Saturday, August 12, 2006

School Day's/AP Tests/The Future

I just finished reading the linked article and then I looked at my blog and realized that in the frenzy that is late summer, I had totally forgotten to post anything. I think that is how it is with summer. From age five on we are conditioned into this two to three month period of mindlessness and then suddenly without warning, Krogers is stocking spiral notebooks on the endcaps and large envelopes full of forms start arriving. It's like a migration of children from the swimming pools and playgrounds into brick buildings where they live their lives away from parents and often it's a life that is totally unknown by parents. It's a child's world, where they make the choices and call the shots.

Every year about this time, since I was very young, I would get this clutching feeling in my chest. I always liked school. I usually did well in school. Okay, I did fine unless there was math. But the whole social environment of school always felt toxic. I never felt like I had friends. I never felt comfortable. And I truly did think that teachers by and large were the enemy despite my good grades. I can't even imagine what the pressure is like now. At the time I was in high school, pot and LSD were pretty much the only thing other than alcohol in town. Plus, 18 year olds could drink and DID drink. I was terrified of drugs and only drank occasionally to fit in. I don't have the rosy memories of high school that some people portray. In fact, I've only gone back to one reunion only to see the same people who were merciless and cruel in high school, were still in charge at the reunion. Sometimes I look at their prideful biographies on and I wonder where exactly I missed the boat.

I see kids today with far more burdens that we had as high school students in the 70's. Quite often they live with their moms and money can be an issue. They often work and are more motivated by their paychecks than by grades. While the top 20% are bright and ambitious, it's often for financial wealth over knowledge. In my daughter's 2003 AP classes, more than half the kids opted to major in engineering. These kids hold the same profiles academically as the kids who were Business majors in the 70's and 80's and Computer Science majors in the 90's. They don't do it because they love engineering, but because they want the money that they think will follow. It is as if the laws of supply and demand were magically suspended and they will still command huge salaries upon graduating. I think there are experienced engineers and techs in Silicon Valley that would beg to differ. And in many cases it's parents and counselors who are pushing these students into careers that they think will guarantee financial success. These are some of the same parents that helicoptered all through public school to cushion and control their childrens' lives. They honestly believe that this will insure happiness. I think we are on the verge of seeing major generational burnout with the X'ers.

I am also concerned with the pressure the upper echelon kids feel they have to attain in order to maintain status quo. These kids load their schedules with AP classes, volunteering, clubs, teams and work to the point of burnout. And quite often, the kid who makes 4's and 5's on AP Tests such as Physics, Chemistry, Calculus or even English may be denied credit unless it is outside of their major. I know of a student who should have had 21 hours of credit in these classes plus Spanish and Ecnomics. The university, claiming that it wanted all students within this major at the same level, only accepted the Spanish AP exam for credit. I can't help but recall the huge amount of time this student spent in and out of class working on these disciplines and althought there may be some merit to making a student take a course in a skill he's already mastered, it appears that it's a jobs programs for grad students that have to teach these entry level classes.

AP classes are no longer the bastion of the best and brightest, but instead many schools are pushing kids who do not want or cannot do the level of work into these situations. I wish I could say the purpose was to raise these students to a higher level, which is often the stated purpose, but I think the end game is that it looks really good for average yearly progress scores if more students take AP classes and exams. Don't get me wrong, I think if a student wants to pursue such a course, they should be given a chance. And as an AP teacher, I want as many kids in the seats as we can hold. But if we are permitting students who may not have the skills required for AP classes, at some point will we be forced into a position of offering remediation in these classes? And when that happens, paired with denial of credits by colleges and universities, what is the point of having an AP program at all? It points to gaming the test which could unfortunately lead to the same kind of lunacy that surrounds high stakes testing at other levels.

I don't want to sound alarmist on this theory, but when a list was released by a national magazine siting the Top 100 High Schools, one of the key criteria was the number of tests TAKEN, not PASSED. If this and similar stats are thrown in the mix, it's really easy for a district or school administration to pay outright for every kid to take AP tests and virtually cook the books when it comes to perceived status. I have heard rumors that this is already happening in other states. It worries me and it should worry many more people, because we are driving kids into professions they often don't care about. And workers who don't care about their work do a bad job and create more problems than they solve. This was not the goal of NCLB, but with the increased pressure on teachers, schools and students, that could be the outcome.

Please be aware, I am not anti-testing. Tests are a necessary evil. They reveal weaknesses and strengths and are essential for the purposes of meaningful evaluation. But this idea that we can control outcome based on testing and force kids into cookie cutter lives regardless of their natural abilities is one that will ultimately impact the economy. We need to look at something beyond the numbers and past feelgood articles and TV mentions for what is really happening in the schools. We have fixated on the idea that "all kids MUST go to college". While we want to open the doors for students really wanting a college education, the idea that every kid MUST go ignores the numbers of kids that drop out after the first year. Should colleges even have remedial reading and writing? Shouldn't a real college student come to college ready to go? Rather than have kids who go through the humiliation of failing at something such as college in which they had no great desire, why aren't we fostering the idea of getting everyone working by offering meaningful vocational programs? And NCLB doesn't take vocational programs into account. While you have the grandaddy of testing in Ross Perot claiming that high stakes testing will create workers for high tech jobs, there are other jobs that go unfilled due to the lack of skilled technicians. These are the jobs that are growing in scope because fewer and fewer people know how to actually do ANYTHING with tools. Think of what you paid the last time the air conditioner went out or the car stopped running? We need to revamp education to provide training in these skills as well.

All in all, I see myself approaching each year with a little more apprehension. Sure, we will have the pep rallies and dances. And the same smart aleck student will show up in class. And the same slacker will sit at the back of the room trying to sneak his IPOD out of his backpack. But as my own kids get older and I see younger kids coming into high school, I see more anxiety, more nervousness. There seem to be more IEP's and more parental emails. It's as if there's some menacing force driving these kids into exaggerated lifestyles. I dont' know if it's the media influence or simply a symbol of our times, but they seem so jaded and old as such a young age. They have lost that joy that kids have to learn something new. Everything is a faded replay of One Tree Hill. And in a way, I pity them and want to try to bring back that wonder into their lives. I guess that is why I keep teaching. Heaven knows I won't get rich, but maybe I can change a kid's life in a positive way. I would hope that is what all teachers at this point are planning to do.

Quote from youngest son-
"School will give me a chance to recuperate from summer..."-
-he's been riding BMX bikes every day, all day in 100+ heat since June.

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