October 2009

Test phobia

Everyone knows a little about test phobia: the dream of showing up for class and realizing that the biggest test of the year is that day (and you didn’t study), the clutching fear of a test that you’ve studied for but fear nonetheless, the simple fear of failure.

What if you took a test, then found out after the fact that the grading scale had been dramatically changed?  That instead of needing an 69 to pass, you’d have to get an 80 — but you already turned it in?

That’s what Tennessee school systems are facing right now.  Sometime in the next few weeks, Tennessee will issue our State Report Card.  This shows, for the state as a whole, for every district, and for every school, how well our students did on the TCAP tests last April.  It also shows the TVAAS (value added) score — how much students improve from year to year, not just how well they did this year.

Last April, the test that the kids took (grades 3-8) was pretty much the same test as they’ve taken for the last decade.  What’s different is that the grading scale has changed: kids have to score higher to attain the desirable “proficient” or “advanced” designations.  With the grading scale raised, it’s almost certain that fewer kids will attain such scores, making it appear that a higher percentage of our students are something less than proficient.  If that happens, the value-added grade could actually be negative.

It will appear, on the surface, that our students’ performance has declined.  For those of us who are aware of the change in the grading scale, we’ll know to look more closely to see what happened with the raw scores, not just the grade, but my fear is that most people won’t know the difference.

Next year will be worse, as the grading scale will remain higher, but the test will be made markedly harder as well.

Neither of those things is inherently bad.  More is required of today’s students to be competitive in the world, and we’re teaching them more in preparation for that fact.   The downside is that the school system is judged annually on these scores (they have No Child Left Behind implications as well), and if the public doesn’t realize that the rules of the game changed mid-stream, then the system is subject to intense criticism.  That’s a morale-buster for the teachers, and makes it tougher to obtain the public funding for education that is required.

Every school system in Tennessee is subject to the change in the rules, so it shouldn’t have a huge impact in comparing one school (or one school system) to another.  Where the change in rules impacts the most is in making comparisons of how the same school did in 2007 to 2008 — a measure of improvement.  For the next few years, that measure will be badly flawed.

We will rise to the challenge and meet or exceed the new standards.  It just won’t happen immediately, and we all need to be prepared for that.

WordPress Upgrade

Having been warned,  I upgraded WordPress today (the engine that drives this site).  Because I hadn’t upgraded my “automatic upgrade” plugin either, I had to do it manually.   Meaning it took a little while, and looked funny in the process.   So, if you stopped by this afternoon and it didn’t look right, that’s why.

All done now.

PS: Delta is listening to Kansas as she does her homework in the next room… not too different from how I did my homework in high school, except that she’s better at it.

Scribus: software review

For several years, I was a proficient user of Pagemaker, having responsibility for a number of different desktop-publishing projects for clients.

I no longer do much of that for work, but still have a volunteer commitment or two that requires it.  Unfortunately, when I lost my hard drive last year, I never was able to find my PageMaker CD.  It’s an older version (6.5), but it did what I needed done.  So last year, my volunteer publications were constructed on my OLD laptop (now relegated to the youngest child).  Unfortunately, over this past Summer, it required a total reformat, so my only surviving copy of PageMaker was lost.

This week, it’s again time to put together an orchestra program… and I had no software.  I can’t justify $499 for something that I’m going to use four times per year (and donating my services at that), so I set out to see if there’s a comparable open-source package.

Scribus is it.  Although different from PageMaker, it has all the same functionality, and even seems a bit less finicky about working with imported images.  For example, PageMaker wouldn’t directly import from Photoshop (even though both are Adobe products); Scribus does.

Although it took me a little trial-and-error to figure out how to do the things that I’d learned over the years with Pagemaker, for the most part, it was a seamless transition.  If I’d had the time to actually order the manual before embarking on my first publication, it might have gone even more smoothly!

One of the attractive features of open-source software is the availability of a broad support community, rather than just a manufacturer’s site with paid support options.  There are wikis and message boards with more experienced users, so answers are just a few clicks away in most cases.

If you need to do professional-looking desktop publishing, I highly recommend Scribus.  And no one even paid me to say it (though the software was free, as it is for everyone).

Not so bad…

Fever, chills, congestion… and a general feeling that some evil elf came along and beat me all over with a big stick: sounds like the dreaded “flu-like illness” that’s been making the rounds in the last few weeks.

Since I’m not in any risk categories and likely have at least partial immunity from decades past, I have just ridden it out the old fashioned way.  Aspirin, lots of water and orange juice, a little hot tea and soup, is about the best one can do.

Today is Day 4, and the fever is gone.  At this point, I’m just left with that “hurt all over” feeling… like I’ve skied really hard for several days, or completed a 50-mile bike ride.  But I haven’t done any of those fun things.  All I’ve done is lie in the bed.  I don’t know where that big, ugly bruise on my left foot came from, but I hope it’s from kicking that evil elf to the next county.

In retrospect, it wasn’t nearly as bad (for me) as the media hype, and I’m glad to have gotten it over with.  Years ago, just out of college, I worked for the Knox Co. Health Department, where I was sick for most of three years.  Although I hated it at the time, I’ve become thankful over the years since that I did build up a pretty healthy immunity to the stuff that my kids inevitably brought home from school.

I’ve been through at least five different bouts of kids home with the flu, without catching it.   A little over a week ago though, HWTFM came home from Pantex and fell ill within a couple of days.

Luckily, neither of the younger kids, still at home, have caught it.  Yet.

The fear of the flu — at least for those of us without complicating conditions — is much worse than the real thing, in my opinion.  It’s not fun, but it’s not as bad as the hype.

Life in the way of life…

Fall Break is a wonderful invention, one of the things that the school community has embraced as much as anything I’ve seen in six years.

In East Tennessee, late October is unquestionably one of the most beautiful times of the year.  I genuinely enjoy all seasons — skiing in the Winter, dogwoods in the Spring, swimming and boating in the Summer… but Fall, glorious Fall, brings an explosion of color and weather that’s just perfect.

I enjoy camping for Fall Break.  The crisp mornings and evenings are perfect for a campfire; the blue-sky afternoons are perfect for hiking or biking in the mountains and foothills.

This year, the Oak Ridge Youth Symphony scheduled their first concert on Halloween.  It’s a neat theme, with spooky music and musicians in costume, but it’s on the final Saturday of Fall Break.  Okay.  So, we cut the trip short by a couple of days.

Then, I find out that the Pro-2-Serve Math Contest at UT is scheduled for the Tuesday in the middle of Fall Break.  Gamma is competing and I’ve agreed to chaperone, so we’re stuck with going somewhere not too far away.  Gatlinburg maybe.  Big South Fork is probably too far (though an incredibly beautiful place, where we went last year).  If we’re somewhere not too far from Knoxville, we could just meet the group at UT, then return to camping.

Now, I find out that HWTFM has a Charter Commission meeting on Monday.  So, our only real free time is Saturday-Sunday, or Wednesday-Friday.

I already know that once a child leaves for college, family vacations are fewer and far between.  Breaks don’t line up, and other obligations get in the way.  This year is my last with Gamma at home, and I really want to enjoy the few breaks from school that we get.

Not.  Enough.  Time.