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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Standards-based Education, Part I

Several years ago the entire faculty of the Weston Public Schools participated in a series of workshops on so-called Standards-based Education (SBE). There were actually a lot of good ideas in these workshops. In fact, I estimated that I had already been doing about 60% of what we learned there, so those must have been good ideas. Being standards-based is a good thing.

But approximately another 30% consisted of ideas that I disagreed with and considered wrongheaded. I will discuss these in later posts.

So that left 10% that was actually useful to me.

This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on SBE with the perspective of six more years of teaching since the original workshops.

Today’s topic is the idea of writing the unit test (“summative assessment” in educationese jargon) ahead of time. The theory is that you should “begin with the end in mind” rather than go day by day and see where you end up. That’s a fine theory, reminding me of a poster I had in my college dorm room back in the sixties: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”

So of course I want to begin by thinking through what I’m going to want my students to know and to be able to do at the end of the current unit. I have no problem with that.

But I have a very big problem — two big problems, in fact — with the notion that all the teachers who teach sections of a course should actually agree on and write the final unit test ahead of time:
  1. Teaching to the test. In this time of federally mandated standardized testing and so-called “no child left behind,” it’s supposed to be OK to teach to the test. But let’s look at what really happens if the teacher knows the final test when beginning the unit. We always run short of time. We can’t possibly teach everything we want to teach on a topic, and a 60- or 75-minute test can’t possibly test everything that should be tested on a topic. Both teaching and assessment are necessarily selective. If I know the final test ahead of time, I will inevitably (even if only subconsciously) make decisions based on what’s on the test rather than on what’s most important for students to know. Worse yet, many teachers will become competitive and want their students to do better than other teachers’ students, so they may inadvertently become corrupt and actually teach problems nearly identical to ones on the test, perhaps only changing the numbers. There’s a reason why standardized tests are never revealed to teachers.

  2. Cheating. Unless all the sections of a course meet at the same time, some students will find out the test questions from others. That’s the main reason why Weston High School’s Math Department gives all final exams at the same time. But that’s impossible with a regular unit test. In fact, there’s never even a single day when all sections meet. It’s just inviting kids to cheat when the same test is given over a period of two days. (I know, you’re shocked, shocked to hear that there might be cheating in Weston, and I hate to disillusion you...)

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