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“Teaching for Mastery” Envisioned Formative and Criterion Referenced Tests and the Issuance Diplomas the Way We Issue Drivers Licenses. Such a Paradigm Would Change Schooling for the Better…. Yet Such a Paradigm Seems Impossible to Attain

May 9, 2021 1 comment

As an undergraduate and graduate student I was fascinated by the concept of testing. In the late 1960s there were many competing theories about the role testing should play. Should IQ tests play a role in grouping children? What about standardized tests? What about SAT tests? What about the teacher-developed tests that served as the means of identifying the valedictorian?  Worse, some theorists were suggesting that tests could be used to determine whether some groups were “more intelligent” than others.

As an undergraduate, I took a “course” I designed with my academic advisor in college where I took 6 different IQ tests to gain an understanding of what those tests measured. He gave me readings that explained the theory behind IQ testing and readings on what each of the IQ tests purportedly measured. My results varied by over 30 points which meant I was either a relatively “intelligent” person or a “genius”.

As a graduate student in the early 1970s, as noted in earlier posts, I took a course in testing where the first assignment was to read the first chapter of the textbook assigned to us and find seven errors in the construction of questions on the Stanford test, the standardized test being used to “rank” the schools in the district. There were 13 of the 80+ questions that had mistakes.

Both of these experiences led me to question the efficacy of testing in determining the capability of individual students or the rating for schools. I concluded that any use of tests as the sole determinant for student or school success was foolhardy at best and counterproductive at worst.

Nearly 30 years ago the school board I was serving asked that I provide them and the teachers with a vision for how I wanted to see schools look in the future. It was by far the most challenging assignment I was ever given and the result was a plan I called “Teaching for Mastery”. The elevator talk for this vision was in the 1990s schools could no longer function as a means of “sorting and selecting” children as they had since the 1920s. If we hoped to compete on a global level in the coming years we needed to assure that every graduate would be ready for post-secondary work, ready to enter the workplace, or both— a phrase that was coined by the State Department in Maryland and resonated with me.

The heart of “teaching for Mastery” revolved around testing. My assertion was that testing in school should work the same way as testing for driving: no one gets a license until they demonstrate proficiency. Licenses are only given to those who pass not only a pencil and paper test but also pass a performance test. The ONLY differentiation on a license if by physical requirements you need to get behind the wheel. For example, I need to wear glasses to operate a car and thankfully my license doesn’t let me get on the road unless I am wearing them. Other drivers with physical handicaps needed to operate in vehicles that provided them with the tools that made it possible for them to operate the vehicle safely. There was no “ranking” of drivers licenses based on the pencil-and-paper test and no ranking based on the performance test. You either demonstrated the skills or you took the test again and again until you did. If you took the test five times before passing you got the same license as someone who took the test once. If you start with THAT premise, schooling changes completely. Time and energy (and money) is spent eliminating determining the skills needed to navigate life and giving students as much time as necessary to attain those skills.

If testing in school should work the same way as testing for driving, if we taught for mastery instead of teaching to get a certain percentage of students above an artificially created cut score on a standardized test, no one would get a diploma until they demonstrate proficiency in life skills.  If you start with THAT premise, time is variable and performance is variable.

A decade later I knew that “Teaching for Mastery” was going to be derailed. I thought that after a few years parents and voters would come to their senses and abandon the 1920 paradigm of using tests to sort and select. Sadly, I was wrong. The schooling paradigm seems intractable. It has bipartisan support and the support of those who schools have identified as “successful”, the very individuals who might be unsettled if the rules of the game changed for their children.

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How Long Has Testing Been a Bad Idea? Probably Since it Began… but For Sure It’s Been Five Decades!

May 8, 2021 1 comment

For those who STILL think standardized tests were EVER a good idea, I offer this profile of Columbia Teachers College professor Jay Heubert and this paragraph:

“The hope is that such tests will give us important information on which students need help, and what kinds of help they need. But testing can help students improve only if the results are used to improve the quality of education that disadvantaged students get,” he says. “I’m not against testing. Quite the opposite — we desperately need to know which students — and which kinds of students — need more support, and good tests, properly used, can give us such information. But test scores by themselves don’t improve learning any more than a thermometer by itself cures a fever. Both give us information that we can use to address the problem. But as my colleague Michael Rebell [TC Professor of Law & Educational Practice] has shown, in many places states and school districts are not willing or able to invest what it costs to make such improvements. And if you set high standards but don’t do what it takes to help students meet those standards, then putting kids in low-track classes, or holding them back, or denying them high-school diplomas amounts to punishing children for not knowing what their schools have never taught them. That is simply unacceptable — educationally, legally, and ethically.”

