STEM Education in Douglas County Anything but Excellent

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The following letter was published in the Douglas County Sentinel on May 16th, 2019, in response to their story about multiple schools in Douglas County being granted a National Certification for Excellence in STEM Education.  See the underlying data here.

Dear Editor,

The earning of a national certification for excellence in STEM education implies that science and math education is in good shape in Douglas County, and is thriving at Lithia Springs High School in particular. But a look at more objective metrics of STEM achievement in our schools suggests that there is reason to be alarmed at how well our students truly understand science and math. Districtwide, over each of the past three years, less than 30% of our high school students demonstrated proficiency in Math on state End-of-Course exams, signifying that over 70% will not graduate ‘college ready’ in Math. These results are even lower at Lithia Springs, where one would expect high levels of achievement at a STEM magnet that recently earned such a prestigious recognition.  Yet, astonishingly, the failure rate on AP STEM exams in 2018 was 100% in Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, and Statistics, with most common score being the lowest possible of a 1. Just let this sink in: most of our AP students at our STEM magnet make the same exam score as a person would who knew nothing about the subject (but this doesn’t stop them from getting As in their courses!).  We see such results there year after year.

 Our county paid a tidy $12,500 to the National Institute of STEM Education for this certification, according to their website, and undoubtedly had to fill out a lot of paperwork to obtain the honor. But demonstrating excellence in student STEM achievement clearly was not a requirement. Surely there are some good science and math teachers employing some ‘best practices’ in the classroom,  but as far as actual achievement in science and math goes, besides a solid science fair program, our school system’s STEM education may be better described as dismal, not excellent.

 Regards,

Jeremy Noonan

Why Grade Inflation Happens – a Response to WSB’s Investigation into Misleading Course Grades in Douglas County

WSB’s Richard Belcher ran a special investigation (aired April 29, 2018) on Channel 2 Action News into grade inflation in Douglas County’s five high schools. I want to reflect here on some reasons why grades are inflated (meaning that they are higher than what is merited by the actual level and amount of knowledge students have obtained)

Why Grade Inflation Occurs

A lack of clarity about what grades are supposed to represent

This problem was highlighted in Chief Academic Officer Pam Nail’s confused response to Richard Belcher’s questions about the meaning of an ‘A’:

“Is it too simple to say that if you get an A, you really should know the subject matter very well?” Belcher asked.

“I think you should, you should know some of the subject matter very well,” Nail said. “But as a whole, that grade should be reflective of learning.”

“Of excellence? If it’s an A, it should be excellent, shouldn’t it?” Belcher said.

“If it’s going to be a high level A, yes,” Nail said.

Thanks for clearing that up! Now that everybody knows what an A means we can focus on making sure students earn them!

This confused response is consistent with DCSS’s vague grading policy, which only sets numerical ranges for grades, but assigns them no qualitative meaning. Thus, grades are neither clear nor consistent in communicating with the public what students are achieving in their classes.

The less schools demand of students, the less they demand of the schools

Without a clear standard for what an A means and how to earn one, the default tendency prevails, which is to make it easy for students to make ‘good grades’ (As and Bs). This is the default because if students and their parents are happy with their grades, they will demand less: less need for tutoring, less need to improve instruction, less complaints to administrators, less conferences, less phone calls home, etc. Schools have deliberately made it hard for teachers to assign low but honest grades, so most do not.

There is a perverse sense of moral obligation to ‘help’ students by giving them what they don’t deserve.

This is probably the deepest cause, because it is rooted in the consciences of some educators. The thinking goes, “Well I and others made it all the way through college without really having to master our subjects, so why should I deny students of this same opportunity?”

A related justification is an appeal to normalcy: “everyone else is rigging the system to help their students advance and get into college, so it would be wrong of us to disadvantage our students by doing the right thing.” I hope you see that this completely flips morality on its head!

How Citizens Should Respond

This problem will only be fixed if local stakeholders hold schools accountable. These causes provide an outline for how citizens should respond.

