One of the key issues in genuine school reform is the question of accountability as it applies to both students and teachers. It isn’t enough that a student is said to have learned something, it’s that the student is capable of applying and demonstrating that knowledge. Likewise, it isn’t enough for a teacher to say that they have taught a student something, it has to be proved that the teacher taught the student. With this in mind, the larger question is how do we hold both subjects, the teacher and the student, accountable?
Standardized testing has been the norm, and will continue to be the norm, and it carries with it a fair amount of problems that I believe are, at best difficult to address and at worst, impossible to address. The largest problem as it applies to teachers and to administrators is making a test that is equitable, which is to say, a test that every student in the district is capable of passing in an ideal situation.
So, take the best possible teacher. The teacher is capable of doing their absolute best for every student that they take in. The problem comes in when you accept that every student, regardless of district, comes from a very complicated set of circumstances. There is not going to be a single student in any district that can go through grades k-12 without any difficulties or problems, and is going to be able to apply themselves one hundred percent of the time, which is basically what standardized testing demands of students. This is the main problem with tests as they apply from the top to the bottom: that they are, basically, a rolling pin that goes over every student in an attempt to flatten them all out into a uniform shape. This is not possible.
Along with this comes the concept of competition being built into the structure of schools. Some will say that this is a positive, but this is mainly because the concept of competition is taken, prima facie (at first sight), to be a positive in American society. The problem with this is that, in any competition no matter how it’s constructed, there are going to be winners and losers. Lets use baseball as an example. On one hand, we have the New York Yankees. The Yankees are, historically, the team that is most able to gather the money to get the best teams, the best trainers and the best field. On the other hand, we take a team like the Angels, a team that is going to be able to gather a fair amount of money that can then be used to get a fairly good team, with fairly good trainers and a fairly good field. There’s going to be pretty good competition between the two teams, but the Yankees will have the advantage over the Angels more often than not and the Angels are going to lose more to the Yankees because of this advantage more often than not. And this is fine when it comes to baseball, because, despite how seriously some fans take the game, at the end of the day, it’s still just a game. When we start talking about education, we’re no longer talking about something frivolous. We’re talking about a situation that is deadly serious.
Using the baseball metaphor, we have school districts that are wealthy and school districts that are poor. The wealthy school districts, because of No Child Left Behind, are only going to continue to get as much funding as they possibly can, while the poor districts are going to continue to lose funding. Because of this, the wealthy school districts are going to be able to get better teachers, better facilities and are going to have a greater advantage over the poor districts that are not going to be able to get the best teachers or facilities. And, because of NCLB, the test scores are going to mean that, with every testing period, the wealthy districts will receive more funding and the poor districts will receive less.
So, the question then becomes, what are we to do? Unfortunately, individual citizens don’t really have that much power anymore (as was demonstrated this week with the failure of the gun control bill with a background check that enjoys more support among the citizenry than nearly any other factor of daily life). But, in an ideal world, the solution is fairly simple and fairly clean cut.
One of the ideas that’s sweeping across the country is electronic portfolios. Students upload their school work onto this portfolio, take tests and do other required school work on these portfolios that are then kept throughout their career in school. Now, as I’ve said in the past, greater reliance on technology is highly problematic when it comes to public education. However, when applied in the way that I’m suggesting, with in-class exams, school work and essays, this approach can be applied in an equitable way that can be used by nearly any student in nearly any school in nearly any district. This is not a perfect solution, but no solution is.
Portfolios have the advantage over standardized tests because it approaches every student as individual human beings, as opposed to merely numbers that are then entered into a system. These individuals are then measured in the way that individuals are usually measured: they get better over time, or they get worse over time, and there are attendant reasons that go along with that improvement or failure. Their improvement or failure doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere, but can be measured against other data as it appears in the system. This data is then made available to administration, teachers and other such figures in the district. And, because nearly every assignment is then entered into the system, the students are made accountable for their school work, and the teachers can follow-up as required with school work and other such assignments until those assignments are completed.
Not only is this a much more equitable way to approach school work, but it’s also a much less time consuming and much more affordable approach as well. Teachers will be able to devote more time to instruction and have more freedom over curriculum. In general, it’s a situation in which nearly all individuals in question win. It’s the solution that, at least to me, stands the best chance at actually turning out the desired end: every student having an equal chance at success.