Keep Moving Forward

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the 30th such federal holiday, and a time to reflect upon the state of the nation, the state of race relations and the state of education. The nation is currently going through an economic correction, but the Obama administration has pulled this country out of mass unemployment and into financial health. The state of race relations has slipped back to a 1960’s level of distrust due to endless video documentation of police brutality. And the state of education is about to go through a paradigm shift from federal accountability supported by mandated standardized testing to local accountability where local standards will be supported by local assessments of student learning.

But just in case you think I have misidentified the paradigm shift—I am using it the way Kuhn defined it—as a  multi-year, if not multi-decade process, where one paradigm of standardized testing will give way to another paradigm of local assessment. The old paradigm depended on agreement that standardized tests do in fact accurately measure student learning across all classrooms, and that you can compare student learning across classrooms and the results will tell you who is learning and who is not.

So what is wrong with the current logical way of holding students accountable for their learning? It turns out that measuring student learning through standardized tests does not tell you the how and why students did well or did poorly. And what they do measure results in the form of a number that is then used as the final summation of a student’s learning: “The student is a B+ kid,” and “B+ kids go to this college,” etc.

In the last ten years, recent forms of assessment, such as essays, portfolios of student work and project learning, have begun to more accurately measure the why and how of learning. The early reports show that the why and how of student learning are more complicated than standardized assessment can accurately measure and are not being documented and understood by teachers, parents or even the federal government.

The most disturbing report from these new assessments, on MLK day, is that the why and how of student learning is also influenced by race, gender, income level, parent income, home environments and even the location of the homes. The push to provide equity of access to quality curriculum has stalled at the front doors of schools. If we are to ever use federal guidelines well in schools, we should examine the resistance in schools to all outside meddling, including the resistance to up-to-date professional practice especially in social justice. What the old paradigm tells us is that schools are still segregated, uneven, and still not providing equal access for every child in order to attain a quality education. What the new paradigm tells us is that this is curtailing learning and solidifying our unequal society.

Perhaps the new paradigm of more closely measuring what students are learning will also open a new dialogue in policy circles for how to create equity and access to schools. Perhaps the new paradigm of measuring student learning will more accurately measure the evidence we need to create new federal policies that support positive educational change throughout the country. Perhaps this could be a new paradigm dream for education: local rigorous evidence of student learning that influences and is influenced by federal policy guidelines, for the betterment of all students in America. As MLK reminds us, let’s keep moving forward.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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