  1. Petition the BoE for a revised grading policy that defines clearly what credits and grades represent. This is essential for clarity and consistency.
  2. If your child is not being challenged, and you know her good grade isn’t merited, then COMPLAIN loudly and persistently to the teachers and principal. Schools hate getting complaints; minimizing them is one of their chief goals. But usually they have to deal with complaints about low grades. Imagine if they had to deal with complaints about classes being too easy!
  3. Recognize and show other parents that inflated grades do much more harm than good, long-term. DCSS graduates as a whole do quite poorly in college, for instance: graduation rates are low, and dropout rates are high. Many graduate with debt, but without a degree.

 

The Bigger College Admissions Scandal: How our Public Schools Dupe Colleges (and our Kids)

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Is it good for our children to lie and cheat on their behalf? 

A striking feature about the college admissions scandal – revealed to the public this week through FBI indictments – is that the children of these wealthy elite were, for the most part, kept in the dark about their parents devious schemes to game the admissions system on their behalf. There were two main ways parents cheated the system: 1) through bribing coaches to claim that their children were elite athletes; 2) through falsifying their children’s SAT scores either by paying testing centers to change their answers or by paying proxies to take the test for them.

It is the latter scheme that the children seemed clueless about, their parents going to great lengths to keep their children in the dark. According to the FBI’s affidavit, one the plaintiffs planned to have her daughter take the exam on her own the first time because she knew her daughter would want to take it again to improve her score, no matter how high it was:  “I just know that no matter what, she’s so academically driven … no matter what happens, even if we go, ‘This is a great score,’ that she’ll go, ‘I really want to take it again.'”

Consequently, the children were duped into thinking that they had achieved at a higher level than they actually had, and that they were better prepared for college than they actually were.

This is exactly what public schools do when they lie about student achievement by rewarding students with good grades irrespective of the level of knowledge a student has actually attained in a course. While a student may sense that s/he has not really learned much in a class, the high grade is nonetheless a stamp of approval from the school that s/he has met expectations, and a signifier to colleges that the student is capable of succeeding in college level work.

But are they meeting expectations? In recent weeks, we have shown (on our Facebook page) that many high school students in Douglas County who make As and Bs in their courses cannot even make a respectable score on a standardized exam (either state administered EOCs, or College Board AP exams).  Let’s take Science for example. In AP Physics in 2018, even though 80% of the 203 students made an A or B in the class, only one – yes one! – made a passing score on the AP exam, and a shocking 88% made the lowest possible score of 1, indicating that they didn’t know any more AP Physics than you or I do. Yet colleges are misled by these grades, which suggest that the students are ready for college-level science, and throughout the course, the students were duped into thinking they were doing fine. At the lower end of the academic spectrum, over 50% of students made an A or B in Physical Science – a grade that should represent proficiency in the curriculum. Yet only 20% made a proficient score on the EOC exam. Thus, upwards of 30% of students were given a grade that signified ‘college readiness’, even though the more objective and valid exam score showed otherwise.

Such behavior is rationalized the same way these parents justified their own cheating. Teachers and administrators tell themselves that they are “helping kids out” by massaging their image on transcripts. But aside from the fact that dishonesty is wrong regardless of who it helps, are they really helped? It’s the kids who experience the long-term negative consequences of this cheating!

Students graduate deceived by the school system that they are ready for college, but they are eventually dispelled by this illusion when they fail post-graduation. According to statistics kept by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, five years after graduating, only 15% of the DCSS class of 2012 had a Bachelor’s degree. Four years after graduating, only 12% of the class of 2013 had any kind of postsecondary credential (which includes technical certificates. Statewide, the numbers aren’t much better (the deception is widespread!): 19% of all 2012 graduates had a Bachelor’s five years later.

This is likely only getting worse. And colleges are now lowering their standards to accommodate masses of unprepared students, thus making it even easier to graduate, while diminishing the value of a college degree.

Are you outraged by elites using their wealth to cheat the system? The regular manipulation of students’ grades to make it look like they are more capable than they are actually are is wrong for the same reasons, and is far more widespread and damaging to society.

Most Douglas County Students Are Not Graduating College Ready – an Open Letter to the BoE.

