Comment Of The Day
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Saturday, September 2, 1998

Sludge and Drudge.

PART ONE: It's horrible, terrible, no good, very bad stuff. But, it has to go somewhere, as we all know.

Welcome to Sierra Blanca, Texas, home of New York City's treated sewage site (since 1992) and the largest sewage dump in the nation and, coming soon, the low-level (euphemistically) nuclear waste from the great states of Maine, Vermont, and beyond. The town is small (population 600), really big, poor and mostly Hispanic. Sounds like a formula, no? Per capita income is around $8,000. One ranch just outside of town has been receiving 400 tons of New York "sludge," everyday. Defintion: sludge (sluj) n. 1. Semisolid material such as the type precipitated by sewage treatment. Here's a quote from James Schilling, owner of the Sierra Motel: "The sludge plant and coming soon, the low-level nuclear site? I'm all for them, and most of therest of the town is, too. We need progress in the town, and these facilities will bring money and jobs here." Along with sludge and radiation, of course.

Senator Wellstone of Minnesota is one of the sole objectors to the new plan. He says it's a fight for municipalities without political clout like Sierra Blanca, Texas. It's his feeling that they have become targets of opportunitiy for large interests that have encountered finding homes in larger more powerful polities. Plus, smaller towns are far less sophisticated and therefore, less protected by watchdogs. For example, in Sierra Blanca, a thorough geological study of the site has not been done. In New York City or almost any city this just could not and would not happen. Oops. But, Governor George Bush and his administration are not bound to follow any court rulings on this situation anyway. The common wisdom of the Texas capital is that despite low yield, disingenuous political whinnings from George, Jr. the deal will go right through, muy pronto. David Frederick, a lawyer for the Sierra Defense Fund, stated, "Look, you and I both know that these people are low income, minority populations. They do not have a strong spokesperson in state government. It's obvious that this area was selected because it did not have the financial or political strength to resist." It is apparent that Mexico's politicians are more interested in this small Texas community, than the Texans and their leadership. Governors of Mexico states of Coahuila and Chihauhau have officially called what is going on, "economic racism." And legislators from those states have held hunger strikes in protest on the bridges over the El Paso River. Proponents point to the new football field and the new fire truck as evidence that the town is moving in the right and more progressive direction. Sierra Blanca was once a ranching and railroad center, but now, with three gas stations for passing motorists, two RV parks, two motels, a general store, and an old post office, it is a shadow, a parody, of its former self. Sierra Blanca was the exact spot where the Southern Pacific and Texas Pacific Railroad's met in 1881. An event commemorated in all history textbooks with the driving of the "golden spike." Now, another "golden spike is being driven into the heart of this innocent community, one that stinks to high heaven and glows in the dark., Sierra Blanca (White Mountains) is a clear and present proof of bad stuff flowing downhill. But at least it's no longer flowing downhill in the dark.

PART TWO: Drudging along towards college on the S.A.T. not-so-super highway.

It has been noted, in innumerable conversations and articles about education, that almost everyone likes to criticize the public schools. This is especially true if the speaker or writer didn't do well, his or her children are not doing well, and it is doubly and triply true if the speaker is divorced, an alcoholic-substance abuser, or so totally overworked and busy that there is no time for the kids, and his or her conscious over deficit-parenting is really bothering him or her, but there's no fessing up.

Anyway, lets talk about standardized testing and those dreaded and, some say, dreaful SATs for moment.
More college-bound students had A-averages this
year than any other year in the past. But, the increase of scores on the SATs was lower (not by much, just a few points or so, but still, lower.) than any other year. This has generated a whole new industry of analysists who are publishing data in all directions concerning the implications of this "alarming new trend." The SAT Board stated that test takers with A-averages grew from 28 percent to 38 percent over the last 10 years. But on the Math portion average scores fell 3 points and on the verbal they fell 12 points. The trend may reflect positive changes in education (which no one believes, predictably), or it may reflect easier grading on the part of attacked, beleaguered, criticized, underpaid, overworked, and over stressed teachers. Actually, nationwide average SAT scores are the highest they have been in 27 years (512 math, 505 verbal), but there is a wide, too-wide 30-point gap between rural and suburban areas. By the way, 1.2 million students took the SATs before they graduated last June, and this is also a big increase. Plus the number of students in Advanced Placement (AP) courses (basically college courses given at the high school level for top students who qualify) vastly increased at all schools as well.