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Debating Divisive Topics Denies Opportunity to Find Common Ground Needed for Democracy to Thrive

May 7, 2021 Leave a comment

This is a revision of an earlier post that I am submitting to our local newspaper as an op ed. 

As countless articles and letters in the Valley News indicate, HB 544, the ”divisive concepts” legislation proposed by GOP legislators in New Hampshire is accomplishing it’s intended mission: it is dividing us instead of bringing us together. A recent NYTimes essay by Michelle Goldberg described the rationale for bills like HB 544. The GOP senses that President Biden’s legislative proposals have widespread support. To thwart the President’s agenda and keep his initiatives off the front page, eight GOP State legislatures are proposing bills like HB 544 designed to keep contentious cultural issues like anti-racism instruction in the forefront. By persuading their base that “woke” liberals “want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white” the GOP can dominate the news cycle, spread lies, and initiate divisive debates.

HB 544, which includes the word “race” 47 times, is a by-product of former President Trump’s ill-starred effort to re-write the social studies curriculum in public schools. The ex-President alleged public schools were teaching children to “believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains,” thereby creating a “radicalized view of history” that “lacked perspective, obscured virtues, twisted motives, ignored or distorted facts, and magnified flaws”. To address this deficiency, Mr. Trump created the 1776 Commission with a mission developing a “patriotic curriculum” that would emphasize “the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776”.

Both HB 544 and Mr. Trump’s executive order creating the 1776 commission assume one’s perspective on history is based on a compendium of unarguable and unassailable facts learned exclusively in school. If that were the case, my perspective on the world would be identical to that championed by the 1776 Commission, for the history I was taught in the public secondary schools I attended in West Chester Pennsylvania mirrors the history advocated by the January 2021 report issued by the 1776 Commission. During my school years I learned that the Founding Fathers were patriots who declared their independence from the British, revolted against a government that imposed taxes without representation, and, after defeating the British, wrote a Constitution whose precepts and laws are timeless and inviolable. I learned that the Union army won a Civil War that preserved our nation and put an end to slavery. I learned of our nation’s westward expansion, how settlers conquered the wilderness, built new towns and farms, and heroically fought off savage attacks by Indian tribes who roamed the countryside.  I learned that in the early 20th Century we joined our European allies to win the First World War and that in the 1940s we joined our European allies to defeat Hitler and the Japanese who attacked us at Pearl Harbor. In the current events units in high school I learned of the laws that would end racism and poverty and our entire school gathered to I watch rocket launches that would ultimately place a man on the moon. I also learned of our nation’s efforts to prevent the spread of communism by taking a stand against the placement of missiles in Cuba, by sending troops to defend freedom-loving nations across the globe, and by creating the Peace Corps. The history curriculum I experienced was precisely the kind advocated by the 1776 Commission though my sense of history now is markedly different than it was in 1965 when I graduated from high school. It changed not because of courses I took in college, but because of the events that took place over my lifetime and my life experience.

The events during the decade immediately following my graduation led to serious questions about the well-being of our country. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy, the riots that ensued, the turmoil surrounding the 1968 election, and the expansion of the Viet Nam conflict all led me to question the narrative about our country I learned in high school. The events that followed were even more troubling; the Watergate break-in, the release of the Pentagon Papers, and the misbegotten ending to the Viet Nam conflict all led to more questions. If we couldn’t believe what our leaders were telling us now how could we believe the stories our history teachers told us?

My perspective on history was affected most by my personal experiences. I chose a career in public education instead of a career in the private sector. Instead of remaining in my home town I chose to move to different states, live in different kinds of communities, and attend different kinds of churches, and participate in wide range of civic activities. These choices all affected my views on the events of the day and altered my views of history.

Donald Trump and I grew up during the same time-period and witnessed the same events over our lifetime. So did Bill and Hillary Clinton, and so did many other contemporaries of mine reading this essay. Our perspectives of history are all different and all informed by our personal experiences have more than what we were taught in high school. Some who witnessed or read of the events that occurred over the past 60-75 years might conclude the current system is racist, misogynistic, unfair, and in dire need of improvement. Others who witnessed the same events might conclude the current system as fair and just. If thousands of individuals draw different conclusions about the history we witnessed together, how can we expect to reach agreement on impact of events that took place during earlier decades and centuries?

If we hope to end divisiveness, we need to acknowledge that we all see the world differently and accept those differences. I we continue to contend that our beliefs prove that WE are right and OTHERS are wrong we will never achieve the mutual understandings needed to make democracy work. If we hope to end divisiveness, we should look for the areas we can agree upon and build on those. By enumerating the topics that are divisive and attempting to ban them from debate HB 544 does just the opposite. For that reason, it should be opposed by those who hope to seek the common ground needed in a democracy.

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