Thursday, October 9, 2014

Grades, Scales, and Percentages, oh my!

Well, North Carolina has finally decided to go the 10-point grading scale for high school students. I'm of two minds here...(if not 10). Since most of the world is on the 10-point scale, I think it helps to coordinate our efforts with students but, I worry that it's also "dumb-ing it down". After all, in our last round of "new" tests the state lowered the "pass/fail" to allow for more students to pass, and still only 56.3% (from the Raleigh News & Observer) passed the test. Celebrations are being held everywhere but what about the other 43.7%? Are we truly happy that we've lowered the standard and now a little over half our students can perform on the tests?

I guess if students are just numbers, then we've got 1/2 of our numbers in order. I've been concerned for a while now about the over emphasis of standardized testing and the pressure that it puts on the student, the parent, and the teacher. I know how to fill in a bubble, how to locate an answer to something that's in the "Knowledge" or "Comprehension" parts of Blooms Taxonomy, I can eliminate answers, and yes, even guess. Now, I have the test taking skills that I lacked as a student of the NC public school system and somehow, I survived, was nurtured, and flourished as a student. I learned from my teachers and from my mistakes (sometimes, that I was allowed to make).

Tom Campbell, a former NC State Treasurer and host of NCSpin, on Time Warner Cable ( said all that I have been thinking for a number of years. We, as educators, will jump on any new bandwagon that we think may have merit for educating youngsters. But, the policy makers too often "drop the ball" on the program or continually change it so often that we can't ever get a "baseline" of just what our students have learned or know. His article**, which appeared on September 15 in the Gaston Gazette made me realize that I was not alone in my thoughts. I think of education as a pendulum that swings from side to side; every so often something will fly off the end (like Senate Bill 2 or ABCs, etc.) only to come back in the pendulum swing some years later as something else, with slight changes - then that gets dumped and the cycle renews.

According to Mr. Campbell, and I have little reason to doubt his findings, one of the End of Course tests required that students answer only 25% of the questions correctly to "pass". My father, an educator and administrator for over 30 years said to me: "Then next year, why don't we just ask those questions that the students got right, then we can have phenomenal growth!" I think he may have something here...

As teachers under attack and in a profession that is seeing less and less but is expected to produce more and more, I think we have performed exceptionally well. We're asked to do the impossible with nothing and no support and we've mostly met the challenge. At 54%, we're well over half.

But what does it all mean? Would you want a doctor who had only passed 25% of his classes and tests? Would you want a lawyer who had done the same? Probably not, so how can we be happy and celebrate success where there is no reason to celebrate.

It's time to come up with some real evaluation techniques for students, teachers, and parents (a child can not truly be educated without the parents and teachers). With the Common Core and Essential Standards, teachers are encouraged to use exploratory learning and allow students to construct their own knowledge. You can not "test" knowledge construction. There are certainly ways to test students abilities and know-how but teaching this way is not going to have a tremendous effect on the current years scores. Over several years, as students are encouraged and helped to learn to see things through critical thinking, a test is a natural outcome.

Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams, was advised, "Build it and they will come." I think
education is in the same situation. We have to build it before we can measure it; we have to support it before we can test it; we have to have educators making decisions with parents and policy makers and students. We can build it, and they will come but, critical thinking and knowledge construction is not an overnight learned skill.

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