So, hopefully, you see that before you blast off on "students today" being dumber than you were you should take a deep, informational complexity breath. Remember that one of the biggest factors in the current downward trend (of the upward trend) of the SATs is the disparity between urban and suburban areas. Suburban students are way, way ahead of their variegated urban brothers and sisters. 40 to 50 percent of African-American and Latino students live in large cities. Also, students with parents who have less education are falling even further behind than urban students. All of this is coming at a time when every school district is increasing it standards for graduation, extending hours per day and days per year, and increasingly emphasizing evermore stringent evaluation of students and teachers. And then, there is the old, and valid, argument about the SATs themselves as unreliable predictors of college success especially when compared to simple high school performance. Put another way, grades are a better predictor, by far, than the SATs, as admitted by everyone involved including even the proponents of SATs and the SAT Board itself.

Just suppose that grade inflation is part of this mix. What would be the reason? Why would teachers be inclined to grade higher? In a pure classroom setting, the teacher would let the cards fall where they may. A student with a C-average, or a student with an A-average does not necessarily create more work or less work one way or the other for the teacher. A highly motivated, successful student can be a lot more work than an average student. It depends. But from within the classroom, I can see no dynamic that would impel teachers to inflate their grades. Can you see any other factor that might cause this phenomenon? Parent pressure? ("My child is NOT a C-student! No way!!!") Could that be it, at all? Teacher evaluations based on parent complaints? Community demands for "higher standards?" Elitist insistence on Ivy League schools when today college selections are far, far more complicated than simply name colleges? But, in any case, from the parents to the school committee; from children who come to school from broken families and substance abuse; from political leaders who are uninformed and fan the flames of ignorance to elitists who vicariously live through their children, teachers are under more pressure than ever. It's not the demands of teaching, it's the demands of distracted parents who want the schools to do it all for them, and then take the blame as well. So, when you're ready to square off on "kids today" and SAT scores, ask yourself, "How would I like to be in high school today?" Graduation requirements are way, way up, grade expectations are way, way up, competition for college admission is tougher by far than ever before (including formerly "safe: state institutions), the courses are grueling, the homework takes until midnight and all weekend, and everywhere there are clamorings for more school (less parenting) hours, more school days, tougher teaching, tougher courses, more requirements and never-ending criticism of everything about the public schools. Oh, yeah, you'd love it. In fact some of these factors directly impact grade inflation: for example, the exponential increase in advanced placement courses obviously will result in some of it because students received a weighted grade: if you get a B in AP, it's a A on the high school transcript. If you get an A is higher than the regular A. This also true of honors-weighted courses, which are even more prevalent. And, while all of these statistics become polemical, everyone agrees that the increased number of students taking the test is good for the nation. Calculators are now allowed in the Math portion (and in classroom testing as well) which has meant higher scores due to fewer sloppy, careless mistakes. And even with the urban/suburban disparities, one third of all students taking the SATs, and AP courses, are now from minorities and their numbers in Masters and PhD programs are vastly increased from just a decade ago. SATs are now taken by 43 percent of all high school graduates. One last statistic from all of these SAT-taker evaluations: the top three career preferences are: 1. Health and allied services (18 percent) 2. Business and commerce (14 percent) 3. Social sciences and history (11 percent).

So, there you go. Now you are armed and ready for the battle at the coffee counter. Except for one last thing: answer these five questions from last year's Scholastic Aptitude Test. If you get even one right, you can have an extra donut (if you have the money):

1. Describe the history of the Papacy from its origins to the present day. Concentrate specially but not exclusively on the social, political, economic, religious, philosophical, and sociobiological impact on Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Be brief, concise and specific.

2. Compose an epic poem based on the events of your life in which you see and footnote allusions from TS Eliot, Keats, Chaucer, Norse mythology, and the Marx brothers. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its metrics.

3.Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate it and perform it with flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat (no synthesizers!).

.4. Using accepted methodology, prove all four of the following: that the universe is infinite; that truth is beauty; that there is not a little person that turns off the light in the refrigerator when you close the door; that if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, it doesn't make a noise; and that you are the person taking this exam. Now disprove all of the above. Be specific; show all work.

5. Sketch the development of human thought; estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought (extra credit for comparing and contrast eastern and western philosophers, with the exception of Confucius, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, Hobbes, Calvin, and Ayn Rand).

Bonus! You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your own appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.

See you next time? But, not until you finish your answers.

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