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Reflections on Standards, Grades, and Excuses

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These are strange times for educational standards.

First, there’s political polarization around the Common Core has everyone a swivet: Are they evil imposed from above, a federalist plot to undermine local control of schools? Or are they a Trojan horse for more testing and yet further reductions in the amount of time that students might spend being creative, being engaged in interesting, project-based learning–being themselves? Are they a floor, or a ceiling?

For years my work in and around schools describing themselves as “progressive” involved trying to counter the notion that modern education, 21st-century education–whatever you call a more student-centered type of teaching, learning, and school culture–is devoid of standards, a warm bubble bath of relativism, where anything goes.

And then there is that thing called “grade inflation,” with Harvey Mansfield angrily (but a bit gleefully, too, I suspect) calling out his Harvard colleagues for handing out “too many” high grades to the most highly selected undergraduate student body among major universities. Apparently Harvard’s “standards,” or at its least grading policy, have yet to adjust for a student body whose strings of As and A-pluses though high school landed them in Cambridge in the first place. As if, we must remind ourselves, the whole idea of grading was handed down on Mount Sinai as a way of producing yet another lovely bell curve to hang on the wall in the gallery of assessment stratagems.

Everybody, then, has his or her own idea of educational standards, and in general we think they’re too low unless–as with many Common Core opponents–we think they’re too high. There is a certain amount of false nostalgia in some of these sentiments, as any relaxation of standards almost inevitably seems to come about more or less by popular demand rather than through the laxness of the standard-keepers; high school GPAs haven’t been climbing without a great deal of individual clamor for by tax- and tuition-paying parents on behalf of their children, and the Common Core is certainly designed to push the vast majority students to a place they’ve never been rather back to some Golden Age that never was.

I spent yesterday wrestling with the question of standards for the College Work and Readiness Assessment (Plus), a performance-task-based test that tests critical thinking and analysis–in both the written and quantitative domains–and that asks some very hard questions, indeed. The group gathered at CWRA world headquarters (the Council for Aid to Education in New York City) represented an interesting mix of public and independent school folks; august company indeed and yet another opportunity–like last week’s TABS conference–to put actual faces with names.

The essence of our task was to narrow down the criteria by which performance–on a very complex essay-type question and on some fiendish multiple-choice analytical questions–might be deemed categorized by level. We had to decide what a student should be able to do to leave high school proficient (say) at tasks that align with successful performance in the first year of college.

I have to say, this was putting our money where our mouths are: it’s one thing to say, Of course our kids are prepared for college, and quite another to say, And here exactly is how we know this. This isn’t anything particularly novel–the ACT has been been publishing its College Readiness Standards and the College Board promoting similar Standards for College Success for a while now–but in the context of all the uproar about “standards,” it was kind of nice to be talking about these things in a room full of people who think about these things all the time, like assessment gurus Jonathan Martin and Andrew Niblock, National Association of Independent Schools vice president for “Studies, Insights, and Research” Amada Torres, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School‘s Tyler Thigpen, Drew Schrader of the amazing New Tech Network of schools, and a bunch of people from large public school districts trying to make a leap toward a higher level of student performance.

I’ve written elsewhere and previously here about the CWRA, which in the end is but another standardized test. I happen to think it tests important qualities and KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities, the main “something new” I learned yesterday) that are in line with most of our talk about “21st-century learning.” It doesn’t get to collaboration or quite explicitly to creativity, but it requires considerable intellectual suppleness and some attentive reading and thinking. I hadn’t really thought much about the “standards” the CWRA+ represents, partly because it is still relatively new and relatively small, but I came away from my day in New York with a sense that standards, subjective as they must be and sometimes difficult to apply at their margins, are in fact something that thoughtful educators can agree on.

As for grades, the whole Harvard issue and inflation talk everywhere else makes me wonder why we need the things at all, or why we have settled on this strange alphabetical lingo to judge student performance. The handful of independent secondary schools that eschew (tip o’the hat to St. Ann’s, whose former head John Gulla was also among us yesterday) grades don’t seem to have great difficulty communicating their students’ KSAs to parents and colleges; most independent school teachers have to agonize over the careful preparation of narrative comments a few times a year, anyhow; shouldn’t these suffice?

But when a school I worked at started keeping grades for its middle school students long ago, the argument was that parents and kids felt a need to know “where the student stands.” Against their peers? Against the material, in some way that evaluated homeworks and tests as well as a paragraphs-long narrative comment couldn’t communicate but a single letter could? You be the judge. And to what end?

We’re all trying hard to put our students through their paces, to help them find and express the best in themselves. If the performance tasks of the CWRA+ can do this in a way that can help gauge the deepest kinds of thinking we ask kids to do in school (and I believe they can), let’s figure out how to expand this work in all of our schools and classrooms. I like the idea that educators can be empowered to actually set their own standards; my colleagues from yesterday have all been and in some cases still are in the classroom and believe that the standards on which we were working reflect reasonable, humane levels of aspiration and achievement just as much as they reflect levels of performance.

Maybe some of the ambiguity and angst boils down to how we’re using standards. As ways to measure individual and schoolwide performance, to guide efforts toward better student learning and faculties more effective professional development, standards aren’t so bad. Standards should be about growth–measuring it, yes, but above all fostering it.

But when as a society, or a polity, we drift into using so-called “standards” to set up hierarchies of the educationally saved and unsaved, to declare winners and losers, to fire teachers wholesale or to close schools in the blink of an eye, we’re not talking about standards anymore. Instead, we’re talking about excuses, about excusing ourselves from the responsibility of taking care of children.

And I don’t think that we morally or ethically can or wish to excuse ourselves from this responsibility.

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