Home > Essays > “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

“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

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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  1. Byron Knutsen
    May 10, 2021 at 1:39 am

    I have always liked the idea of performance plus paper pencil to evaluate a student and school. Even in math, physics and chemistry.

    In chemistry and physics I designed a lab test at the end of the year that was more of a research problem they had to solve. The problems were ranked A level or B level. Choosing an B level or A level did not indicate a guaranteed result. No C level were offered because that was level of most introductory labs for the course. I wanted the students to stretch. A and B students on day to day class work choose level A lab test. If a student had no idea how to start the project they were allowed two questions from me. Was it perfect. No. But I felt it was much better than asking on a paper pencil test the following question:
    “Explain how you would determine the acid normality of three different citrus fruits.”
    It is better for them to have to solve the lab question
    “Determine the acid normality of three different citrus fruits.

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