Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How to Screw Up Graduation Rates

When the U.S. Department of Education released its new and improved league standings of state high school graduation rates, many in Arizona were surprised to learn that the state was below the national average. A fraction more than 78% of the 9th grade cohort was holding a diploma four years later. This is hardly surprising considering the very large number of students entering the 9th grade with little background in the English language.

And Arizona’s treatment of these students does nothing to improve their chances of graduating. Having adamantly refused to endorse bilingual education for limited English speaking students, politicians and their designees have instead backed a program of English Immersion—which is edu-speak for doing absolutely nothing at all to address these children’s language needs. English Immersion as it is practiced in Arizona is four hours a day of language instruction in a sink-or-swim environment. The teachers are not bilingual, since truly bilingual teachers possessing that special talent would be able to demand higher pay. The methods resemble ESL (English as a Second Language), which have yet to be described to me as anything other than ordinary methods one would use to teach anything.

Having spent a year or more in four-hour-a-day English Immersion, the Latino students have missed out on earning credits in core courses needed for graduation. But on top of this sits the AIMS test, one of the worst high school graduation high stakes tests in the nation. Irrelevant, incompetent, and viciously punitive: the AIMS test has got it all. Latino students fail the AIMS test in large numbers. Only one in four Latino students graduates from Arizona high schools in four years. It’s no wonder Arizona is below average on Arne Duncan’s graduation score card.

Craig Barrett, ex-CEO of INTEL, knows the solution to this problem. Just invest in career technical education and everything will be fine. “Teach them the math they need to know to be an auto-mechanic or contractor, for example, and they will stay engaged, interested and graduate.” Contractors? Where will they get the money to purchase insurance and be bonded? This comment sounds like failed presidential candidate Mitch Romney’s remark that our ancestors came to this country to start small businesses. (Not my ancestors, who were escaping famine, or my wife’s ancestors, who were escaping pogroms.) Craig Barrett has clearly stepped outside of Warren Buffett’s Circle of Competence. He acts these days like an education reformer, but in fact he is just a retired CEO. (Some will even dispute that he was competent in his previous life as a CEO. To quote Zoniedude’s comment on this blog from July 7, 2012, “… when Barrett was head of Intel, the rival corporation AMD made great strides in taking market share away from Intel. To counter AMD, Barrett employed illegal monopoly practices rather than successfully compete. After he left, Intel regained most of that market share and became a much more competitive corporation.”)

But let’s go back to the Arizona graduation rate, and the AIMS test, and Barrett’s comments about pumping more math into the heads of those future contractors and auto mechanics. Several years ago, Cheryl Edholm and I did a little study. You can read it here. It was entitled “The AIMS Test and the Mathematics Actually Used by Arizona Employees.” We took the math items off the AIMS test—the high stakes graduation test—and showed them to 43 managers of businesses in ten sectors of the Arizona economy: Health Care (6), Law Firms (3), Food Industries (3), Wholesale (3), Government Agencies (6), Retail Sales (4), Construction (3), Banking (4), Service Industries (7), and Engineering (4).

These managers were shown the following AIMS question, among others, and asked “Do your employees use this type of mathematics in their daily work?”

Q1. Of the following choices, rational numbers, integers, whole numbers, irrational numbers, which of these could not be classified as the number representing the number of people in a room?
Only 4 out of 43 managers answered affirmatively. Of the six AIMS questions presented to the managers in the Legal and Food Service industries, none was said to be of use to their employees. Edholm and I concluded back in the day of soaring hopes for high stakes graduation tests that the test was useless, had nothing to do with life after high school, and would only result in high drop-out rates.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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