Home > Uncategorized > Sorting and Selecting by Age and Ability: A Bad Idea Continues

Sorting and Selecting by Age and Ability: A Bad Idea Continues

February 2, 2013

My daughter sent me a link to an article from a blog called Good that dealt  with Education, Race, and the Education Gap. The article’s title, “Our Education System Isn’t Broken, It’s Designed to Create Winners and Losers” is a good summary of the main point it makes: American public schools have always had economic and social disparity and they have always been designed to “sort and sift” students.

This article, like so many I’ve read on this topic, fails to see the major flaw with the way our school’s are organized: the age-based cohorts that were designed to sort and sift students by age and, therefore, implicitly set up a normative competition among students who are the same age. Knowing how students mature, this format makes no sense. Any parent who has more than one child knows that children mature at different rates physically, mentally, and emotionally because they’ve witnessed it in their household. Yet those same parents believe that their child is “behind” if their child is not in the 90th percentile in everything, a belief that teachers unwittingly reinforce.

This problem becomes magnified if children are raised in different environments before they set foot in school. A well fed, well nurtured, healthy Kindergartner whose parents read to them every night for five years will surely be able to perform better in school than a child who’s malnourished, sickly, and largely ignored if not harassed at home. Yet these students are starting out with “an equal opportunity”. A slow maturing student with a deprived background is not going to perform as well as his age cohorts given the same amount of time to complete a task… but if TIME is variable and LEARNING is constant that student will eventually master the core content in each course IF the student perseveres and remains in school. The problem is that from the outset, this slow maturing and disadvantaged student is told he or she is “behind” and “slow” and might be “left back”… and then, after three or four years, teachers say that the student is “unmotivated”. I wonder how motivated any of us would be if we were told every day from the beginning of our life in school that we “slow” and “behind”?

The shame of it is that we could change the way we organize schools and measure student performance. We no longer need to group students into age-based batches because we have the technology to track student performance on an individualized basis. We could use tests diagnostically instead of normatively: that is we could use tests to have the student demonstrate they’ve mastered a skill when they are ready to take the test, NOT when we’re ready to give it to them. 

This change would seem to be seismic, but we’re already doing this in driver’s education. We don’t make a student take a driving test until they are ready to pass it. Some students who’ve operated sit down mowers or ATVs don’t need as much time behind the wheel as students who’ve never operated a vehicle… but we give students all the time they need before we have them take the Driver’s Ed performance test. Similarly, some students struggle to pass the multiple choice test to get license but they get as many chances as they need.

We tailor testing in drivers education to encourage everyone to succeed… but if Drivers Ed was part of Race to the Top teachers would get grades based on the pass rate on the written and performance tests regardless of the student’s background AND regardless of whether the student eventually got a license or not. Why do we not use mastery in ALL course in school and recognize that children learn math at different rates the same way they learn driving skills at different rates?

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