Teaching to the test and the college graduation gap

This New York Times story about a high school in Virginia and its program for ESOL students is incredibly detailed and illuminating, but really, really buries the nut graf. So you don’t have to read the entire thing (although I would recommend it), here it is, with some commentary after the jump:

Hylton’s program has become a source of pride for helping immigrant students succeed in school, but also a target of criticism that segregated classes have handicapped students by isolating them and “dumbing down” the curriculum.

“High schools have to make a pragmatic choice when it comes to these kids,” said Peter B. Bedford, a history teacher who supports the program. “Are you going to focus on educating them, or socially integrating them?”

“This school has made the choice to focus on education,” he added. “The best tools we can give them to function in this society are their diplomas.”

But Amy Weiler, an assistant principal, worried whether the program had turned high school into more of an end than a beginning. “If you ask whether our program is successful at getting our students to pass tests, the data would indicate that it is,” Ms. Weiler said. “But if you ask whether we are helping our students to assimilate, there’s no data to answer that question.”

“My fear,” she added, “is that if we take a look at where our ESOL students are 10 years from now, we’re going to be disappointed.”

Studies suggest that English learners in separate, so-called sheltered classrooms perform better in school than do the majority of their peers who are immersed in the mainstream with little or no language support. There has been no systematic tracking, however, of English learners beyond graduation to determine whether schools are leveling playing fields or perpetuating the inequalities of a stratified society.

Some students, of course, successfully climb into the middle class and beyond, as generations of immigrants before them have. But Hispanic college graduation rates — 16 percent of 25- to 29-year-old Hispanics born in the United States hold a college degree, compared with 34 percent of whites and 62 percent of Asian-Americans — suggest that many recent immigrants and their children are not going to college.

The story basically indicates the program teaches to the test even more than most other schools do and then gets at one of the fundamental problems of teaching to the test: it leaves kids unprepared for college, where professors have no test to teach to and aren’t going to go out of their way to hold the hands of any student in their 200-person lecture.

What I know about urban schools indicates they do a lot more teaching to the test than my suburban high school did.* Basically, kids know what they need to pass the test, but they don’t really know the material and have to go through remedial education when they get to college. This, I think, is probably a major reason for the racial graduation gap, both in Maryland and nationally.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan explained this pretty well in a recent Diamondback article:

But Kirwan said the problem may be out of universities’ hands. He said often the problems that lead to students dropping out of college have their roots at the K-12 level – national high school graduation rates have fallen from 77 percent in 1972 to 67 percent today – or lie with state-controlled standards that are inconsistent across the country.

“There’s a huge gap between the material students learn in high school and what they are expected to know when they start college, and as a result, colleges across the country are spending too much time on remedial education,” Kirwan said.

*At Wilmington, we basically would take on practice MCAS test a month before the actual test, and then go over test-taking strategies the day before, but non-college prep courses may have done things differently.

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One response to “Teaching to the test and the college graduation gap

  1. carriewells

    Here’s what I can tell you from my own limited experience:

    1) ESOL classes are 100% necessary. If you didn’t have them, the students would literally not be able to learn anything BECAUSE THEY CAN’T SPEAK ENGLISH. The point of the program is to teach them English as quickly as possible and then to get them “assimilated” into regular courses, usually in a a couple years. So yeah, they’re isolated from the general population but for a necessary reason. And as far as the curriculum, you’re talking about many students who haven’t been to school in years. Furthermore, the ESOL instructors are trained to know the kinds of things immigrant children are dealing with, whether it’s worrying about INS or homelessness or hunger. Whomever is criticizing ESOL really has no idea how it works.

    2) Teaching to the test was a priority, but not for college. The most important thing was for kids to pass the HSAs (high school assessments), because otherwise they couldn’t graduate. SAT prep was far behind that. Basically, the teachers struggled to get each kid to learn as much as they could and hoped like hell they would pass the tests so they could graduate. College prep in these schools is almost an afterthought. I feel like this story could have done a better job of explaining the uphill battle a lot of late-arriving immigrant kids have just to pass high school. About a quarter of my graduating class went to college. Half of that quarter went to community college. Almost all of the kids who went to college were the ones with somewhat stable home lives, a fair amount of money, educated parents, etc. College is important but getting out of high school is the priority.

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