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Un-Grading Schools to Make Performance Constant, Time Variable

I read Diane Ravitch’s column today and was dismayed because in her opposition to standardized testing she is posing the wrong question, which is: “Why do we need standardized testing in every grade for every child.” The better question is this: “Why do we test students based on age cohorts at all?” The answer to this question is that it is “more efficient” (i.e. easier to administer and “interpret”) and implicitly promotes competition between students and among schools (i.e. it yields “precise” comparative data). The “standards” that the tests yield are statistical constructs: a particular cut score becomes the “standard” for proficiency even though the cut score is unrelated to the mastery of any particular information. The cut score only tells a teacher whether their students exceeded or fell short of a cut score that is defined as a “standard”.  But the standardized test scores DO yield a seemingly precise aggregate score that politicians and journalists can use to “measure quality” and statisticians can use to draw conclusions about “teacher performance”.

If we replaced standardized summative tests with individualized formative tests and batched students based on performance cohorts instead of age we could move out of the factory model of schooling that, in the name of efficiency, batches students by age cohorts and require them to advance through predetermined curricula at the same rate as their age peers in all content areas. Instead of a factory model, we could have a system that groups children based on their skill proficiency as measured by formative assessments designed for that purpose. Mastery tests require a different kind of question than standardized tests. We use mastery tests in other arenas. Drivers license tests, citizenship tests, bar exams, and medical school exams are not graded on a curve. They ascertain the baseline skills needed in each domain they measure and design assessments that  assure a demonstration of sufficient knowledge in a particular field. Moreover, many credentials, like drivers licenses and medical degrees, require performance assessments. We don’t want drivers who cannot operate a vehicle or surgeons who’ve only passed content examinations.

Our insistence on using standardized tests as the primary metric for “schooling” assumes that time is constant and learning is variable. Any standard that begins with the phrase “by the end of grade X…” assumes that students will be batched in age-based cohorts and tested at a set time. The common core was based on this assumption, which meant that the debate over it was not about whether the sequence of math skills was accurate but rather about timing of the tests to assess mastery of the skills: whether the tests on the sequence of skills matched the age cohort to be tested.

And when the stakes on the passage of standardized tests linked to age-based cohorts increased, the focus on “schooling” narrowed and the urgency to cram more content into groups of children who were not developmentally prepared to absorb the information led to the expansion of the school day, a reduction in arts, music, and hands on learning, and a diminishment of joy for teachers and students alike.

We need to test students in some fashion to ensure that they have mastered the skills we teach them and we should accept the fact that students will learn at different rates and in different ways. Anyone who is the parent of more than one child knows this is true. If we used our collective time and energy to design and use the results of formative assessments to help students progress through skill sequences at their own rate and in a fashion that matches their learning modality we could re-form education…. and with the technology available today we could readily accomplish this. But as long as we insist that all children move at the same speed through our curricula, as long as we insist on having time be constant, we can be certain that performance will vary and some children will be “left behind” for no good reason.

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