 


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Dear BoE,

As you know, the district high school CCRPI for 2018 was below 70, and about 5 points below the state. While tweaks were made to the CCRPI formula, in response to the state’s ESSA plan, I hope you will not give in to the temptation to write this result off as an artifact of these changes, as I’m sure some in the school system have done (if the formula change had such big effects, why did the state score barely budge?). Rather, I hope you will see that this result discloses more plainly what has been true for many years: that the majority of your students, indeed the VAST MAJORITY, do not graduate ‘college ready’ or are not currently on track to.
A deeper look into the CCRPI components show this quite plainly:
1. Only 26% of science exams were scored at Proficient or higher – the level that indicates college-readiness in that subject.
2. Only 26% of math exams were scored at Proficient or higher.
3. Only 21% made a college-ready score on either the ACT, SAT, AP, or IB exams (contrast that with 78% enrolled in advanced courses: many of these are AP students who cannot make a passing score on exams).
4. Only 29% went to college (this would have been from the 2017 class – there’s a year delay in this data) and did not have to take remedial courses in reading or math.
I urge you to check out these numbers for yourself. http://ccrpi.gadoe.org/2018/Views/Shared/_Layout.html
These numbers portray a situation where about three-fourths of your students are not college ready or on track to be! 
 
Yet in spite of this low college readiness rate, the district saw an 88% graduation rate. This was again higher than the state, even though fewer of our students are college ready! (DCSS under-performed the state in all the above areas).
How can we have such a high graduation rate when a diploma is supposed to represent college AND career readiness?
One of the answers is that disadvantaged students are enabled to advance through the system in spite of very low levels of achievement. Perhaps the most alarming CCRPI result is the ‘Closing the Gap’ category which has to do with the academic performance of disadvantaged groups. Your Closing the Gap score was a 29 (vs 70 for the state). This is a result, in large part, of none of your subgroups meeting their targets in Language Arts.  Yet disadvantaged groups graduate at a much higher rate!
The integrity of our high school diploma is at stake, because most graduates do not have the qualities a diploma is supposed to represent. Isn’t it one of the chief responsibilities of a local BOE to preserve the integrity of a diploma? By systemically devaluing a high school diploma, our school system is disadvantaging disadvantaged students, thus perpetuating their disadvantages instead of giving them a path out of it 
I’ve been pointing out these issues to you for over two years now, and honestly I do not think you have taken it seriously enough, being more concerned to reflect and delegitimize criticism than to fix problems, which requires facing up to them. Working to preserve the image of the school system first and foremost simply does not serve our children well. I hope you will get to the bottom of why college readiness is this low (hint: it has a lot to do with grading policies and practices that convey low expectations).
Regards,
Jeremy

How Many Students at Douglas County High School Are Excelling Academically?

To promote academic excellence in our high schools, we created the Excellence Index (EI): a simple way of rating schools academically by focusing exclusively on high achievement. The EI quantifies the percentage of students scoring at the highest levels on an array of exams. Scores are referenced to state and global norms, which are set to a EI score of 75 (representing a typical level of high achievement). To get a 75 score based on 2017 test score data a school would have:

 – 13% score a 5 on AP exams
– 10% score in the 90 percentile or higher on the SAT
– 9% score Distinguished Learner (Level 4) on EOCs (average of all 8 subjects)

– 29% score 6 or 7 on IB exams (if applicable)

These are each weighted equally in the index.

Douglas County High School’s 2018 Excellence Index score is a 52.  This means that Douglas County students are score at the highest levels on exams at a rate that is about 33% less than their peers statewide or nationally. The underlying data is in the graph below.

This data shows that rate at which Douglas County students score in the 90 percentile on the SAT is about 30% less than the national rate; the rate at which IB students scored a 6 or 7 on IB exams was about 40% less than the global rate; and that AP exams were more than 4 times less likely to get a score of a 5 than nationally.  For EOCs, the rate of students scoring at the Distinguished Learner level on the EOC was about 22% higher than the statewide rate.
chart (9)
The index score increased from 40 in 2017 to 51 as a result of:
1. A higher percentage of students scoring 6s or 7s on the IB exam (11% to 17%)
2. A higher percentage scoring a 5 on AP exams (2 to 3%)

3. A higher percentage scoring Level 4 on EOCs (10.4 to 11.1) coupled with a slight decrease in the state reference point. Deserving special attention is Economics with over 20% scoring a Level 4, and US History with over 16%. The Algebra rate was double the state!

