have difficulty getting teachers.”

Cottle is active in the effort to get more Florida high school students into physics classes, and he keeps track of how many students are taking physics in all of the state’s 67 school districts.

“There are a lot of rural districts that aren’t offering physics at all,” he says. “You can kind of understand that…These are small districts and have had trouble justifying a physics teacher … But then you see counties that are good size,  and you have to wonder that they’re thinking.”

Counties like Citrus, Pasco and Osceola have only around 5 to 10 percent enrollment. He says the education gatekeepers just don’t get it.

“Administrators and principals and parents don’t really understand how important courses like physics are to the future of their students,” he said.

Important, Cottle says, for social mobility, because physics is also required for the lucrative engineering or science careers that have historically provided a way out of poverty.

If students want to take that path, they’ll need college physics.

“About a quarter of the engineering majors who arrive at Florida State (University) have not taken a physics course in high school,” Cottle said. “That’s a real problem for them. That leaves them way behind.”

Cottle says it will continue to be difficult to recruit good high school physics teachers as long as the pay is so much lower than what they can make outside of education.

And as former physics teacher and current grad student Alan Kramer says, ”I don’t think teachers are valued.”

Kramer says he’ll continue to try to educate high school students through outreach programs, but his future is now in research.

Less Federal Power Under New Law

More power is going back to the states and local districts under the law signed today, which replaces No Child Left Behind.

For the past quarter century, federal education policy has been moving in one direction: toward standards-based education redesign, a greater reliance on standardized tests, and bigger role for Washington when it comes to holding schools accountable for student results.

Read more at: blogs.edweek.org

Controversial SAT-Based Teacher Bonuses — Here To Stay?

The House measure would provide “scholarships” up to $10,000 — depending on the annual appropriation — to teachers whose scores were in the 80th percentile of the SAT or higher.

Perhaps it is fitting that in the same week that school districts must tell the Department of Education how many teachers qualified for the state’s very controversial Best and Brightest bonus, the Florida House Education Committee will consider legislation to make the one-time measure permanent.

Read more at: www.tampabay.com

Parents Fight For School Recess

rally for recess

Robin Sussingham

Remember recess? When you knew that if you just sat still for a couple more hours, you and your friends could go racing out to the merry-go-round or the hopscotch court for a daily dose of fun? In many public elementary schools in Florida, recess has become a thing of the past. And parents are not happy.

Five year old Garrett Hoskins goes to Highlands Grove Elementary school in Lakeland. He’s in kindergarten, and he loves recess. He’s kind of an authority on the slides.

“The slide I like is the bumpy one,” Garrett says. “I like the circle one because that one has sides. The other one doesn’t really have sides. Just short sides, to keep you safe.”

Garrettt goes to recess once a week, on Fridays, for 20 minutes. His mom, Stephanie Hoskins, says that’s not enough.

“Not for bustling five year olds, no,” she says.

They were at a community meeting recently, organized by Polk County school Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy. LeRoy  was responding to a growing and increasingly vocal demand by parents to give kids a break during the school day.

At the meeting, the frustration was palpable. Parents were supposed to ask questions by writing them down on a card and turning it in — but one mom, sitting in the audience, couldn’t contain herself. She said her eight-year-old son hates to go to school.  “He loves being outdoors and he gets no time,” she said. “He has to sit in a classroom from 8:30 until 3 o’clock. He goes to lunch and they’re not allowed to  talk at that time either.”

It probably came as no surprise to these parents when LeRoy presented the research showing the recess is important to kids in lots of ways, physically, socially and cognitively. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess crucial to child development.

Superintendent LeRoy told the crowd that she’s all in favor of recess. She said she was forming a county-wide committee to come up with recommendations, and she’d take them to the school board for a vote. But, she said, it’s not as easy as it once was to send the children out onto the playground.

Pointing to the wording of a state education statute that she’d projected up on a screen, LeRoy said, “The reason I am showing this to you is because I want you to get a sense of the magnitude and mandates that are laying on top of us….We are required to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art and music (those are electives), and physical education.”

There’s also a requirement of 90 minutes every day for reading instruction — and more for low performing schools.

The state has made no policies regarding recess, leaving it up to the individual school districts. Some districts have no recess in schools. Others, like Miami Dade, require it for Pre-K through 5th grade. Miami-Dade even has a recess manual, that describes how to teach Double Dutch and hop scotch!

Time for recess has been squeezed out in recent years, but now social media is helping parents, such as Lakeland mother Amanda Lipham, organize recess supporters.
Lipham says she organized the push for recess in Polk when she saw changes in her five year old son.

“He was losing his enthusiasm for school,” Lipham says. “His attitude was changing. I could see his spirit being broken.”

First, Lipham handed out flyers in the car line at her son’s elementary school, and she spoke out at a school board meeting. Then, she formed an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures.

Now parents are creating similar online petitions around the state. More than 2200 people have signed a petition to make recess mandatory in Pinellas County, This fall, Parents in Osceola County also started a petition demanding recess. And a similar effort in Orange County last year led to a school board resolution recommending that schools provide the breaks.

And that’s the way change might happen, says Judy Stockman, who teaches at Sykes Elementary school in Lakeland — when parents get involved.

“Teachers have already voiced their opinions about this and nothing happened,” Stockman says.

The state does require every school to provide PE for 150 minutes a week. But Stockman, like the Superintendent and the parents at the meeting, say that’s not the same as recess.

“PE doesn’t count,” Stockman says. “That is structured. What I’m seeing lacking is time for social skills and social development. and that type of thing. Just to go and explore on your own.”

LeRoy said some school districts, like Orange county, have adopted Resolutions in favor of recess. But LeRoy said she wanted a policy for schools to follow.

The Polk County school board will take up the committee recommendations on recess at its Dec. 8th meeting.

Despite Losing Grant, Choral Group Still Teaching Miami Students To Sing

Natural Bridge Elementary School students sing "Amazing Grace."

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Natural Bridge Elementary School students sing "Amazing Grace."

As soon as the fourth and fifth graders at Natural Bridge Elementary were handed the lyrics to Amazing Grace, they were ready to sing out.

But first, they needed a lesson in the four voice types of a choir – bass, tenor, alto and soprano.

One by one members of the group added their part while the students waited to sing the melody. Finally, it was time to add soprano Sara Guttenberg

“I really hope she sings the melody,” tenor Patrick Muehleise kids.

The students are ready. They join in before the conductor gives them their cue.

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Congressmen Agree On Revisions To “No Child Left Behind”

Standardized testing will continue under the new rules, but the onerous sanctions imposed on schools could go away.

Overcoming years of partisan bickering over the federal government’s role in public education, congressional negotiators came to an agreement on Thursday to revise the No Child Left Behind law for the first time since it was signed by President George W. Bush 14 years ago.

Read more at: www.nytimes.com

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