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MHC Receives Rare Book Collection from Alumna

Brad Leithauser Inducted into Iceland's Order of the Falcon

Dept of Public Safety Becomes First in State to Win Accreditation

Students Become Sailors in the Caribbean During January Term

Math Achievement-Gap Expert Busts Myths About Public Education and Standardized Tests

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives
Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives
March 11, 2005

Math Achievement-Gap Expert Busts Myths About Public Education and Standardized Tests

  Uri Treisman
  Uri Treisman

A child in a low-income district will not necessarily get a bad education, or do poorly on standardized tests, according to an education expert who dashed a number of myths during his talk at Gamble Auditorium February 21.

P. Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and the executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said that one of the more pernicious education myths is that demography is destiny. While the myth holds in states that “do not have their act together,” Treisman said, public policy can turn it around.

"Public policy matters,” said Treisman, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992 for his work fostering high achievement in mathematics among minority students and was named as one of the outstanding leaders of higher education in the twentieth century by the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education in December 1999. His talk, “Of Math and Myth: The Role of Higher Education in Strengthening Mathematics Education in the United States,” was sponsored by the Office of Academic Development and the President’s Office.

In Houston, for example, administrators recognized that low-income families move frequently (26 percent of Houston students attend more than one school in a year), so the city established a managed curriculum requiring that all schools use the same materials. As a result, students who changed schools picked up where they left off, and the city’s test scores improved.

By contrast, Chicago teachers choose their own books and establish their own curriculum, rendering what Treisman called “a total incoherent mess.”

The comparison highlights another of Treisman’s points: that schools should choose a curriculum not according to an educational fad, but according to the needs of the ambient community.

"Curriculum fads are really off-base,” he said.

Treisman defended controversial standardized tests, which have become much more common in recent years, because he said they redirect resources to the children who have typically received fewer education resources.

"The U.S. knows how to educate kids,” Treisman said. “The fundamental question is: whose kids do we choose to educate?”

In Texas and North Carolina, for example, minority test scores are scrutinized most closely. Because schools are judged unsuccessful if their minority students score low, the schools have redirected their attention to groups that affect the ratings, Treisman said. They reassigned teachers and provided minority children with better resources.

The results have been dramatic: the performance gap between black and white fifth-grade students, for example, shrank from 20 percent to four percent in six years. Results for other grades are comparable.

Treisman conceded that standardized tests have disadvantages. In Texas, there was widespread cheating, and the state made it a criminal offense to commit fraud on these tests. In Florida, civics was eliminated in some places so that students could spend more time on algebra, to raise those scores. But these examples are not justification for throwing away standardized tests, according to Treisman.

"[The tests] are blunt instruments,” he said. “The way to work on this is to search for finer instruments.”

Treisman said the purpose of schools is connected to the social contract that underlies democracy; people must believe that hard work pays off. If people believe their children have no chance to succeed—that demography is destiny—then the fabric of society falls apart.

Treisman’s talk also pointed out that terms such as “achievement gap” are less meaningful when applied only to one or a small range of institutions, according to Lucas Wilson, associate professor of African American studies and economics and director of the Office of Academic Development. “The ‘underperformers’ in a Texas public school, for example, could very likely be outperforming the top performers in a school district in a state that does not have its act together.”

At the same time, Wilson noted that Treisman’s comments stressed a key concept in the “no child left behind” approach, that of setting a bar under which no student is allowed to fall.

Addressing the need of the poorest academic performers ensures that resources will be aimed at poor performers and, once schools start to succeed in this area, demon- strates that the problems of educational attainment are not based on “innate student ability,” but on societal investment in children.

However, according to Wilson, Texas’s educational policies are still marked by significant problems, including the facts that they neither address the “profoundly segregated” nature of many neighborhood schools in Texas, nor promote class and racial integration in our society. In addition, cheating has increased substantially in response to the expanded use and weight given to standardized tests.

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