However, in Physical Science, the only exam IB students do NOT take, only 0.8% scored a Level 4 (compared with 4% statewide).  It is thus likely that across all subjects, very few non-IB students are scoring at the top levels.

If you are a stakeholder at Douglas County High School (e.g. parent, grandparent, homeowner in the district, future parent), please help us advocate for excellence by contacting Principal Andre Weaver to express concern over low achievement in SAT and AP exams, and ask exactly what is being done to raise more students to these levels of achievement:

andre.weaver@douglas.k12.ga.us

 You might also include his immediate supervisor, Cathy Swanger: cathy.swanger@douglas.k12.ga.us

 

How Many Students at Chapel Hill Are Excelling Academically?

To promote academic excellence in our high schools, we created the Excellence Index (EI): a simple way of rating schools academically by focusing exclusively on high achievement. The EI quantifies the percentage of students scoring at the highest levels on an array of exams. Scores are referenced to state and global norms, which are set to a EI score of 75 (representing a typical level of high achievement). To get a 75 score based on 2017 test score data a school would have:

 – 13% score a 5 on AP exams
– 10% score in the 90 percentile or higher on the SAT
– 9% score Distinguished Learner (Level 4) on EOCs (average of all 8 subjects)

– 29% score 6 or 7 on IB exams (if applicable)

These are each weighted equally in the index.
Chapel High School’s 2018 Excellence Index score is a 31.  This means that Chapel Hill students are about 2.5 times LESS likely (31:75) to score at the highest levels on exams than their peers statewide or nationally. The underlying data is in the graph below.

This data shows that Chapel Hill students were about 10 times less likely to score in the 90% on the SAT; about 6 times less likely to score a 5 on any AP exam, and were about equally likely to score Distinguished Learner on the EOC.
chart (8)

Of note is the fact that in spite of having an AP magnet program, very few students are scoring at the highest level on AP exams. We believe this is largely as result of recruiting academically unqualified/unprepared students into AP courses, which allows them to offer more courses, which they market to attract students to their magnet program.

Positively, the percentage of students scoring on the EOC increased from 6.3 to 8.7. More students scored at the top level than the Georgia norm in Economics, US History, 9th Grade Lit, and American Lit. As a result of these gains, the EI score increased from 19 the previous year to 31.

If you are a stakeholder at Chapel High School (e.g. parent, grandparent, homeowner in the district, future parent), please help us advocate for excellence by contacting Principal Sean Kelly to express concern over low achievement in SAT and AP exams, and ask exactly what is being done to raise more students to these levels of achievement:

sean.kelly@douglas.k12.ga.us

 You might also include his immediate supervisor, Cathy Swanger: cathy.swanger@douglas.k12.ga.us

 

How Many Students at Lithia Springs Are Excelling Academically?

To promote academic excellence in our high schools, we created the Excellence Index (EI): a simple way of rating schools academically by focusing exclusively on high achievement. The EI quantifies the percentage of students scoring at the highest levels on an array of exams. Scores are referenced to state and global norms, which are set to a EI score of 75 (representing a typical level of high achievement). To get a 75 score based on 2017 test score data a school would have:

 – 13% score a 5 on AP exams
– 10% score in the 90 percentile or higher on the SAT
– 9% score Distinguished Learner (Level 4) on EOCs (average of all 8 subjects)

– 29% score 6 or 7 on IB exams (if applicable)

These are each weighted equally in the index.

Lithia Springs High School’s 2018 Excellence Index score is a 12.  This means that Lithia Springs students are about six times LESS likely (12:75) to score at the highest levels on exams than their peers statewide or nationally. The underlying data is in the graph below:

chart (7)

This data shows that Lithia Springs students were over 6 times less likely to score in the 90% on the SAT; about 13 times less likely to score a 5 on any AP exam, and were about four times LESS likely to score Distinguished Learner on the EOC.

Of note is the fact that in spite of having an accredited STEM program, very few students are scoring at the highest level in science and math. For state EOCs,  it was 2.8% in Algebra, 0.3% in Geometry, 5.0% in Biology, and 0.6% in Physical Science.  No one made the top score on an AP science or math exam.

LSHS’s previous EI score was a 9. The modest increase of 3 points is due to:

1. The fact that no one scored in the 90 percentile in 2016. Two students did so in 2017.

2. The decline in the state Distinguished Learner rate on EOCs (used as a reference point) from 9.6 to 9, increased its EI points in the EOC category.

