Tagged: achievement gap

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Who didn’t turn in their essay? I can guess.

 Yesterday, my advisees turned in their post-graduation plans, one piece of their senior portfolio. They’d worked on these essays with another teacher for the last week. They were focused and did excellent work.

After I received the essays, I counted them, hoping that this time, I’d get a 100 percent turn-in rate.

(I don’t remember the last time all my advisees turned in an assignment on time. Last year, the typical on-time turn-in rate hovered around 50 percent, which devastated me. I’m not exactly sure how to conduct a class that way.)

The count this time? I got 14 out of 18, or 78 percent. Not bad, but not good.

Then I decided to see if I could identify the four students who didn’t turn in their essays without looking at the stack. How predictable is this data? I wrote down four names, then checked, then didn’t know how to feel when I found out I was 100 percent correct.

Is it a good thing that I could make this prediction? Does it mean that I know which students are struggling? Or is the opposite true — that the achievement gap is so strong that struggling students have no chance? What’s my role as a teacher if I always get the same result?

As a next step, I asked our counselor to see if she could also name the four students who hadn’t completed the essay. Even though she has limited contact with my advisees, she identified three out of four correctly.

What does this tell me? As a school, we know our students well and can identify which students are struggling. Unfortunately, if we can make these kinds of predictions, that means we’re not intervening effectively enough. We’re not addressing the achievement gap. We’re seeing our students, seeing the cracks, and letting them fall through.

And if that’s true, what exactly am I doing here? What kind of influence am I having as a teacher? 

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An experiment on the predictability of achievement

 I’ve written before about the predictability of student achievement. The achievement gap is big and sinister, and the reason I’m a teacher is to mess with it, to help students do something they didn’t think was possible.

Last year, 8 percent of students passed the AP Literature and Composition exam. The highest pass rate ever for our school was 62 percent, in 2008.

When I first was assigned the course, I was unclear about what my goal should be. I’m still unsure. Would I be happy if 50 percent passed? That’d be much higher than last year, but it still would mean a failure rate of 50 percent. I say no. A pass rate of 100 percent would be nice (and cause for the sequel to Stand and Deliver), but I’m no Jaime Escalante. What about 67 percent, a record for our school? That seems just right.

Note: That goal comes out of nowhere. Because this is my first time teaching the class, I don’t have a score to improve. Besides, a goal of 67 percent doesn’t take into consideration the students’ likelihood of passing the exam before taking AP English. Perhaps all of them, with a different teacher, could pass the test, and I’m actually lowering their chances.

So there needs to be a baseline. On Monday, students their first full-length multiple-choice section, which accounts for 45 percent of the overall AP score. After consulting College Board, I looked at my students’ results and sorted them into three categories — green, yellow, and red — based on their current likelihood of passing. (If you want to know more about how I determined these categories, let me know.)

Of my students, 11, or 48 percent, were in the green category.

So now some questions arise:

  1. Will those 11 students end up passing the exam in May? (I hope so!)
  2. If #1 is true, then I need five more students to get to my 67 percent goal. Can I do that? Or is predictability too strong (or am I ineffective)?
  3. What’s the best way to make sure #2 happens? What does it take?
  4. What about the other seven students, particularly the five who scored really low? (One got 4/55 correct; another got 8/55.) Is it impossible for them to pass?
I have many ideas, and I’m certainly willing to work hard (and so are my students), but part of this inquiry is to figure out which strategies work best to disrupt the achievement gap. After all, we don’t have too much more time left. 
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Race and the predictability of student achievement

 A couple posts ago, I wrote about the predictability of student achievement and the need for teachers to interrupt the gap in academic performance.

What’s becoming clear in my AP English class is how starkly race plays into that predictability.

Most Mondays, my students write a timed essay in class. Then they type their essay before 11 p.m. on Google Docs. This deadline is so that their writing mentor, peer mentor, and I can review it on Tuesday. Getting the essay on Google Docs begins an intense revision process and solid opportunities for writing growth.

On Monday night, in a class of 23 students, four didn’t make the deadline. All are African American. There are six African American students in the class.

To quickly analyze the data:

  • All students who didn’t meet the deadline are African American,
  • Two-thirds of African Americans in the class did not meet the deadline.

It would be one thing if these students were “outliers,” but they’re not. They work hard and want to do well. After all, they chose to be in AP English.

Moreover, they’ve done well in past English classes, and teachers have praised their reading and writing skills.

Usually, my analysis, when seeing such stark academic data, is to say that I need to build better relationships across difference. This time, however, I believe it’s something else. Although I could be wrong, I’m pretty sure the students would report a strong connection with me.

Another interpretation is that it’s the digital divide. Yet all four students now have computers at home and have demonstrated their ability to handle the other tech challenges the class presents.

It’s definitely something else, and it’s my job to figure it out. If I don’t, then I’ll come to expect less from my African American students. I’ll come to predict a gap in their performance. And if that ever happens, if I no longer believe, and if my students know that I no longer believe, the students have no chance. 

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Fighting the predictability of student achievement


 One of the biggest reasons that I’m a teacher is that I’d like to help make the world a slightly less inequitable place.

One way is to interrupt the predictability of student achievement.

This inequity is strong: Students who do well tend to do well. Students who struggle tend to struggle. Over time, the achievement gap becomes wide and menacing.

This predictability gets me to question why I’m a teacher. If my contribution leads to no change — if my students perform the same as they would with anyone else —  then I’m just promoting the inequitable status quo. It’d be better if someone else were in my classroom.

After all, my success this year is not just how many students pass the AP test. It’s also how many pass who wouldn’t have passed without me as a teacher.

So far this year, I’ve seen some signs that give me hope. Students with average reading and writing skills are working extremely hard, not giving up, and seeing their skills improve markedly and quickly.

Still, there is disturbing data. Here’s the story of one student. She…

  • didn’t complete the summer assignment,
  • didn’t turn in the first essay,
  • didn’t have access to a computer until last week,
  • is very hard to reach via phone or text,
  • was the only student not to complete the unit project.
If I am unable to intervene successfully with this student, she will not only fail my class but also not graduate. This would be horrible. The good news is, It’s only October. That gives me time to build our relationship, work on our communication, set up support, and push.It’s crucial that I find a way for her to succeed. Yes, the work will be hard, and not all of my efforts will succeed. But when my student passes the class first semester, we’ll know that we’ve done something important together.