Friday, January 12, 2018

Rethinking Graduation. Assessments or Opportunities?

I was encouraged this week to read story after story regarding the Ohio State School Board’s rethinking of the Graduation Requirement. As it stands, in the opinion of the board (and many in education), far too much weight is being placed on a student’s success on standardized tests. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has reported on the new vision the board is in the process of developing for Ohio students. The image above is taken from their article, and encapsulates the attributes that the board believes students should be developing through their high school career. 

Their idea is to extend the 2018 pathways to the classes of 2019 & 2020, while developing a new approach. This builds in the time for a meaningful analysis of any new plan, along with a period of public input, and development of legislation. As long as the 2018 additional pathways function as they are intended, the ODE has (to my knowledge) still done no analysis to this end, the state board might be onto something.

Under the current system, through an arbitrary 18 points earned from 7 standardized tests, we are attempting to measure only a few of the board’s attributes, at best, and likely not measuring any of them very well. What the board is proposing is that we take a far more holistic view of a child’s education. 

This concept might seem revolutionary considering the fact that we in education have shepherded several generations through a slaughterhouse of an assessment system in the name of rigor and reform. However, if we were to ask any given teacher why they got into the business, I’d imagine that many would argue that it was to instill some of the above qualities in their students. If we were to ask students about the benefits of school, or to consider our own careers as students, we would probably be unlikely to hear opinions that reflect one’s performance on an assessment as vital to future success.

The value of my own K-12 education, with hindsight, had little to do with the acquisition of specific content knowledge, or even content related skills. To be fair it is nice to be able to read & write, balance a bank account and figure a tip, but I value the other experiences far more. Being encouraged to be creative, for example, or to internalize the satisfaction of service to my community has brought me more joy and led me to teaching. Having experienced content or situations that provoked compassion and empathy, or a desire for action have also been a driving force in my life.

Having had opportunities to develop oral communication skills, despite spending a great deal of time in my own head, has enabled me to do what I do as an educator, and hopefully convey through example that being awkward is perfectly acceptable.

None of these attributes related to my education in which I place so much value are things that can be accurately assessed on a standardized test. And therein lies the difficulty. When many of the media outlets reporting on the board’s plan refer to this as a “softening” of the Graduation Requirement, they’re missing the point. The value of a child’s education goes well beyond their performance on an assessment, but for so long we’ve allowed a false narrative of failure in our schools to create a demand for a solution. Politicians want a business model, an algorithm, a formula that will guarantee student success.

18 Points from 7 Assessments does not guarantee success. Education is a human endeavor, so cannot be boiled down to an equation, much as that might simplify things. Providing students with opportunities can facilitate success, and if the state board’s “attributes” promote opportunity, then we will have done well by these kids. If we use this opportunity to create more assessments to collect data points on grit, or creativity, or otherwise, then we will be, once again, missing the point.

I’d prefer to think that those of us in education will work to assure that this opportunity is not lost. I’d prefer to go with the spin placed on the board’s work by the Lorain Morning Journal, and say that they are attempting to extend flexibility when it comes to graduation. Let’s strengthen the Graduation Requirement by extending this flexibility and providing opportunities.