There has to be a better way

I have a fabulous bunch of students this semester. They’re really smart, nice, and seem to like listening and talking to each other.

And not one of them has been to school in a time when courses didn’t culminate in a high-stakes, standardized test.

Let me say that again. My students have never been to school in a time where courses didn’t culminate in high-stakes, standardized tests.

This isn’t a post about high-stakes testing. But when I think about the recent schools where I’ve visited or worked, The Test is the center of discussion, especially as the testing date draws closer.  I’m fiercely curious to know what tests my students took, in what grades, what they did in their classes in the weeks before the tests, how the curricula in their classes related to the tests (not the standards or benchmarks for the grade level– the tests themselves), the instructional practices the teachers used.

I’m wondering about the differences in schooling that my students and I have experienced. I’m wondering what I have to say that will make sense to them.

I went to school in a time when you were placed in an academic track in grade 6 and stayed in it until you graduated. What mattered was grades. A low grade meant I wasn’t fulfilling my responsibilities, chief among which was to live up to my potential, what ever that was.

But it was also the 1970’s, a time of challenges to all kinds of social, political, and cultural institutions. This included challenges to ideas about learning, teaching, and schooling by writers as varied as  Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, John Holt, Peter Elbow, Ivan Illich, many others.  It was also the time of experimenting: open classrooms, Foxfire,  just about any kind of alternative school you could imagine. There was even one within my school.

By my junior year of high school, I felt worn down by AP and honors classes, the chronic emphasis on achievement. I asked to be admitted to the alternative program, telling my reluctant parents, the head of the school, anybody who would listen: There had to be a better way.

For me, the interdisciplinary, experience-based alternative program transformed not only my relationship to school but my relationship to learning. I discovered how and why to learn for myself. My teaching job in an alternative program inspired by the ideas of Maurice Gibbons only deepened my belief that a core priority of schooling is for students to learn how to learn for themselves.

Not a grade. Not a test.

These days, I think the closest thing to experiential learning we’re going to find is an English classroom  where writing is the means by which students connect with themselves and then connect themselves to the world.

You know how baby birds imprint on the first thing they see after birth? I think teachers do this too. We get imprinted with the ways of learning and teaching that leave the deepest impressions on us.

My students have never been to school in a time when there weren’t high-stakes standardized tests

It’s going to be an interesting semester.

3 responses to “There has to be a better way”

  1. Jennifer Ansbach says:

    Wow. I hadn’t considered this issue before. I graduated from high school under a “high stakes test” that didn’t count for us–it was still being field-tested. It was called the Test of Minimum Basic Skills, or MBS, and it was easy. I’m not sure there was anyone who didn’t pass it. No writing, just simple math and a reading comprehension test. It didn’t drive the curriculum. We had taken a standardized test every year since first grade that was used for placement (like you, Karen, we had strict tracks and we didn’t really get to know people who weren’t in our track).

    I know I tell parents every year that I am doing the best I can to teach their children AND prepare for the test. I’m not convinced that they are the same thing, but I do the best I can. But up until this moment, I hadn’t considered how differently the parents and my students see what school is, for the same reason you mentioned here.

    Thanks for bringing this up. Definitely worth considering as I embark on a new year.

    • Karen says:

      @Jennifer Ansbach,

      And I never considered parents’ perspectives or expectations. It would be interesting to hear what, if anything, you observe related to this as the year unfolds.

  2. Teresa Bunner says:

    Okay, now I feel old! Because I do remember a time when it wasn’t about high stakes testing. Although, now that I think of it, this has been the realoty for me as a teacher for the 20 years I have been in a classroom.

    “a core priority of schooling is for students to learn how to learn for themselves.”
    Amen to that! This is our focus, our purpose. But society doesn’t want to pay for the amount of time and energy it would take to “justify” this through meaningful assessment. And heaven forbid we take the teachers’ word for it! This unwillingness to put in the time and money it would take to authentically assess student learning equates to the salaries the public is willing to support for teachers.

    Good stuff here, Karen! You always make me think!

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