255, 233, and 186

Though I am not a mathematician, physicist, or astronomer, and though I teach words, words, words, my professional life is an orbit of numbers. Some of the numbers are relatively innocuous: attendance, school picture orders, class periods. Yet every fall I get a series of numbers that guides instructional decisions for the next months and serves as the first half of what, to some degree, is largely regarded as a metric of my effectiveness as a teacher. In the spring, students trudge back into the computer lab as they did today to take the second MAP test, and I sit at my computer, entering the various scores, hoping that  each student will score higher than she did in the fall.

The fall testing regime tells me what I have to work with. There are rarely any surprises: I can often guess within three or four points what a given student will make. By the time they’ve taken the test, the students have been in my class for a month, plenty of time to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Add to it the fact that English and math classes are grouped by ability in our county and it’s a relatively easy exercise, this “Guess My Score.”

But there are always surprises. Today, for example, student after student in one class just seemed to be scoring higher and higher. Given the fact that an average MAP reading score for an eighth grader is 220, seeing student after student score above 240 is astounding. “It’s no wonder these kids are in English I Honors, effectively skipping eight-grade English and going straight to a ninth-grade, rigorous honors course,” I thought as I punched in the numbers. I knew they would be high, but this high? Unheard of. The highest fall class average I’ve ever encountered. And then one student finished with a score of 255, just four points lower than the highest spring score I’d ever seen!

It’s much more dramatic when one knows the grade level norms for the MAP reading test.

GRADE FALL SPRING GROWTH
1 160 173 13
2 179 190 11
3 192 200 8
4 201 207 6
5 208 212 4
6 213 216 3
7 217 219 2
8 220 223 3
9 222 224 2

So the reading level of the student who scored a 255 is at least a college freshman, if not higher.

“What am I going to do with these kids?” I joked with a colleague. “They’re already scoring higher than they should at the end of ninth grade!”

“Make them your assistant teachers,” she replied.

Yet it’s not a serious problem: I just have to push them harder than usual. It would be a problem if they were mixed in with some students from other classes, because their reading level is significantly below grade level.

Later in the day, I had the opposite situation: student after student was scoring significantly below grade level. By significant, I mean a class average that, for the first twelve or thirteen students, didn’t rise above 197. Several students were scoring in the 180’s. Scroll back up and check the chart: that’s a second- or third-grade reading level. Though several students were absent from that class, I was still hopeful that by the time I entered the final scores, the average would rise above 200. But there were no scores high enough to pull the mean up, until the 223. The highest score in the class, and technically a score above average. The mean soared, rising to almost 201. I sighed in relief: it’s low, but having a sub-200 score seemed impossible. Unheard of. Then the next student finished: 186. The averaged dipped below 200 again, and stayed there until the end of testing, just two tenths of a point away from 200.

At the end of the day, I looked at the summary I’d created. Two classes drastically below average; two classes radically above. The lowest score put one student at a second-grade reading level; the highest score put another student at a college freshman or sophomore level.

“Thank goodness I don’t have them in the same class,” I thought. What could a teacher possibly do with students literally ten to twelve grade levels apart in reading? It’s essentially a return to the one-room school concept. Fortunately, I don’t have to figure out a way to solve that problem in my class, and the math teachers are equally fortunate. But social studies and science? There’s no leveling there, and so one’s class is likely to be an incredible mix of ability, motivation, and preparedness. I know there are ways to compensate for this (I have a Master’s in education, for heaven’s sake), but those techniques and tricks seem hardly up to such a challenge: they seem like they work only in theory. In practice, someone is always going to be bored, and thus someone is always going to be disruptive.

I wish I could end this with some sort of optimistic, pithy observation about the nature of education, about the malleability of the brain, about the strength of the human spirit, or some such cliche. I have answers I’ve found in books, but I don’t know how effective they are in dealing with such issues, especially when a significant portion of the challenge lies in challenging others to change their habits and behaviors.

It leaves me feeling pessimistic.

But I’ll get over it by Monday.

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