Latest QCSD "Recognition" Is Far From What It Seems

May 24, 2012

The headline in the Intel sounded very dramatic: "Quakertown schools recognized by College Board". QCSD appeared to have received quite an honor. But, as is often the case with our school district, all is not as it seems.

The story explained "Quakertown High School and Strayer Middle School have been named SpringBoard National Demonstration School finalists. The schools are being recognized for increased student achievement, outstanding instructional leadership, and shared best practices by teachers during the implementation of SpringBoard over the last three years. Developed by the College Board, SpringBoard is a college readiness program in English language arts and mathematics for students in grades six through 12. The program engages students in problem solving and critical analysis and prepares students for success in Advanced Placement courses and college."

Quakertown High School Principal Anita Serge, in one of her final acts before being removed, added "Springboard has provided us with a framework which ensures that all of our students are provided with a rich and rigorous curriculum. The strategies are consistent across the grade levels and are useful for the complex reading, writing and thinking needed for college and career." Serge insisted that the district is seeing notable gains in PSSA, AP, and SAT scores, and "It must be noted that this is all occurring with a population where 23 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged".

Serge's bold claims about improvement are both untrue and disingenuous, and the reality is probably the big reason that she is being removed. Our PSSA's have been dreadful. The district refuses to release SAT scores. And, in any case, QCSD purports to not even care. At Superintendent Andrejko's urging, success on standardized tests was officially dropped as a district goal last year!

To start with, that "recognition" is from the same folks who sold QCSD the program. The College Board company has been widely criticized for it's virtual monopoly of school testing, and the huge salaries paid to its executives (which come from, among other things, districts like ours that each pays tens of thousands of dollars to use SpringBoard). CB creates the tests, administers them, and computes the scores. But since 2004, the company has been in a huge conflict of interest, centered on SpringBoard. The testing company sells the program intended to raise scores on its own tests!

And that also puts school districts into their own conflict of interest. Having paid large fees yearly for the program, their reputations - and our tax dollars - are at stake. How likely is it that the administration will acknowledge that SpringBoard is anything but a rousing success??? QCSD claims to have increasing SAT scores, but refuses to make them public. But the average national scores for every year since 1972 are available on the College Board website. And the results have been truly depressing. Since the SpringBoard program began in 2004, the average reading scores, on the scale of 200-800, have been 508, 508, 503, 501, 500, 499, 500, 497. Math is equally poor: 518, 520, 518, 514, 514, 514, 515, 514.

Not only have SAT scores not increased with SpringBoard, they have declined in both reading and math!

School Director Mitch Anderson served for many years as both vice-president, and president, of the QCSD teachers union, and saw the problems with SpringBoard first-hand. "When teachers were introduced to the program by the College Board officials, they were told there would be so much to cover that they would only get done the first chapter (out of five). But the administration told them they had to do it all, which they cannot. It is designed to prep students for SAT's, so it only includes short pieces. The students do not read books, they follow along as the book is read by audio. There is no emphasis on grammar, or knowledge of literature. Teachers have to follow the daily pacing guide no matter what."

So, again, our curriculum is sacrificed on the altar of SAT scores.

Actually, QCSD would be way ahead of the national average if our scores simply stayed the same. But our administration has made it impossible for us to judge progress for ourselves. So what does it mean to be a "National Demonstration School finalist?". Apparently very little....

On the 2009-10 PSSA's, QCHS ranked eighth out of 12 Upper Bucks high schools in reading proficiency (only .4 percent ahead of number nine Hatboro-Horsham), and ninth in math (.6 percent ahead of number 10 Pennridge). QCHS was one of only a handful of area schools that didn't make Adequate Yearly Progress in 2010-11. The 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer Report Card on the Schools showed QCHS to be 46th of the 55 public high schools in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties.

As for Serge's claim of great progress despite 23 percent of students being economically disadvantaged, The Intel pointed out last September that only two schools of the dozens in its entire coverage area failed the math ED subgroup - William Tennent High School in Bristol (which was in the third year of a state-mandated Corrective-Action Plan), and QCHS. Moreover, our 50 percent failure rate was the worst of any school, period. ED students do succeed - just not here.

And our ED students are not alone. Twenty-nine percent of all QCHS 11th graders failed the math PSSA's last year, compared to 27.5 percent in 2009-10. And this is after years of SpringBoard. We aren't getting better, we are regressing. In fact, of the eight area high schools, Quakertown is in a virtual tie with Southern Lehigh and East Penn for the second-highest percentage of juniors failing the math PSSA's. Only Saucon Valley, with 37.9 percent failing, is worse.

The area rankings are pretty much the same for ED math. Souderton is again best at 29.2 percent, which is almost exactly QCHS' rate for all juniors! We are tied for fifth, with East Penn (50.9%). But the fact that most other districts succeed where we fail shows that it can be done - and, in fact, is accomplished by many other schools in PA with even higher numbers of ED students.

No matter how you look at it, the College Board and PA Dept of Education statistics show that the QCSD "recognition" is absurd at best, and an outright deception at worst.

Anderson has an idea why: "The conflict of interest is a serious matter, including the large salaries of the executives. Every kid who takes a course sends more money to the College Board. Why has the school been pushing all kids to take the PSAT? That is more money for the College Board. Educationists do not see these problems. They are too naive to grasp that there might be a profit motive, but the (undeserved) award QCHS received reinforces that point."

He also found that the SpringBoard program was not well accepted here. "I heard very negative responses from my colleagues when it was introduced. The two biggest complaints were its clear lack of rigor in comparison to what they were teaching, and that fact that their lessons are so scripted to the point of telling the teachers exactly what to say. Watching video, and listening to music, are considered equal to reading when experiencing literature. I have heard from some parents that their kids no longer read whole books, but snippets of books. The kids are not too impressed either from what I have heard."

A QCHS senior confirmed it: "The teachers openly admit to hating SpringBoard. In my sophomore year English class, we read just two books the whole year. By comparison, we watched at least 5 movies, including such profoundly deep and meaningful films as Bend It Like Beckham." And his mother added, "I do have to say that I am noticing our kids are not reading as much as they used to. Could be the effect of this program turning them off on reading for fun/relaxation."

But our administration is thrilled with its "recognition".