Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Honest Assessment

One of the perhaps foreseeable but nonetheless disorienting effect of the proliferation of technology options over the last ten years or so has been to create radical differences in mental processing even among people who work together and are otherwise more or less on the same page (to use a leftover metaphor from the analog age.) For example, some of my colleagues regularly rely on Twitter, some of my colleagues (like me) have tried it and found that it hasn't "taken," some of them have never tried it and have no interest in doing so, and some of them have basically no idea what you're talking about when you mention it.

Likewise, some of my colleagues are avid blog readers, and some of them are mistrustful of blogs (as they are of wikipedia, in some cases without ever having bothered to read any of either). I continue to be surprised by the number of people, even among those who do read blogs, who have no idea what an RSS feed is or how a blog aggregator works. I've come to rely pretty heavily on Google Reader to keep me up to date. Ever time I find a blog I think I might want to keep up with, I subscribe through Google Reader and the posts just stack up in my inbox until I get to them. The ones I really do want to make sure I see first thing every morning, I have delivered to my email inbox as well.

One of the blogs I've been reading with interest for some time is the Bridging Differences blog, which has essentially been a long-term slow-motion conversation between two of our best-known and most credible educators, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. Some of their discussion lately has been about the new book that Ravitch has come out with, in which she publicly reverses her previous endorsement of the education reform movement based on "accountability and choice," and of the No Child Left Behind program in particular. In the early part of her new book, she says

As NCLB was implemented, I became increasingly disillusioned. I came to realize that the law bypassed curriculum and standards. Although its supporters often claimed it was a natural outgrowth of the standards movement, it was not. It demanded that schools generate higher test scores in basic skills, but it required no curriculum at all, nor did it raise standards. It ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts, and geography... I saw my hopes for better education turn into a measurement strategy that had no underlying educational vision at all. Eventually I realized that the new reforms had everything to do with structural changes and accountability, and nothing at all to do with the substance of learning. Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education.

Well, duh. Anyone who has been in the classroom, as well as anybody who has been reading the papers (and/or the blogs) for the last ten years, know what happens when you put a high-stakes assessments at the end of the line. Since no one has the money or the time or the inclination to base those assessments on real work that students have actually done, it's a given that we're talking about some form of multiple-choice (and maybe short essay) test that is only going to measure subject area content recall and not give any sense of full range of student competencies, such as they might or might not be. Because it's got to be the kind of test that can be easily and inexpensively scored, it's going to target those things that are easily and inexpensively assessed. And because the stakes ARE high, any time that teachers might have chosen to spend on such critical but hard-to-measure skills and habits of mind such as asking good questions and connecting what you learn to what you live and conducting patient, extended trial-and-error investigations in the honest attempt to actually learn something on your own instead of waiting for someone to teach you the six easy steps — not to mention such touchy-feely but nonetheless desirable traits such as empathy and engagement and attentiveness and playfulness and, yes, joy —is time that cannot be spared,  and so those things are going to get pushed right out of the curriculum, because, kiddos, IT'S NOT GOING TO BE ON THE TEST, and so it doesn't matter. And so we get down to the joyless task of covering what IS going to be on the test, and if the kids still don't do well, well, let's lengthen the school day and lengthen the school year to give them more of what didn't work the first place. And if all else fails and the kids are STILL not doing well enough on the test and the continued existence of the teacher's job and maybe the school itself depends on the fact that they do, is it any surprise that some teachers and administrators succumb to the temptation sneak into the storage room and change a couple of answers, just to get them over the line?

I'm glad that Ravitch has not only come to her senses but also had the courage to publicly make the argument that we are on the wrong track, not only in her book but in other venues as well, as she rides the tide of publicity for her book, as for example on NPR. She has, of course, been taking a tremendous amount of heat for having done so.

I think it is unfortunate that the Obama administration seems to have bought into the same set of deeply flawed assumptions about the efficacy of high-stakes testing that the Bush administration foisted upon us. There's a pretty good wrapup of the criticism that is now being leveled at the unfortunately named "Race to the Top" initiative, including a video clip of an interview with Ravitch, on the  eSchool News site, one of the more recent and more interesting additions to my aggregator.

As if it weren't bad enough, all the wasted time and energy and money that has gone into the development of the state standards, we are now entering a period of debate over the newly released draft version of the Common Core National Standards. Before we go marching down that road, I'd hope that we'd get around to addressing the questions that High Tech High's Ben Daley posts on his blog:

• Can somebody point to a state where the standards and accompanying standardized testing regime has led to improved schools?

• If such a state exists, why don’t we merely adopt that system at a national level?  Shouldn’t we scale up what works?

• If, as I strongly suspect, such a state does not exist, why will that which has not worked at the state level magically start working at a national level?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against high standards as such. What I'm against — on philosophical, pedagogical, and experiential grounds — are two notions: first, that we will ever arrive at a set of standards that we can, or should, agree on; and second, that we can get away with high-stakes assessment on the cheap. You want real high stakes testing? Give kids real work to do in their community, and have them stand up in front of the community when that work is done to present it. That means that the members of that community have to be willing to stop what they are doing long enough to listen, to evaluate what they see, and to give detailed and honest feedback. If you doubt that this is realistic or that it can be done, I refer you once again to Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence, and to the work that Ben Daley and his colleagues are doing at High Tech High.

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