Category Archives: Testing

Student substance abuse: bad news for teachers’ test score-based evaluations

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “illicit drug use among teenagers has continued at large rates, largely due to the popularity of marijuana.”  According to the Institute’s statistics,

Marijuana use by adolescents declined from the late 1990s until the mid-to-late 2000s, but has been on the increase since then. In 2012, 6.5 percent of 8th graders, 17.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.9 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month—an increase among 10th and 12th graders from 14.2 percent, and 18.8 percent in 2007. Daily use has also increased; 6.5 percent of 12th graders now use marijuana every day, compared to 5.1 percent in the 2007.

Well-documented are the effects marijuana has on the developing brain.  According to John Knight, MD, Senior Associate in Medicine and Associate in Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard University Medical School, the earlier a child starts smoking marijuana, the earlier “potential changes to brain structure and function” occur.

Further, Dr. Mona Potter, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at The Landing/Dual Diagnosis Adolescent Residential Treatment Unit at McLean Hospital in Boston, says:

“While there is conflicting information related to cannabis’ long-term neurocognitive effects, there is no debate that adolescence is a very vulnerable time to put extraneous substances into the brain. While some adolescents report being able to use marijuana without a major negative impact, they are not always aware of the deficits in learning and memory related to their use.”

But marijuana isn’t the only drugs to which teens have access.  One of the newest trends in adolescent drug abuse involves use of a drug teens refer to as “Molly,” a powder form of MDMA–a component of ecstasy.  Doctors and substance abuse counselors warn that use of this drug, which is highly addictive, is on the rise–particularly because it’s accessible: it’s cheaper than marijuana, and it’s becoming so commonplace that teens generally have no trouble getting their hands on it. Experts warn that it can cause “permanent and irreversible damage to [adolescents’] brains, hearts, kidneys, and other vital organs.”

And then there’s alcohol, which  has a similar–and well-documented–effect on an adolescent’s brain.  

Studies conducted over the last eight years by federally financed researchers in San Diego, for example, found that alcoholic teenagers performed poorly on tests of verbal and nonverbal memory, attention focusing and exercising spatial skills like those required to read a map or assemble a precut bookcase.

It’s no secret that teens have been experimenting with illegal substances for decades, but the movement to tie teachers’ evaluations to the test scores of their students is relatively new.  Which unfortunate teachers will be assigned the students who have recently fallen into depths of substance abuse–and who, by doing so, have literally altered their brain chemistry and affected their ability to focus and to learn–and to perform well on or care about a standardized test?  

What’s even more concerning is that in a time of rising concerns about teen substance abuse and decreased funding for public schools, after-school programs that might otherwise keep kids out of trouble and substance abuse counselors are being cut.

Where does substance abuse within the context of today’s educational system leave kids?  In a bad place with a decreasing number of resources for support.  And where does it leave teachers?  In an equally bad place: one in which they’re at the mercy of reformers, who refuse to consider the effects extraneous factors (drug abuse, poverty, home life) have on students’ standardized test performance.

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Montessori charters or bras wired for cheating. Anyone?

I just read an article about efforts by China’s education ministry to prevent cheating on its college university entrance exam, which over 9 million students take to try to win one of just over 7 million spots in the country’s colleges.  Education officials, who seem to recognize that the pressure students feel to do well on such an important test invites cheating, imposed a ban on clothing with metal parts–including bras–to try to get a handle on “wireless cheating devices.”  For realsies.

While most students in the United States aren’t paraded through metal detectors before they sit for exams, many do feel the same sort of pressure to perform well on high-stakes tests that drives their Chinese counterparts to cheat with the help of a strategically-wired undergarment.

It’s no secret that even the highest-achieving students cheat. Take, for example, the “large-scale cheating” incident that was discovered at Harvard in 2012; it’s evidence that even Ivy-Leaguers, who some assume are models of academic integrity, resort to dishonest and immoral behavior when they feel enough pressure.  Likewise, administrators and teacher in Atlanta and Washington DC, under enormous pressure from reformers to raise test scores and with their jobs on the line, engaged in unethical behavior that called their morality into question.

Knowing that high-stakes testing–along with pressure from parents, administrators, reformers, or anyone else who has a vested interest in the results–opens the door for cheating, why are we forcing our students to test more and more each year?  Is it so we can catch public-school cheaters and hang them on the figurative gallows as evidence that public schools don’t work?

The biggest problem is that reformers like Michelle Rhee claim that if something isn’t measurable, it’s not worth learning. This belief is at the heart of her philosophy, which dictates that students should all be able to learn the same set of skills, and whether or not they actually learn these skills is a direct reflection on their teachers.  What’s worse is that people who have no understanding of public education agree with her.

But in this kind of testing culture, where the push seems to be to destroy public schools in favor of for-profit charters, a community in Connecticut is considering a Montessori charter school.  (What?!)  Yes, you heard that right: Montessori advocates, who do not believe in testing students AT ALL (ever), believe that their method “can trump poverty,” a key indicator in student achievement.

Isn’t this, like, a super-scary dilemma for a reformer? (If you are a reformer and you are reading this, do you feel sick?) What’s a reformer to do?  Ruin public schools (YESSSS!) in favor of a charter school (YESSSSSSS!) that doesn’t measure students by any type of test at all (NOOOOOOOOOO! WTF!)? What a conundrum!

YES, this is an isolated example of a community’s push to use taxpayer dollars for a very specialized (Montessori) school; but could it be an indicator that the idea of no testing AT ALL will become increasingly appealing as a result of the current high-stakes-testing climate?  Or maybe people just like that nobody cares what kind of bra one wears at a Montessori school.

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Filed under Charters, Reform, Testing