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Road testing for schools

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Dear Diane,

Here's my bottom line re testing: Wherever possible, we should be relying on direct evidence of the domain we're investigating. And the final judges should be close to the action being judged. If they need or value information from standardized tests, they should be free to do so. (Otherwise large-scale standardized testing should be sample-based for the purpose of gaining information on trends, regions, subjects, etc—not on individual students or schools)

We're always in the end resting our case on fallible judgment. Until and unless we turn ourselves into robots. The further my evidence is from the object of judgment, the less reliable. Interesting, yes, but. If we reduce state/national testing to sample-size we might also be able to increase its depth and value for research and policy.

If I want to know if I should trust Sam to drive a car on his own, the best source for deciding this is to ask someone who has driven with him. I could design a more efficient method—a test that "correlates" with some other criteria for measuring good driving (number of accidents?). But even so, once the word was "out", the correlation would disappear. Even on a driving road test, if I know exactly what they are going to ask me to do (and where), I may narrow my practice down to those particulars. On manual cars, stopping and starting on a hill was the supreme test. "Lucky" were those whose test route didn't include a hill, "phew". No more hours and hours of practicing for that skill. If I want information on the status of U.S. drivers, not just Sam, I'd sample the population with a good road test.

For all its faults, compared with the written test, the road test still is the real thing. The hardest bubble-in or "constructed text" paper-and pencil test on driving won't be of any use to me at all in deciding whether to hand my car over to Sam. Yet what we have done in schooling is try to make the paper-and-pencil driver's test harder, and give it more often, and eliminate the performance test entirely. (Do we agree so far?)

Some 20 years ago Ted Sizer wrote a book called "Horace's Compromise" based upon the idea of starting off by asking what the "road test" is for K-12 schooling—and then planning backward. Of course, the backward plan depends on how rich and deep and robust our goals are—the road test. Instead the nation has embarked on the "planning backward" part of his idea, but scrapped the road test and replaced it with simply more and more paper-and-pencil tests.

When Sizer put forth his idea he was called a utopian. Schools like mine in East Harlem (CPESS) were started simply to prove he was not a utopian. And we did. But it can't be replicated by mandate. Short cuts galore have been tried—but they lead to a different end.

The task has to start with asking what do we want those kids to show they can do before we hand over that diploma. Sizer-style schools still exist—and in the month of May the Coalition of Essential Schools hosts a nationwide display of their "exhibitions"—their road tests. Check out CES for the one nearest you. (There are several in NYC.)

But, here's the rub, Diane. They didn't all answer that question (what do you want "all kids" to show they can do?) the same way. Just as most private schools differ, so do they. Thus they too don't all have the same curriculum. I think that augurs well for the future of America and the world; some people think it augurs poorly. This is worth arguing about.


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What is a liberating curriculum?

Diane is asking a good question below about curriculum. For the time being, Deborah seems to have avoided the entire issue of curriculum, which has prompted me to add a few comments to this discussion. The heart of almost every discussion about "education" is curriculum. Curriculum is the topic that deserves serious attention, and I am glad to see that Diane has raised it. My best answer to her "Who is afraid of Curriculum?" question is that everyone is afraid of curriculum. Curriculum forces us to think and make decisions about what is right and what is wrong. Teachers cannot teach everything. Curriculum forces us to make decisions about what is good to teach and what is not good to teach (dare I say what is bad to teach). Curriculum requires that we set priorities and make judgments that are ultimately moral in nature. Decisions about what is right and wrong are not popular in our current political climate, which, in my judgment, is why public figures tend to go on and on about "education," but have nothing to say about curriculum. The easy route is to avoid the entire issue of curriculum and instead score cheap political points with one-line zingers about the "importance of education". In the end, we are forced to hear a great deal of meaningless rhetoric about “education” and consequently find precious little serious deliberation about curriculum. Or, another easy route is, again, to avoid the entire issue of curriculum by letting every student set his or her own path. If that happens, we don't have curriculum at all, nor do we have community. Instead, we have multiple curricula that may or may not have any relationship to one another.

I have one other comment about the idea of a national and/or state curriculum. In principle, I agree with Diane on this point. The only additional issue that I think should be raised is the question of what should be done with a national or state curriculum once these curricula have been established. If a curriculum is to be liberating (and I think any good curriculum must be liberating), then this curriculum has to be implemented intelligently in individual school districts and in individual schools in an intelligent way. I agree entirely with common knowledge and core curriculum as foundational to our communities, but I also recognize that not all students are identical. The challenge, it seems to me, is to create a curriculum that is common, yet at the same recognizes that students are different. In other words, the setting up of a national (or common) curriculum is the first step in a much broader, and indeed more challenging, task of diffusing common knowledge/curriculum into every classroom in the country. In my view, that is where we need some dedicated minds to do additional hard thinking and rigorous work.


Wesley Null

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