If you are a stakeholder at Lithia Springs High School (e.g. parent, grandparent, homeowner in the district, future parent), please help us advocate for excellence by contacting Principal Garrett Askew to express concern over low achievement in SAT and AP exams, and ask exactly what is being done to raise more students to these levels of achievement:

garrick.askew@douglas.k12.ga.us

You might also include his immediate supervisor, Kwame Carr: kwame.carr@douglas.k12.ga.us

How Many Students at Alexander High School Are Excelling Academically?

To promote academic excellence in our high schools, we created the Excellence Index (EI): a simple way of rating schools academically by focusing exclusively on high achievement. The EI quantifies the percentage of students scoring at the highest levels on an array of exams. Scores are referenced to state and global norms, which are set to a EI score of 75 (representing a typical level of high achievement). To get a 75 score based on 2017 test score data a school would have:
– 13% score a 5 on AP exams
– 10% score in the 90 percentile or higher on the SAT
– 9% score Distinguished Learner (Level 4) on EOCs (average of all 8 subjects)
– 29% score 6 or 7 on IB exams (if applicable)
These are each weighted equally in the index.
Alexander High School’s 2018 Excellence Index score is a 40.  This means that Alexander students are about 53% less likely to score at the highest levels on exams than their peers statewide or nationally. The underlying data is in the graph below:
chart (6)
This data shows that Alexander students were over 2 times less likely to score in the 90% on the SAT; over 6 times less likely to score a 5 on any AP exam, and were just as likely to score Distinguished Learner on the EOC. Of note is the fact that in two subjects – 9th Grade Literature and US history – AHS had about 30% MORE students scoring at this level than the state of GA.
AHS’s previous EI score was a 25. The remarkable increase of 15 points is due to:
1. An increase from 1.5% to 4.5%  scoring in the 90 percentile on the SAT.
2. The decline in the state Distinguished Learner rate on EOCs (used as a reference point) from 9.6 to 9, increased its EI points in the EOC category.
3. An increase in Distinguished Learner rate from 6.7 to 8.8.
If you are a stakeholder at Alexander High School (e.g. parent, grandparent, homeowner in the district, future parent), please help us advocate for excellence by contacting Principal Nathan Hand to express concern over low achievement in SAT and AP exams, and ask exactly what is being done to raise more students to these levels of achievement:
nathan.hand@douglas.k12.ga.us
You might also include his immediate supervisor, Cathy Swanger: cathy.swanger@douglas.k12.ga.us

How Many Students at New Manchester High School Are Excelling Academically?

To promote academic excellence in our high schools, we created the Excellence Index (EI): a simple way of rating schools academically by focusing exclusively on high achievement. The EI quantifies the percentage of students scoring at the highest levels on an array of exams. Scores are referenced to state and global norms, which are set to a EI score of 75 (representing a typical level of high achievement). To get a 75 score based on last school year’s test score data a school would have:
– 13% score a 5 on AP exams
– 10% score in the 90 percentile or higher on the SAT
– 9% score Distinguished Learner (Level 4) on EOCs (average of all 8 subjects)
– 29% score 6 or 7 on IB exams (if applicable)
These are each weighted equally in the index.
New Manchester High School’s Excellence Index score for 2018 is 14.  This means that New Manchester students were about 5 times less likely to score at the highest levels on exams than their peers statewide or nationally. The underlying data is in the graph below:
chart (5)
This data shows that New Manchester students were 10 times less likely to score in the 90% on the SAT; 13 times less likely to score a 5 on any AP exam, and 3 times less likely to score Distinguished Learner on the EOC.
NMHS’s previous EI score was a 10. The increase of 4 points is due to:
1. An increase from 0% to 1% (representing 2 students) scoring in the 90 percentile on the SAT.
2. The decline in the state Distinguished Learner rate on EOCs (used as a reference point) from 9.6 to 9, increased its EI points in the EOC category.
If you are a stakeholder at New Manchester High School (e.g. parent, grandparent, homeowner in the district, future parent), please help us advocate for excellence by contacting Principal Marco Holland to express concern over these results and ask exactly what is being done to raise more students to these levels of achievement:
marco.holland@douglas.k12.ga.us
You might also include his immediate supervisor, Kwame Carr: kwame.carr@douglas.k12.ga.us

Explaining CCRPI Results – High School, Part 2

In 2017, Douglas County high schools, collectively, earned 1.6 “Challenge Points” on the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) for the performance of “disadvantaged” populations: Economically Disadvantaged (ED), English Language Learners (ELL), and Students with Disabilities (SWD). This compares with 0.5 points for the state as a whole. Can we conclude from this result that these vulnerable populations are learning more and are better prepared for life after high school?

