A few days ago, @paulawhite asked me the title question and then furiously typed as I spoke off the top of my head from the bottom of my heart.
“1. Stop using low level state tests as excuses for not teaching authentically and not taking the time to run a democratic classroom.
2. Work diligently to prove authentic assessments have validity and reliability and can, in fact, be used to demonstrate skills and mastery, replacing those multiple-choice, low level tests.
3. Abandon practices that sort, select and compare kids to one another.”
You can read her post about this topic at http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/mustdo/.
Since Paula’s question and her posting my thoughts (with permission), I have had a few encounters at work where I have been able to bring up these three “must do” statements and actually see the looks on people’s faces as they grapple with them.
#1 seems to bring out the head nods and the “that’s what I have been saying” kind of comments. Why then do kids say the fundamental difference between elementary, middle, and high school is the thickness of the worksheet packets they receive?
#2 seems to uncover gross misinformation around key concepts of assessment. 99% of the educators I encounter on Twitter and through work think “standardized test” means machine scored, multiple choice test. Wikipedia knows better (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standardized_test).
#3 Virginia’s Standards of Learning should be call “Virginia’s State-wide Objectives” or “Virginia’s State-wide Expectations” and we should reserve the use of the term “standards” to mean measures of quality. When we set standards or criteria for success, we should provide detailed and timely feedback so kids know where they stand with respect to the criteria and not each other. There is no reason every kid can’t be successful when measured against criteria for success given enough time and the right support, but if we measure kids against each other there will always be winners and losers.
We cannot sort some kids in to the “fast to learn” or “easy to teach” pile and think of other kids as being “behind.” A big challenge for educators is to develop clearly articulated standards without forcing standardization. Perhaps the “what” is fixed or “standard” but the “how” flexes based on the student. Carol Tomlinson speaks of flexing content, process, product, and learning environment based on readiness, interest, and learner profile. To do this successfully, we really have to know our stuff and our kids!
An educational hero of mine, the late Dr. John English, described mastery learning as a structure in which learning is the constant while time is the variable. My first year of teaching, I had the pleasure of working with folks like John and @pammoran to sense make and cross walk theories and realities. I talked about the art and science of teaching and learning and I struggled to become an educational fundamentalist – always demanding a reconcilation between my idealistic speech and my daily actions in the classroom.
What happens to tracking, grouping, and course leveling in a truly mastery oriented learning organization? Why are elementary parents vying to get their kids in the “high” math group? What is the variance in the quality of experience across the spectrum of levels or groups at any given grade level, across any given set of schools? What is our minimum commitment to each and every one of our young people? What must we do?