kitchen table math, the sequel: wealthy schools & the decline at the top

Sunday, March 1, 2009

wealthy schools & the decline at the top

A terrific discussion thread follows "cranberry on wealthy schools and the sorting machine."

I see the issues raised here as fundamental, and have raised them with my school board here -- which is taking them very seriously. 

Attewell's article (pdf file) was a revelation to me. I had experienced everything he describes, but hadn't put it together and certainly had no idea someone had "done the math."  (I've still not read the article closely; if I see things differently once I do, I'll revise this.) In any event, I've been planning to write a series of posts about Attewell. 

For now, here is a passage that is true of the situation in my own district:

Academic Tracking Among Strong Students


This article considers tracking in its newer form, especially the role of AP and honors math and science.


[I]n the first model, the odds of a student from a nonexam public star school taking one or more AP examinations is 1.375 times as high as a student of a similar gender, race, and parental education who is enrolled in a nonstar public school (the reference category or yardstick). In the second model, after controlling for SAT scores, the odds of a student in an affluent star school taking an AP examination is .823, or only 82 percent as high as the odds of a demographically similar student with an equal SAT score who is enrolled in a nonstar public school.


In some star public schools, access to the honors track has become limited to the cream of the cream. Accomplished through advising and tough grading policies, this new form of tracking leads to a steady attrition out of advanced math and science courses, causing experts to wonder why talented young Americans avoid these subjects.
This is exactly what we've experienced in a wealthy suburban school district. 

A capable student whose area of strength is math/science takes Honors everything (math, science, social studies, foreign language, ELA); a capable student whose area of strength is verbal takes Honors ELA/social studies/ELA but is likely to be "washed out" of Honors math and some of the Honors science courses via "tough grading." 

Honors math and some Honors science courses are viewed as courses for the mathematically gifted; Honors ELA/social studies/foreign language are viewed as courses for the capable and industrious.

Add weighted grading into the mix and the result is that math/science students dominate the top 10% of the class regardless of SAT scores, IQ, or native ability and effort.

[T]his new form of tracking leads to a steady attrition out of advanced math and science courses, causing experts to wonder why talented young Americans avoid these subjects.
More later.


Catherine Johnson said...

Here's an example of the wealthy school handicap: we know a boy who scored at the 90th percentile on the CTBS science section and was denied a seat in 8th grade Earth Science.

In a middle class school, people would have been recruiting him for that class.

Here he was summarily rejected, no reason given.

Catherine Johnson said...

I know many such stories about 6-12 math/science courses here.

Anonymous said...

Math keeps kids out while English in Irvington does the exact opposite. For example, there are seven sections of English 9. Three of those sections are Honors. A class of students is being educated in two almost equal tiers. Instead of calling it honors the school should simply offer leveled courses if they are going to split the class in half. Extrapolate one step further and a remedial section could be offered.

I don't know what the answer is, but I have huge philosophical problems with both hetero and homogeneous grouping.

Should we separate the kids by ability and industry or should we keep them all together like they do in the middle school?

Catherine Johnson said...


I think I've seen perhaps 3 different workable answers in action -- but am too tired to pull them together at the moment!

I'm thinking in particular of the posts on "LaSalle High School" and on tracking in a Catholic high school (this was a study of tracking in a Catholic high school).

Will get links, etc. up tomorrow.

Cranberry said...

Our school takes a further step. There are no honors courses on the humanities side. No honors english, languages, history. The grade point average is weighted.

The split between verbal and mathematical inclinations is fairly common. That's how you end up with kids with lopsided SAT scores. If there were equally weighted courses available on both sides of the divide, the kids who are strong in both would end up with the highest gpa, and class rank. Under this system, though, it's the math/science kids who will always end up at the top, and the humanities kids' gpa and class rank are artificially low.

Although Attewell claims such systems appear in an attempt by high schools to game the college admissions process for their top kids, our high school, in my opinion, has rather poor results. Many of the ivies and top liberal arts colleges want students who are strong in everything, the humanities as well as math and science. As the humanities kids' academic records are depressed, they don't have the statistics to have a reasonable chance at Middlebury, etc.

Allison said...

