Just who is being held accountable?
June 26, 2002
The recent publicity about a Carson High student who successfully completed all required courses but has not yet passed the math proficiency test has caused me more than a little anxiety.
On the one hand, I believe students should be held accountable somewhere along the line. I believe schools, parents and the community need to feel confident that the high school diploma means something, means the same thing for all students.
Nonetheless, school officials have acknowledged that the curriculum Amy completed may not have been an exact match for what was on THE TEST, but that they are working to more closely align the two.
Which brings me to my other hand — just who is being held accountable here? And for what?
Amy completed the curriculum outlined by the state and the district. She received good grades in classes taught by teachers certified by the state and hired by the district. She just couldn’t pass THE TEST. Or hasn’t passed it yet. (Note to Amy: please don’t give up.)
What strikes me in this situation is that the only person being held accountable is Amy — the person at the bottom of the educational food chain, the one with the least power, the least voice. The person who did as she was told.
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The teachers who taught her and gave her the passing grades may reflect on what they might have done differently. Or they may not. ut their jobs are not in jeopardy. I’m not convinced they should be, but you may begin to see my point. School administrators’ jobs are not at risk. The contract with the testing company is probably safe even though its test may not have accurately or reliably measured what it was supposed to.
No one’s future is at risk the way Amy’s is — a future based on her performance on a single test.
As a teacher, I know there are many kinds of learners. Think of yourself for a moment. Do you learn best on your own or in a group? Can you read or hear new information and know it? Or do you need to talk, write, draw or build something to learn?
And how would you prefer to show what you know? Would you rather take a test with only one right answer? Or would you rather be able to show why you believe something is so?
Your preferences may reveal something about your expectations regarding high school graduates. Just what is the desired outcome of 13 years of this free and public education?
Do you want students who have a multitude of facts rattling around in their heads and at their fingertips or do you prefer students who can integrate those ideas, see the big picture and solve problems? Do you want students who can memorize or students who can think?
What bothers me about using a single multiple-choice test to determine competence in any subject is not that the bar is too high, but that the bar is too low and on the wrong track.
I want students to have more than functional literacy, which assures them nothing but a low paying job. I want them to have more than cultural literacy. Cultural literacy might allow them to win at Trivial Pursuit or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” but devalues or ignores customs and cultures outside America’s mainstream. Both functional and cultural literacy perpetuate social inequities.
Personally, I want graduates who can listen, read, view and think critically, who can separate the wheat from the chaff. I want graduates who know what is really true and why.
But more than anything I want students to have a vested interest in their learning — not because of a test, not even because of earning potential, but because they understand their own power and their obligation to use that power to change the world to make it better and more just. I want students to know they can change the system into one that honors even its least powerful members instead of turning them into scapegoats for its own injustices.
Lorie Smith Schaefer and her husband have lived in Carson City for 25 years. She is a reading specialist at Seeliger School and suggests the following Web sites for more information on testing and education reform: http://www.fairtest.org and http://www.rethinkingschools.org.
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