To answer this question, we need to first look at how the points are calculated. The calculation essentially is the product of the proportion of all students in one of these three categories (which determines the maximum possible points in this area) and the number of “performance targets” met by these subgroups. There are nine types of targets for each of the three groups: eight are EOC exam performance and one is graduation rate, resulting in 27 targets total.

The proportion of these three subgroups in Douglas County schools is very close to that in the entire state (60.7% compared to 62%). Hence, that variable in the equation has a minimal effect. Douglas County students, though, met 7 of 27 targets, whereas the State as a whole only met two:

Douglas County                                                                  Georgia

ED – Graduation Rate                                                         ED – 9th Grade Literature EOC
ED – 9th Grade Literature EOC                                        ED – American Literature EOC
ED – American Literature EOC
ED – Economics EOC
ELL – Graduation Rate
SWD – Graduation Rate
SWD – Geometry EOC

This difference of five targets met results in the positive differential of 1.1 points compared to the State. Yet notice that three of these five targets are graduation rates. Douglas County is graduating these subgroups at a higher rate than the State. The fact that there are two more EOC targets met may suggest to you that these students are learning more, and thus the higher graduation rate is legitimate, but what does the actual test score data reveal?

Table 1 shows the weighted EOC exam proficiency rates for these subgroups. In this formula, students who score at the “Proficient Learner” level are weighted 1.0, while those who score “Developing Learner” are weighted 0.5. Thus, a score of a 50 could mean that 50% were Proficient, or that 100% were Developing, or some combination thereof.

ED EOC Scores

Table 1 – EOC Performance and Graduation Rates of Disadvantaged Subgroups (bold means subgroup targets were met; green means outperformed the State, though targets were not met. 

Douglas County students had lower exam scores in 18 of 24 areas, yet the graduation rates were 7 to 11 points higher for each group. We can conclude from these results that more students graduated while achieving less, which further confirms that the district’s higher graduation rates are NOT the result of higher achievement but of lower academic standards. Furthermore, since Proficiency on these exams is the level indicating that students are ready for college-level work, it is also the case the fewer of these students are prepared for college.

Perhaps this is why fewer Douglas County graduates, as a whole, are enrolling in college in recent years. For example, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, 64% of 2015 high school graduates statewide enrolled in college (including technical schools); whereas Douglas Co. graduates enrolled at a 58% rate.

It is reasonable to conclude then that these subgroup graduation rates are inflated relative to actual achievement. Together they result in 0.7 more Challenge Points. Combined with the fact that the TOTAL graduation rate, which includes all students and is thus likewise made higher by these subgroups’ rates, results in at least 1 more Achievement Point, then altogether questionably high graduation rates are the cause of at least 1.7 additional CCRPI points.

This small amount is not trivial. It accounts for over half the positive differential with state high school CCRPI, and it allows, potentially, for high schools to avoid accountability under the district’s “Strategic Waiver” contract with the GA DoE. This consequence is especially galling considering the fact that the waivers include regulations affecting students who are ELL and SWD. For example, the school system can now enlarge class sizes for these groups to whatever size they wish and still receive additional funding for them, whereas prior to the “waivers” this funding was contingent on staying below certain class size maximums.

This situation reeks of injustice. If our high schools, and thus the administrators who run them, look better from higher graduation rates resulting in higher CCRPIs, and these higher scores come at the expense of properly educating the most vulnerable students in the school system, then people in power are benefiting at the expense of the poor and marginalized. Is exploitation taking place in our high schools?

This is the final post in a series on 2017 CCRPI Results. See also:

Elementary CCRPI

Middle School CCRPI

High School CCRPI Part 1