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Education Rundown: Testing, Testing And More

A stack of ISAT tests at Millstadt School (KWMU photo)
Standardized tests have long been a source of controversy.

Once a week, our team of education reporters would like to share stories that look at trends in education here and across the country. In particular, we want to focus on people, research and even gizmos that may help make kids learn better. This week, by coincidence, we all seem to have found stories about the joys and sorrows of testing.

AP exam finds women, minorities MIA        

First of all, not that many students took the AP computer science exam in 2013.  We’re talking fewer than 2 percent of all students in AP classes. But as a recent Huffington Post article points out, dig into those numbers and you’ll find that women and minority test takers are woefully absent.  Education week notes that fewer than 20 percent were female, 8 percent were Hispanic and only 3 percent were African American. In 11 states, not a single African American took an AP computer science exam last year.  Those are striking numbers, but Deborah Davis, director of college readiness communications at the College Board, said unfortunately the data are consistent with what the board has seen in the past.  She told the Huffington Post via email that it’s a trend the board is committed to turning around.

“The College Board is deeply committed to increasing access to rigorous computing courses, particularly for underrepresented female and minority students. In order to address this issue, we have collaborated with national organizations, other nonprofits and the private sector to ensure expanded access,” wrote Davis.

We’ll be watching their progress. Covering technology in education will be a major focus in our coverage moving forward, and that will most certainly include looking at who’s getting the access code to a 21st century economy.  (Tim Lloyd)

This is only a test

How many times have you heard critics of standardized exams ridiculed as simply "teaching to the test"? James Samuelson, a teacher in New York City, doesn't scoff at that notion -- he embraces it. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he calls such tests "a critical thinker's dream," a practice that develops critical thinking and is "an excellent way for teachers to better understand the particular academic challenges their students face." And he quotes the new schools chancellor in New York as saying that "life is a series of tests in many ways." Not all teachers will appreciate Samuelson's enthusiasm for tests, and no doubt lots of students wish the exams would wither away. But since they will be part of the education landscape for a long time, sharpen your No. 2 pencil and read "The Pleasures of 'Teaching to the Test.'" You might even learn something. (Dale Singer)

Test scores

What happens when mothers decide to take the SAT? It isn't a pretty picture -- at least if you read Elizabeth Kolbert's "Big Score" in the New Yorker. Along the way, Kolbert runs into Debbie Stier who decided at the age of 46 to redeem her younger self's mediocre score, devote herself "full time to the test, with the goal of achieving the maximum possible score of 2400" and inspire her less than ambitious kids. Stier enters a nightmare world of manuals and classes all designed to boost test-takers' scores (and empty their wallet). Stier who takes the test seven times peaks on the fifth test and watches her score decline on Nos. 6 and 7. For her part, Kolbert who reports on the ambiguity of parts of the test, doesn't reveal her scores. (Susan Hegger)

A promise kept
Remember back in 2005, when an anonymous donor pledged to pay tuition for any graduate of the public schools in Kalamazoo, Mich., who wanted to attend a public college or university in that state? The Kalamazoo Promise, as the program is called, led to several similar programs nationwide, and it even drew the attention of President Barack Obama, who spoke at the district’s high school graduation in 2010. Now, new research shows that of those students who were eligible for the money, more than 80 percent took advantage of the offer. And for African-American students in the district, the promise led to fewer behavior problems and a boost in their grade point averages. (Dale Singer)

Greek tragedy

It's a long, absorbing read, with one of the most vivid, stomach-churning introductions ever. "The Dark Power of Fraternities," a piece by Caitlin Flanagan, in the Atlanticis the culmination of a year-long investigation into the seamy underside of fraternities and fraternity life. It's not just that frat parties are all too frequently the site of binge drinking, sexual assaults and gruesome hazing, as bad as that is. What is even more troubling is how fraternities have developed a system to protect and insulate themselves from any liability for crimes, accidents or bad behaviors committed in their frat houses or by fraternity members  -- and how universities have shrunk from challenging the status quo. Yes, fraternity brothers often engage in wonderful community services, as Flanagan properly acknowledges, but she's right to urge all parents to think twice before letting their sons pledge. (Susan Hegger)

Chronic absenteeism? There’s an app for that

Want to curb chronic absenteeism in your school?  There’s now an app for that. Miriam Altman and Alexandra Meis, a couple of techy social entrepreneurs in New York, have created a software platform that’s geared toward helping teachers quickly connect with parents and guardians when their kids don’t show up for school. It’s called Kinvolved and it sends text messages directly to a parent or guardian if a child isn’t in class, bridging the so-called digital divide in poor communities by tapping into the accessibility of cell phones. It worked well enough in a seventh month test run at a New York City elementary school that a nonprofit that pairs mentors with students in the city is expanding its use to 25 additional schools.  (Tim Lloyd)                

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.