Friday, April 24, 2015

The First High Stakes Tests

MBS: Minimum Basic Skills

Once T & E was firmly in place, the data driven curriculum started to flourish. Now, education needed a way to reliably reduce student learning to numbers.

People outside of education love numbers. They are an easy way of determining something's worth. How many dollars? How many points? How many sales? How many wins or how many losses? What's his RBI or SO rate? What are the odds?

Teachers use numbers too, to determine grades. How many points earn an ""A?"  How many numbers add up and then divide to get an average of a passing grade.

The difference is, that in the world outside education, numbers usually evaluate concrete, real, countable things. Inside education, the numbers are often not so objective. Try as they might to be as objective as possible in some areas, subjectivity always falls into the mix. This is especially true in the English classroom where student responses and reactions to literature can not always be objectively evaluated. After all, quite often a student might have a unique opinion about a story or poem studied in class. Does the teacher demand the student's reaction fall into a set pattern of expected responses or does the teacher encourage independent and creative interpretations? Do we encourage the student to think on his own, or do we decide the answers for him and expect a robotic response?

Sometimes, to a good teacher who wants to encourage her students to think, the standard response and those numbers just don't work.

But now, there were tests, claiming to judge a student's mastery of, in this case, basic reading and writing skills. The test was of basic skills, the reading and writing students needed to succeed in the world once they graduated from high school regardless of whether or not they went on to college. Could they communicate? Could they read a newspaper or most of the kinds of reading material they might encounter in the real world?  Just what could they do?

graduation cap 1 clip artIt wasn't long after the MBS tests were introduced that passing scores became essential for high school graduation. Pass the test, then pass all your classes in school, and you earned your diploma. Fail the test? Well there were plenty of methods for remediation.

In the classroom, teaching began to change. No longer could I teach a piece of literature as pure art. Now it became a means to an end. What skill did the students need to learn that day? Was it how to figure out the meaning of a word through context? Was it trying to distinguish between fact and opinion?

books-aj.svg aj ashton 01 clip artSomewhere along the line textbook designers licked their lips in happy anticipation and began to develop skills based literature books. Content was based less upon literary value and more upon just what basic skills a particular reading selection could teach.

Schools spent thousands of dollars investing in packaged curriculum materials promising student mastery of all those basic skills if teachers dedicated their lessons to the manufactured course outlines.

We weren't required to live by the law of those text materials, at least not in my school. While I still taught so my students could succeed on the test, I used literature and learning materials from a myriad of sources instead, always trying to find the best reading for my students instead of what someone else packaged for me. I know my fellow teachers did the same. Most of us had our own lists of great reading matter already and often used that in place of what the textbooks offered.

Most of the time, our students thrived because of it. Somehow, despite what the packaged materials implied, it was possible to teach all those basic skills through the study of good literature instead of in the isolation.  Today we might call this a holistic approach.

Back then, it was just some darn good teaching.

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