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When a test is only as good as its teacher

My older son waved me off this summer when I tried to congratulate him for his good grade on a United States History Advanced Placement exam.

"Half the kids in the class got a 5," he said, referring to the top possible score.

The opposite happened when I had a serious talk with my younger son about a low mark on his AP exam for a social studies course at Nature Coast Technical High School.

He replied that "lots of kids got a 1" — not just a failing grade, but a full notch below failure.

My sons are different, of course, different in how hard they study and how they deal with praise and criticism.

Still, I suspected there might be something to what they said about these classes, and, after reviewing AP scores in all subjects at all of Hernando County's public high schools, I found there absolutely was.

I also found plenty of information — along with what I saw of these classes from my second-deck seat as a parent — to confirm what I've long believed about standardized tests.

No, AP tests, which give students a chance to earn college credits for rigorous courses, aren't at the heart of the testing debate.

Still, I think that, like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, they give a generally accurate picture of the skill and commitment of teachers. I also think the complaining we hear from teachers about being made to "teach to the test" is mostly resistance to being held accountable — and that we need more accountability in schools, not less.

I'm naming my son's history teacher at Springstead High School, John Imhof, because he deserves to be singled out. In fact, I'll go further. Considering the number of kids he's teaching, how well he's teaching them, how crucial his subject is to building scholarship and citizenship, I'd say he's doing some of the most important work in the county.

Fifty-two of his students took the AP exam, and my son was almost right — nearly half of them, 23, received the highest mark, 5. Only three scored lower than a 3 — the level usually required to earn college credit. The average score of students in his classes was 4.19.

This was the second-highest average in the county, behind only a Chinese language course that had just three students. My other son's teacher, on the other hand, ended up with one of the lowest averages, 1.76.

I'm not naming her, or even the exact subject she taught, because public embarrassment isn't the kind of accountability I have in mind, and because neither she nor Nature Coast is alone in producing miserably low scores.

In fact, the school's overall average AP score was second-highest in the county, though with its very low rates of AP enrollment, they should be a lot higher. But parents would also be well advised to steer their kids clear of AP microeconomics or biology courses at Central High School or U.S. history at Hernando High.

I'm focusing on just one of these bad teachers, my son's, because she's the one I know most about. To achieve such a low average, many of her students did, in fact, get 1's — 12 of 21 students tested. There wasn't a single 5 and only two 4's.

Many of you will assume that Imhof had better material to work with, and it's true that Springstead's International Baccalaureate program attracts many of the county's top students.

But only about half of his students last year were in IB, said Springstead principal Susan Duval. And school superintendent Bryan Blavatt confirmed my impression that the district's elementary and middle school magnet pipeline deposits most of its kids at Nature Coast. That helps explain why it has the lowest percentage among county high schools of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which correlates to higher scores.

So, no doubt Nature Coast kids could produce plenty of good marks with proper instruction.

The problem is, in my son's class, they didn't get it.

He almost never brought home reading assignments. And when I asked his teacher about this, I got only vague emails in reply. His rare writing assignments were impressively called "projects," even though they generally involved a few scrawled paragraphs. When I told my son this wasn't acceptable, that he needed to work a lot harder in an AP class, he told me he was doing fine. And he was, by his teacher's standards. His year-end grade was a B.

My other son? Reading almost nightly, spending weekends outlining chapters of his textbook, regularly writing essays that looked fine to me but that never seemed good enough for his teacher, who returned them covered with corrections and suggestions.

It was a lot of work for my son, but more for Imhof, a popular teacher with large classes.

The payoff is not just that my son scored well enough on his AP exam to earn college credit or impress admissions offices, though that's one of the best things AP exams can do for students and for this community — send the message that our schools are capable of world-class instruction.

No, the real payoff is that my son and his classmates know how to write, know how to think clearly and know how to recognize pseudo-historical junk when they hear it.

Likewise, my main concern about my younger son isn't the black mark on his academic record. It's the blown opportunity to learn about other cultures and economies, a lifetime's worth of context that would be helpful in just about any field.

I'll be honest. The whole thing infuriated me, especially the minimal consequences. His teacher missed out on some bonus money the state awards teachers for each passing grade on AP exams. But she makes the same base salary as Imhof, about $41,000 a year. She is still teaching and, incredibly, still teaching AP.

Joe Clifford, the principal at Central High, told me that he's set on improving his school's poor AP record, and this year he hired a new AP coordinator.

Duval, the Springstead principal, explained how good AP programs bring in more money through state stipends awarded for passing grades, and that these pay for more training, which raises the level of instruction in all of the school's classes.

What's going on with AP at Nature Coast? Do bad teachers get a warning? Do they have access to extra training?

I don't know because principal Toni-Ann Noyes didn't call me back. Maybe it's just habit. She rarely returns calls from reporters in this office.

Or maybe she just doesn't like being held accountable.

.fast facts

Advanced Placement: How schools scored

Here's the percentage of students in 2012 who scored at least a 3 (out of a possible 5) — globally, in Florida and at each Hernando County public high school, along with the number of students at each school taking AP exams.

Global: 61 percent

Florida: 51 percent

Central High School (204 students): 38 percent

Springstead High School (280 students): 66 percent.

Nature Coast Technical High School (93 students): 56 percent.

Hernando High School (140 students): 35 percent.

* Weeki Wachee High School (42 students): 41 percent.

*Included only grades 9 to 11 for the 2011-12 school year.

See the full report at

When a test is only as good as its teacher 09/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 9:58am]
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