Monday, December 01, 2008

And So It Starts. The beginning of the 2009 Legislative Session is more than a month away, but looking at my December calendar, it looks like it is already arrived. The starting gun went off today as the Senate and House Education Policy Committees held a joint hearing to discuss the high-stakes 11th grade mathematics test and other accountability issues.

The hearing began with an appearance by MDE Commissioner Alice Seagren and MDE Testing and Assessment Director Dirk Mattson describing some of the options being considered by MDE as the 2009 Legislative Session nears. The cause of the furor surrounding the high-stakes test springs from the fact that the passage rate is expected to be less than 50%. Because of the high-stakes (that's education lingo for "no pass/no diploma") nature of the test, it would prevent a significant portion of this year's juniors from receiving a diploma. Needless to say, this would be both alarming and inaccurate.

Several groups then provided their reaction and possible solutions to the problem. Dr. Ric Dressen brought in a team from the Edina School District, which is in the process of designing and approving an alternative path to a diploma for students who fail the high-stakes test. It's quite an comprehensive and rigorous pathway, but when Edina testifies--and they are impressive--it always makes me chuckle a bit. Edina is a well-staffed school district that simply has more people in the position to develop and implement this type of program. Most SEE districts simply don't have the additional people-power to make a change as significant as this one.

Which again leads us to the inevitable discussion of why MDE isn't providing more in terms of leadership on this crucial issue. I imagine as we move forward, we are going to hear all about possible waivers and other devices that will simply avoid the issue as to what the goals of the state's testing initiatives are and how to implement these goals in a way that will provide an accurate and helpful (for students, teachers, and the community-at-large) information about student achievement. In fairness to MDE, after almost two decades of having the stuffings knocked out of them in terms of personnel, they also are lacking the people to deliver the types of services that are helpful to school districts in this realm.

For my own part, I continue to be frustrated by the notion that somehow the subjective can be made transparently objective. What do I mean by that? The value of learning is often subjective. There are certain objective items that all students must know that can be measured very straightforwardly, but the ability to apply knowledge in a meaningful way is subjective to a great extent. Yet, in the wake of NCLB, states try to develop strictly objective criteria and measuring devices to give a snapshot of their progress in meeting, in my estimation for a great number of students, these foggy goals. Not foggy in the sense that the score on the test is not clear, but foggy in the sense that we don't really know if the knowledge being measured is authentic.

This discussion will continue as we head toward session. Senate Education Policy Chair Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood) stated that a working group will be assembled to come up with a legislative response to this issue with the goal of having a bill ready to go early in the session. It would be great to get this taken care of during the first month of session, as the likely budget agony is going to take center stage starting in late January and having important initiatives like this one get gummed up in the budget negotiations would be frustrating. Decisive early action would be a much preferred route.

Now if I Can only Teach Him to Shovel Snow. Sunny has turned one and as a yellow lab, he is turning me into a gray terrier (I'm yapping at him all the time and turning grayer by the day) with his antics, but I will have to admit that he is the smartest dog on the block. Just a couple of weeks ago, I left the rake by the side of the house while I went in the house for a minute or so and when I returned, Sunny, as you can clearly see, was raking for me. What a thoughtful dog!
More Movie Reviews. I ran into Bob Porter at a legislative hearing this summer and he told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to see more movie reviews. My wife and I usually see one movie per weekend and today, I'll report on Baz Luhrmann's epic homage to his homeland "Australia" which opened last weekend.
Kidman! Jackman! Other people! Awesome!
This is truly a fine movie. It hasn't received universal praise from the critics and at times, Luhrmann seems to be trying to tell the entire history of Australia beginning with the Pleistocene epoch in a mere 2 and a half hours making things seem a bit hurried, but it's been a long time since I've seen an "important" movie with less navel gazing and more concentration on broad (sometimes seemingly larger than life) themes.
For SEE members, it also instructive that Northern Australia is clearly a low property wealth part of that continent. So see it if you get a chance during this hectic month.

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