Thursday, August 15, 2013

STAR test scores and external influences

STAR test scores (California standardized school tests) recently arrived in parents' mailboxes.  Anxious parents trying to enroll their kids in a .good. school are flooding the server connected to the STAR test score search portal.

I have previously written much about the things that STAR tests can and cannot tell you about a school.

Schools and teachers unions say that they feel like scapegoats because they are held solely accountable for students' learning (as evidenced by standardized test scores) when they cannot control what happens outside the classroom.

They have a good point.  I've become intimately aware of this problem because I spent last year as a volunteer math tutor at a Title I school 3 days a week.  See digression at the bottom.

Wealthy areas have higher test scores than poor ones.  Obviously, that must mean that they have better teachers.  Perhaps you are broadminded and you think that they also have better parents.  Well, I think that rich people differ from poor people in one important way: they have more money.

Tutoring centers fall below many people's radars.  I searched with Google by typing "tutoring centers in  [my zip code]".  Try it with your own zip code.

In wealthy areas, people pay $50-$150/hour for private one-on-one tutoring for their children.  Search for news stories using keywords tutoring+wealthy and you will read eye-popping stories.

The merely upper middle class send their kids to tutoring centers, where their kids are taught in small groups, arranged by ability level rather than chronological ages (as in public schools).

When I searched for tutoring centers in my area, I saw that the red dots fall mainly outside of my zip code.  There are two in my zip code, but they are on the periphery, across the street from wealthier cities' schools.  Notice how few of them locate in south-central Los Angeles.  Tutoring centers follow the money but public school systems cannot.  They need to be where the kids are.

One tutor who works both privately (she charges $30-$50/hour) and in tutoring centers (paid less but the work is steadier) says that her tutoring center students are almost entirely Asian and that their parents pay for tutoring in every subject.  If they have multiple kids, parents could spend as much for after school tutoring as for rent.

This is the "miracle" behind a south bay school district that packs 40-45 students in each classroom and still manages to obtain enviable STAR test scores.

Forget tiger mom and sign your kids up for one of these!  Or maybe not.  The tutor says that the kids she teaches are mostly incurious and only want to get high test scores so that their parents don't jump on them.  That's not a recipe for fostering family bonding or a lifelong love of learning.  She feels sorry for the kids.

The websites of these tutoring centers make for good sociological study.  They invoke Harvard, Yale and the ivy league in their names and literature.  The ivy league .together. admit fewer kids than just one typical state university.  Very few kids will be admitted to them because there is not enough room.  Is every kid that doesn't go to the ivy league a failure?  Whose failure is it?  The kids for not being incredible enough (on paper)?  The parents because they couldn't afford it?  Or their culture for having such a narrow definition of success?

Did you know that public (usually state) universities educate 95% of American college graduates?

Here's one school that markets to the Korean community.  Notice that they explain that their name, Veritas, is the motto for Harvard and part of the motto for Yale.

Another school marketing toward the Chinese community offers Mandarin classes as well.  They call themselves "Ivy League School".

Another popular area tutoring center names themselves after a scientist.  Take a look at their rate schedule (typical for this area) and multiply by 2-3 kids.

Bad dad says that these elementary school standardized tests don't matter to kids' futures at all.  I disagree.  The reason that these tutoring centers spend so much time preparing elementary age kids for them is because they determine whether you get into GATE and honors classes.  Those classes then funnel into AP classes.

Unless you take AP classes and get that one grade point bump in your GPA, it is numerically impossible to get into one of the competitive UC campuses.  While the top 10-15% of CA HS seniors are guaranteed entrance to the UC system, a greater than 4.0, straight As in normal classes, is required for the most desired campuses of UCB, UCLA, UCSD.

Due to state and federal budget cuts, the school district did not have funding for "homework club", an after school program where kids could come for help with school coursework.  When funding was available, the school paid teachers to stay after school 4 days a week (1 each for math/science and English/history and one for remedial students).

[The idea is that remedial kids should never have to ask questions about basic stuff in front of kids working at or above grade level.  I was pleasantly surprised by the thoughtfulness of this insight.]

3 teachers, 4 days a week, or 12 hours of funding a week.  Teachers who volunteered were assigned 1-2 hours per week.

Anyway, that was in the past.  Now the schools have no money and they have to beg for help for their kids.  Not every Title I school has a mother with a PhD in science (and a BA in math) who was conveniently laid off at the same time that school funding was cut.  But there I was, and the assistant principal is a master of getting squeezing blood out of turnips to get her kids what they need.

I have a lot more to say about that experience, but will save it for another day.


  1. I am waiting to hear what you have to write next!

  2. I wish "education reformers" would think about this as clearly as you do. I see so much effort expended- some of it well-meaning, some of it cynical- by people who refuse to really think about how money plays out in education.

    Gah. It makes me too angry.