I found myself reminiscing about my visit to University Heights High School (UHHS) in the Bronx in 1995.
During my post-doctoral fellowship at Educational Testing Service, I was privileged to be invited to participate as an outside evaluator for a UHHS senior’s culminating project.
He had developed his project over a period of months. It involved interviewing neighbors, in Spanish or English as the neighbor needed, about an issue close to his heart. He also presented research about the topic. He had chosen the topic, done research in the library, acquired related statistics from the city government, found interview subjects, conducted and recorded interviews, analyzed themes, and written up his findings.
He presented his project to an audience not only of two strangers from ETS, but also several teachers, a couple of his relatives and other members of the wider community. Everybody had a scoring sheet to give feedback on the extent to which they thought he had demonstrated learning worthy of graduation. Teachers and other audience members who knew him well provided valuable insights, but having outsiders also giving feedback meant that he could not rely on a “you know what I mean…” approach to explaining anything.
Do students filling in bubble sheets have much opportunity to consider the worthiness of the material they are tested on? Moreover, why do we spend years and years making sure everyone has the same knowledge? It’s one thing to have a common baseline, but people all go on to do very different things as adults. If they are lucky, they get to choose roles and jobs that interest them and make optimal use of their particular talents. Is it possible that spending eight to twelve years placing so much emphasis on test scores distracts a fair number of youth from their real passions and talents?
The more we push students to focus on raising their standardized test scores, the more we homogenize them. Instead of valuing different abilities and knowledge, we concentrate on ranking and competition along the few tested dimensions. The new calculation of student growth percentiles for the MCAS is explicitly about comparing and percentile-ranking the current scores of students who scored at the same level in the previous year. This measure in particular also reinforces the idea that everyone needs to learn the same amount of the same material in the same amount of time. One doesn’t have to be a parent for very long (if at all) to realize how unnatural that expectation is.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Tests like the MCAS are not the only way to maintain high standards of thinking and learning – in fact, that’s not how anybody does it in the world outside school.
Instead, our students are very likely to be judged on their performance, like the senior I helped to assess in 1995. That may help explain why performance assessments, and the high school programs that lead up to them, seem to do very well in preparing young people for their futures.
University Heights High School now belongs to the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which has a waiver from most of the state-mandated tests. Students take the English test but do not have to sit for other Regents exams. Instead, they carry out projects like the one I saw.
The Consortium recently released very favorable college statistics for their graduates. African-American and Latino men in particular fare much better than the national averages (web search terms: “New York Performance Standards Consortium data report”). Such statistics would be a better way to measure closing the achievement gap.
Today, Massachusetts is preparing to join in a new, more national, standardized test. Before we do, let’s take the time to reflect on what we really want for our kids.
Christine Rafal lives on Heath Street and is the Ward 4 School Committee person. The persons expressed above are solely her own.