A former state superintendent will be coming to my Politics of Education class next week. I feel like I have gotten to know her well enough to know that she will ask more than one tough question. I think I know one she will ask.
Virginia was a leader early in the standards based education reform movement. It’s infrastructure for developing and administering effective accountability measures is strong. Currently our third grade reading pass rate is hovering in the 80% range through out the state. The advanced pass rate, students who answered more than 31 out of 35 questions correctly, has been steadily increasing since 2005 from 18.8% to 38.9% in 2008.
I can just hear it now. Dr. Demary will ask us, “So, almost everybody is passing. Isn’t it a good time to raise the bar?”
Every fiber of my teacher being wants to say no, but all of my learning in educational leadership says yes. I am torn. I believe in high standards but, I am not convinced that raising the bar is the best way to get teachers, and more importantly kids, to jump higher.
I think the reason for this internal struggle is that I am not sure that the bar is worth jumping over. It is not what we should be teaching kids to do to prepare them for their future. I think we need them to build their own obstacle courses, not just master hoop jumping. As it stands now, on reading tests kids are asked to identify characters, setting, conflict, etc. They are required to read for comprehension, all worthy goals. We are not asking them to write their own stories, to tell the story where they are the main character. It is as if they are the actors in someone else’s play.
If we buy into the post-modern perspective, that there is no single over arching story, then the reasons for assessment change a little. Our nation is a teaming tangle of stories. Maybe this is why fame has become such a fascination for our young people. The goal is not to help move the plot of the greater human story along but to be famous enough to be featured in the individual stories of the nation.
So what would I do? If it were my decision I would start evaluating beyond basic skills in areas closer to 21st century skills. Maybe it is a voluntary assessment for an additional ribbon on a degree. Maybe it is the certification movement pushed down into high school. Maybe a kid runs track, is in the debate club and earns a social media certification in order to make himself more competitive in college.
When Dr. Demary, (one of my education heroes) asks what do we do now that most of our students are passing the SOL tests, this is what I will say. “When students in your class pass a test you have prepared them for you don’t give them the same test but raise the number of correct answers needed to pass. You teach new content, you expand on their solid foundation evidenced by their test scores. You start teaching them something new, something that might be even more important than what they mastered already, like critical thinking, creativity, and team work. There is only one problem though, it is hard to test those kinds of skills. Maybe the tests have outlived their usefulness? Maybe the kids could help build their own obstacle course to test their learning.”