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Freeing Schools From Carnegie Units and Standardized Testing

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Standardized testing (now dubbed 'high stakes testing') has something in common with Carnegie Units. They are boundaries educators face, push against, and climb over. They are also barriers that in some cases are perceived rather than real. But they do go hand in hand with each other. At this point we are all keenly aware of the negative views of the use of standardized testing and some are becoming aware of the clash between the need for flexibility in 21st century schools and the time-based credits that the Carnegie Foundation produced at the beginning of the last century.  Is this a changing landscape?

Only 10 states and the District of Columbia require districts to use time-based credits. Thirty-three states allow districts to replace time-based credit with other measures. Of these, 29 are free to define credit completely on their own and four must get state approval to use measures other than time. Six states permit districts to use non-time-based credits only for special groups of students or specific programs. New Hampshire is the only state that requires districts to use competency-based credits.  There, as in many other states where time-based credits aren't required, competency-based credit can be issued for learning that takes place outside of the school building--in internships, independent studies, summer jobs, and beyond.

There Are Limitations to Our Thinking, Mindsets, and Perceptions
According to the 2010 census, 19.3% of our population lives in rural areas.  Those families have access to fewer resources, are more likely to be living in poverty, and the accompanying possibility of poorer health. While the struggle continues against using standardized tests as a high stakes measure, and while the struggle continues to change the way we view the measure for completing courses, we must keep all children and all schools systems in mind.

Certainly this is not a call of support for the use of standardized testing to be used in a high stakes manner; nor is it a call to abolish the Carnegie Unit without acceptable alternatives.  But this is a call to remember that the situations in which we live and those surrounding us may not include those that we do not see or experience. 

Without some kind of national standard, how easy will it be to ignore what we do not see? In a rural community, for example, in which fiscal resources are limited, attracting new teachers is difficult, textbooks may be outdated, and technology may be non-existent, stark realities exist. In a school district existing with these limitations, the need for flexibility to measure mastery can be greater than in other communities. Urban, suburban, or rural, elementary minutes dedicated to English Language Arts or science, math, history, art, music, or PE might be designed to respond to the limitation of the district, if a national standard did not exist. High school minutes dedicated to credit bearing course might also vary if left only to local measures. So the idea that there be a national design for what it takes to complete a high school course is a good idea. That it has been held to a measure of minutes is the sticking point to be reconsidered for this century. 

At the same time, standardized testing, leveling the measure for all students in all schools across the country, supports an American value.  According to the Center for Public Education:

Public education means a tuition-free, publicly funded system that must provide an education to each child in a neighborhood school within a publicly governed school system. The academic standards, the teachers and administrators, the values and methods of operation employed in these schools are all subject to oversight and direction by public policy-making bodies. The rights of students and parents are legally defined and are enforceable by the courts.

But there are no formative uses for the results of these standardized tests. They are used as high stakes measures, punishing districts, schools, leaders, teachers and even the students. Funding is threatened, reputations muddied, morale diminished... all as a result of well-intended measures. 

So let us approach this new year with new thoughts about these two limiting measures. They do go hand in hand.  One equates minutes of instruction to the acquisition of knowledge. And the other equates a single performance measure with the quality of education a student receives and compares it with others.  Both are archaic models that accompanied us into this century. We would do well to shed them for a newer, and yes, better way to frame the education we offer students.

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