Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What Are We Trying to Measure? IPC and Compensatory Models

Two debates were of note at the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) this week. There were more, but I only want to talk about two.

The first was the discussion about curriculum and course sequencing. The SBOE increased the rigors of both mathematics and science curriculum by requiring for graduation four years of math (including Algebra II) and advanced science courses. I applaud these efforts as research is quite clear that college readiness depends upon taking a rigorous set of high school courses. (For example, see the ACT Policy Paper: Courses Count.) Go figure! What I don’t understand is a science course called “Integrated Physics and Chemistry” (IPC). This course is a “survey” or “introduction” course that in one year teaches both physics and chemistry, with the idea being that students take a biology course, the integrated course, and then one of either chemistry or physics. This sounded odd to me, so I asked an expert—a teacher. She told me that physics and chemistry are really difficult (not surprising, I remember them being difficult when I was in school) and that IPC was an instructional "warm-up" or instructional bridge to physics and chemistry such that later on the students would be better prepared to take physics and/or chemistry. This logic has a degree of sense to it, but I wonder: Would it not be better to spend the time giving students the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in physics and chemistry during their school career instead of defining a “prep course” to take prior to their engagement? Perhaps, but I am smart enough to listen to a teacher when she tells me about instruction, so I will take a wait-and-see approach. Stay tuned.

The second debate was really an old issue regarding compensatory models. The argument is simple from a “passing rates” perspective. Namely, students are required to pass four subjects by performing at or above the proficiency standard for each subject. If you allow a really good score in one area to compensate for a low (but not disastrous) score in another area, more students will pass. There were passionate and sound (and not so sound) arguments to use a compensatory model for this purpose (i.e., increased passing rates). Being a psychometrician, however, it is hard for me to reconcile this logic. Why should, on a standards-referenced assessment, good performance in say social studies compensate for poor performance in say mathematics? I claim that instead of muddying the waters with respect to the construct being measured, and if increased passing rates are the goal, do something to enhance learning or lower the standards. I am sure this last claim would get me run out of town on a rail. Yet, the notion of compensating for poor math performance via one of the other subject areas was a legitimate agenda item at the SBOE meeting. Again, go figure!

No comments: