Writing about writing—by the Write Source staff

Assessment Ennui

As you know, standards and assessment (you can’t have one without the other) has become the most important subject in education today. Reports and articles cover the subject from all angles: If one report tells us that testing improves classroom performance, another one will tell us that it makes little difference. If still another report tells us real improvement starts with rigorous national standards, one more will say “Prove it.” I’m not sure what to think—and I’m beginning not to care. I’m clearly suffering from assessment ennui.

Recent postings on edweek.org and NCTE Inbox identify the following articles on standards and assessment:

NGA, CCSSO Launch Common Standards Drive” by Michele McNeil
This April 17 Education Week article reports that NGA and CCSSO want to develop rigorous math and language arts standards to align with college and career-prep expectations. NGA stands for the National Governor’s Association and CCSSO stands for the Council of Chief State School Officers. These would be grade-by-grade standards, plus graduation standards.

Observations: Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we already have enough standards? I know that NCTE has established language arts standards, and I’m sure that NCTM has done the same. And hasn’t each state established standards as well? But, of course, these new standards will be just the thing to make our schools truly succeed. If you believe that, you’ll also believe that the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series this year. Anyhow, do you really want governors and chief state school officers (whoever they are) making decisions about improving our schools?

Japanese ‘Exam Hell’ Now Reaches Preschool” by Yuriko Nagano
This April 23 Christian Science Monitor article reports that Japanese preschoolers and kindergarteners enroll in cram schools (costing up to $22,000 for two years of tutoring) to prepare for entrance exams to get into private elementary schools. The private schools, of course, provide the best preparation to succeed at the next level. The parents of toddlers need to prepare as well. They must pick out conservative, tasteful clothes to wear at the interview session to make a proper first impression.

Observations: I can’t imagine anyone thinking this is a healthy situation. But could we become another Japan if we continue to place more and more emphasis on testing? Probably not, but it’s a slight cause for concern nonetheless.

Study: Exit exam doesn’t meet expectations” by Jill Tucker
This April 22 article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the California exit exam has shown no appreciable significance. Supporters of the test thought it would boost student performance; opponents thought it would worsen dropout rates. A recent Stanford study shows that students didn’t drop out because of the test (though the dropout rate did increase), nor did they become motivated to do better.

Observations: So what are we to make of this study? That motivation and learning are complex issues, requiring a great deal of thought and effort. I certainly don’t fault California for trying something to improve student achievement. I just don’t think testing on its own (or at all) is the answer—not now, not in this country, not with such a diverse student population.

Why We’re Still ‘At Risk’: The Legacy of Five Faulty Assumptions” by Ronald A. Wolk
This April 20 Education Week essay examines the state of our schools 25 years after the “Nation at Risk” report. The author, Ronald A. Wolk, is the founder and former editor of Education Week. Wolk contends that educators have become too fixated on standards-based accountability, which has marginalized other ideas and approaches. He would rather see educators try, among other things, to personalize learning, allowing students to pursue their own interests, and to judge students by their character and behavior as much as anything else.

Observations: Here is a thoughtful commentator, someone who clearly has a different take on our schools. I happen to agree with a lot of what Wolk says (which, of course, doesn’t make him right), and I would recommend it to any educator who questions the whole assessment movement. The essay serves as an effective counterbalance to the mainstream discussion.

A new standards drive, toddler cram schools, ineffective exit exams, a nation still at risk—typical coverage of the subject. Am I better informed about assessment after my reading? Have I changed any of my thinking? Not really. Should we get tougher and raise our standards; should we back off and personalize learning; or should we… Your guess is as good as mine.


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