---Honors math and some Honors science courses are viewed as courses for the mathematically gifted; Honors ELA/social studies/foreign language are viewed as courses for the capable and industrious.

I have not read the Attewell bit, but I have a theory for the above viewpoint:

it's now been at least 5 decades of gutting the liberal arts at the university level. That means that even people with college bachelor's degrees in liberal arts have no idea how rigorous, demanding, or difficult such subjects can be. That has translated into the teachers, administrators, textbook writers, publishers, and everyone else in the entire hierarchy not knowing what demanding liberal arts courses look like.

Nothing of the kind has been happening in the liberal sciences or engineering in those 5 decades. The gains in knowledge and technique have been seen to increase by everyone, even those who don't understand what science is or does. Science and math are demanding still--and even more so. The irony is that even while we complain about how bad math education is, calculus in high school is now common.

Now, at any point that you fall down on the rigorous demanding math or science track, you're out. Since instructionally, no one helps you up, or even sees the attrition as odd because it all happened to them, by defn, those left standing must be talented. (The fact that mastery would make up for that is just not even a tenative hypothesis in anyone's mind.)

But as there is no longer any rigor in the liberal arts, no one is challenged in those courses anymore, except by work load. There is nothing to master, nothing intellectually deep that requires building up any more. So the only reason for falling down and out of those courses is because you don't want to do the work of reading. And how many people are going to admit how difficult a task reading is, or that only the talented can do it without practice?

Allison said...

---[T]his new form of tracking leads to a steady attrition out of advanced math and science courses, causing experts to wonder why talented young Americans avoid these subjects.



This sentence is senseless. It might as well have said "X leads to rain, causing experts to wonder why the streets are wet."

if you saw nothing but steady attrition in advanced math and science courses. WHY WOULD YOU NOT AVOID THEM, since you'll just be part of the attrition, in all likelihood?

Cranberry said...

Hi Catherine,

I think the following deserves its own post. One logical question which comes up is, why would the administration of a school set up a system to produce a few shining starts, at the expense of others? Surely this is an unintentional oversight?

Well, no. Why do I know that? Well, this morning, there are charges that a high school in Fort Lee, N.J., has been systematically fixing grades and transcripts to increase the college admissions chances of favored students. As college admissions, at the high school level, is pretty much a zero-sum game, this means they were also decreasing the admissions chances of the students who were not favored.

A New Jersey principal was suspended and guidance counselors were put on the hot seat over a grade-fixing scandal at Fort Lee High School. The school district's superintendent confirmed to CBS 2 HD that grades were changed and transcripts tainted, all without the knowledge of students, parents and teachers.

The deception appears to go back at least six years and was the focus of an emergency meeting of the school board on Wednesday night. Hardest hit by the scandal are Fort Lee Highs most academically gifted students.

As few as 10 of them had their grades improved or bad grades deleted. Stephanie Kim, an honors student at Fort Lee High, was at the meeting with her parents. She has applications pending at 10 top notch universities.

SteveH said...

"...a high school in Fort Lee, N.J., has been systematically fixing grades and transcripts to increase the college admissions chances of favored students."

This reminds me of the private K-8 school my son attended for a few years. They weren't fixing grades, but they had a great motivation to show how all of their students went off to top academies and prep schools. That's what parents look at when selecting a school. It also meant that the school didn't think it was important to change from Everyday Math to Singapore Math.

Even our public high school has a page on their web site showing all of the colleges and universities that the graduates attend. Our public K-8 schools actively work on public relations and don't blink when student success is attributed to them. My son won the Geography Bee, but this is the school system where the first grade teacher claimed that his knowledge was "superficial".

I was on a parent-teacher committee once where they talked about how to get the school more positive press. They were stuck. They wanted to showcase quality student work, but how do you do that in a full-inclusion environment without being non-inclusive? Art. It's OK to have poster contests with winners, but not for math.

Engineer-Poet said...

It appears to me that the increasing cut points as the school's SES gets higher can be explained by the expectations of the administration; the higher the average of their student body, the less capable the moderately high-scorers look to them and the less patient they are with any deficiencies.  If you're swimming in diamonds, you're not going to pay much attention to jade and agate.

Question:  does the AP fraction of the star schools still exceed that of the non-star schools?