Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ross's Dilemma

I tend to arrive to school earlier than most. Usually the only person to greet me at school in the morning is the school safety officer posted at the main entrance. I'll say good morning to him as I make my way down my school's (only) hallway towards my classroom. Even though I've still got about an hour or so until students start rolling in, sometimes there's a student who beats everyone (including me) to school: his name is Ross and I have absolutely no clue what to do with him. I mean academically I have no clue. In fact, I'm pretty sure the American education system as it stands right now doesn't know what to do with him.

Ross is sixteen years old, but by his high school transcript, he's still considered a high school freshman. His family moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic when he was old enough to be enrolled in elementary school. His state standardized test scores would tell you that he's still in elementary school. It's unfortunate, but true: Ross is at a 1st grade reading level. His math skills are about the same, maybe a little higher. His situation is not that different from others at my school - that may sound surprising, but it's not. Ross is the typical low-income, urban student who was promoted carelessly up to high school even though he never possessed the skills required to move up with his peers. Somehow, somewhere his prior teachers and principals moved him on up until he was somebody else's problem. When he finally got to high school, his weak academics couldn't be brushed under the rug anymore.

Ross has an IEP that provides him with some special education services, but in a city (country?) obsessed with test scores and "college readiness," it really doesn't do much for him. His special services include extended time for exams, the use of a calculator, and the option to take exams in a separate room away from his peers. He can have exam proctors read him questions aloud if he wants. A lot of services indeed, but nearly pointless. His comprehension and computational skills are so low that these services aren't really helpful. As Ross has stated over and over in class, sometimes these services make him feel stupider because he still has problems remembering content even with the additional services. Ross isn't dumb; he just has a number of needs that don't integrate well with this country's standardized testing obsession. Unfortunately, that statement means shit.

Compared to other at-risk high school students I've taught, Ross is a good kid. By all alternative school definitions Ross is actually great: his attendance is over 90%, he doesn't sell drugs, he doesn't have a criminal record, he doesn't cut out of school early, etc. In fact, the only reason Ross passes any "core" classes at school is because he stays the whole day and puts in the overtime to fix tests, complete make-up work, and get tutored. This extra effort typically helps him carry over a borderline pass/fail grade into a passing grade. 

His mathematics skills are considered weak because so much of today's curriculum requires rote memorization. This is why he can't demonstrate mastery of math content in a cumulative assessment. He has a problem memorizing too many things. If I teach him something for an hour today, he can complete all of the work related to today's topic. Tomorrow is a different story. This is a big problem because every high school New York Regents Examinations is cumulative and if Ross has any desire to graduate high school (which he does), he needs to pass this test. It's no surprise these policies cause students, teachers, and administrators to cheat. It's a numbers game, so we have to pad them to look good. We love looking good, don't we? I went from working at an unethical investment bank to working in an unethical education system.

My class has been taking a lot of practice Algebra Regents and Ross has not been faring well. He's probably going to pass my class, but fail the exam hard. In NY State, a high school student needs to accumulate 44 credits (traditionally 11 credits/year) and pass five Regents exams. Ross will probably (through a lot of hard work and tutoring) earn a lot of credits in high school over an extended period of time, but his chances of passing any state exams are very slim. Ross has never passed a cumulative exam or quiz in my classroom. He can pass short quizzes given on a daily basis, but that's not how standardized testing works.

Over the past few weeks, I've provided Ross with cheat sheets, practice exams, and video tutorials but he still struggles question-by-question. I basically have to sit next to him throughout the whole practice test. As he struggles with reading aloud a simple multiple choice question, I stare at him; I can't help but feel incredibly sorry for him and others like him. I wonder what's going to happen to Ross in a few years. If he can't graduate because of our archaic system, then that's plain stupid because he is actually capable of doing things in life. He comes to school everyday despite his peers calling him "retarded" on a daily basis. He's super interested in the arts and photography, and while I can't comment on his photography skills (I'm not an art critic), he talks about it with a passion. What is this kid going to do if he earns 44 high school credits, but doesn't pass any Regents? As an educator in the American school system, I'm not sure. You'd think we'd have an answer to this hurdle in the age of Google glass and Amazon drone-delivery, but we don't.

