Friday, January 21, 2011

What is mastery? Proficiency?

photo by Leo Reynolds

I'm deep into standardized testing week with my students. I long ago gave up the stress that many teachers associate with this since, to read any major educational researcher is to know that standardized testing is not a  way to measure learning, but rather a way to measure the students preparedness for a test. With that in mind, my attitude is that the test cannot possibly measure what I do as a teacher, whether students do well or not.

After getting my student's scores back, I am shocked at how high they are.  Almost all of them showed a significant amount of "growth" from what they were predicted to make to what they did make. Now remember that I said this test doesn't measure what I do as a teacher. Many teachers say that when the scores are bad, but then take credit when the scores are good. I am not one of those teachers.

I started digging into the numbers that were given to me for all of my students.  This somewhat cryptic data set that isn't clearly defined ended up being somewhat decipherable after spending a bit of time with it. What I deduced from it was shocking to me as a teacher and really makes me feel like a cog in a big, dirty, broken machine designed to churn out intended results rather than alert and able people ready to strive and make positive contributions to society.

To be considered proficient and on grade level meant getting 50% of the multiple choice questions correct. If the test were complex and complicated, I would agree with such a percentage, but it isn't. It is a fairly basic and low level test of mastery of just a few basic facts, ideas and methods.

I hate the implications for our future that this current testing regime in education has. When students do little, know little and then are branded as proficient or even said to have "mastery" of the content, we teach them that little is actually a lot, that poor results are actually good, and average results are actually excellent. We are electing people and encouraging the gaming of the system. We aren't encouraging results, we are tabulating numbers. It is smoke and mirrors. It is as if I decided that I am no longer middle class but actually quite wealthy because I now consider every dollar I have to actually be worth ten dollars. That is just a numbers game and signifies nothing in reality. Unfortunately, that is the education system that we have gotten.

Have you noticed how since education became politicized (beginning with Kennedy and then exploding with Reagen) that everyone is busy trying to fix education, while everybody else is busy measuring how broken the system is? We are in an educational ouroboros that is spinning out of control. Meanwhile, we grind our future into dust by tacitly encouraging mediocrity in the generations that will form the future of our society. It is a recipe for disaster.
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