Ideally, our school system should have recognized Ross's strengths and weaknesses somewhere in elementary school. His middle school should have provided him with remedial support and then communicated his data and characteristics to a high school designed to cater to a student with his needs. He should have been programmed into photography and visual arts courses (balanced with remedial literacy and math) by the time he was 14. He should be able to graduate with an arts-based high school diploma (which doesn't exist) that would have served as an admission ticket into an arts-based program post-high school where he could get super skilled in something to earn a living. If students can graduate with "Advanced Regents Diplomas," why isn't there any room on the other side for students who aren't the best test takers? These are the students who typically grow up to be more interesting than just being a corporate monkey. This country needs to develop its divergent thinkers rather than mold the motivated into yes-men.


Miss G said...

Students like Ross are the exact reason why it makes sense to move into a skills-based curriculum rather than a content-based one. The ability to learn processes and ask questions will serve him in any career, be it photography, toll-booth operation, or human services.

Yo Mista said...

Miss G:
Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you're in the same field.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're back at it. It's been too long.

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Thanks, it's good to be back!

schmidt1090 said...

There really isn't a dilemma for how to handle situations like the one presented with Ross. The solution is in your final paragraph. Until schools can get out from under the money and policies that perpetuate test-centered curriculum, Ross is screwed. The reason? The people whose livelihood depends on standardizing curriculum (and therefore schools) can simply label what you propose as "tracking." With all the negative connotations that word carries, such a practice will be derided as destructive to Ross' needs. "College Readiness for all" is a fine concept...except not all career paths, or life pursuits, truly required this route. Good to have you back. Don't tell your bosses you're writing this communist blasphemy.

Yo Mista said...

@ Schmidt1090:
Thanks for the comment, man.

I agree with your thoughts. What's interesting is that there is a lot of focus on lower-income, urban youth, but no one's talking about the success Silicon Valley is having with their schools. There's a lot of tech adaptation in their schools and I predict many students will opt out of the "college track" and either
a) work as a programmer directly with an apps-based company post-HS
b) start their own businesses using the tech knowledge they acquired while in HS.

Ahsan said...

I think there are a couple of important ideas here:

1. Tracking students is bad seems like a gross generalization of the issue. Being able to track 'how' a student is doing is as old as schools are. Tracking students and keeping them informed should allow for incentive alignment in both teachers/students.

2. Testing in and of itself is not that bad, it is testing under arbitrarily formed age/class brackets and calling students who fail and/or do not fit those brackets 'at-risk'. Testing provides impetus to learn, however, it's counter productive when reduced to yearly cycles. You should be tested when you know the material, not at some random date in May. The fundamental problem comes from labelling classes and ;expecting' students to graduate year after year because somebody in mid-19th century thought that was a great idea.

3. I am a big supporter of skills-based learning. I met a 'kid' at a charter school and this kid clearly has a knack for computers and programming. He needs to develop that skill and talent. One caveat, unlike him, most kids really don't know what they're good/bad at, and schools do a really bad job of helping them finding it. It's more like "here is a bunch of stuff you should learn, because it might be useful, until you find out what you really want to learn"

Yo Mista said...

@ Ahsan:
1. Completely agree with you.

2. Again, completely in agreement with you.

3. "here is a bunch of stuff you should learn, because it might be useful, until you find out what you really want to learn" - brilliant.

Thanks for your comments, as always.

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Ms. Havener said...

It is so refreshing to hear other educators grapple with the exact situation I struggle through daily.
With discussions of differentiation and UDL so prevalent and modifications required for each lesson, this idea does not seem to flow further up to administrators and policy makers.
Some students sadly have very little hope of passing these standardized, cumulative tests. Alternative assessment allows for some wiggle room however does not afford the student with a high school diploma equivalent.
Sadly-it falls to the teachers to bridge that gap between student and community and set students like Ross up with as much on-the-job training as possible through internships and summer youth type programs.