My son went to a great high school. Among the things they did was combine grades with long narrative evaluations. This allowed me to see the great conundrum of educational evaluation in a unique way.
For at the end of his 9th grade year his Latin Class evaluation read (in part) this way: "[He] was the best student in the class, he completed both Latin I and Latin II this year. He will need to take future courses at [a nearby] college in order to continue his advancement. Grade C-"
"What grade," I asked the teacher, "did the second best student get?"
I was told that my son got a bad grade because he did not do his homework. "Apparently," I said, "he didn't have to." But, you see, this teacher had a rubric. Homework was 25% of the grade, and apparently there was no block in the rubric for doing two years of work in one.
I didn't really fight. I didn't care. The next year he was sitting among college students reading Ovid. That's what matters.
Except, that is not what matters.
"Can I write "Dear parent, your son has greatly improved on things not considered important by the school [reporting] system"?" Tomaz Lasic asked on Twitter today. Mr. Lasic is a teacher in Western Australia dealing with "troubled" children, and a brilliant observer of the system. He followed up: "in my 'low achievers' class. Where's "halted [self]abuse", "began to smile" box to tick?" And: "Every time a particular kid (totally socially inept past) walks in our office and says please, or gives a hi-5, we say: "Evaluate that!"
What is our national standard (whatever nation you are in) for getting a child to smile? For getting a child to publicly ask a question? For getting a child to confidently present an idea? For getting a child to be willing to ask for help? Or to ask to play with another child?
What is the national statistical trend line for feeling safe in school? For picking up that first book of interest? For solving an interpersonal problem for the first time? For absorbing an unfair call in athletics without going off?
There are so many things we hope children get from their education, but when we discuss "data driven decision making," or "accountability," or "standards," or "merit pay" for teachers we become complete reductionists, assessing (very badly) a tiny fragment of all that expected learning. And in doing this we tell children they are worthless, and we assure that success in school is a matter of socio-economics and playing the "those-in-power" game, and nothing else.
See, it does not matter if a child is rushing ahead or struggling to keep up. We do the same thing to anyone who doesn't measure up to our fictional "average." We crush them, demean them, and sneer at their accomplishments. And in doing so, we prove our worthlessness and lack of credibility to virtually all students.
So when people talk about measurement in education, I always get angry, because I know that neither Arne Duncan nor Michelle Rhee would give a dime of merit pay to Mr. Lasic for helping that kid learn to smile, nor even to that Latin teacher for letting my son rush ahead. And I know that schools which must spend years making their children simply feel safe will always be rated below those in wealthy suburbs. Because you can not discuss "standards" or "evaluation" or even "accountability" until you adopt some kind of legitimate sense of what counts in the education of each individual child. And we are nowhere close to even having that conversation.
Perhaps, as usual, The Simpsons says it most coherently...
"These tests will have no effect on your grades. They merely determine your future social status and financial success. " Edna Krabapple tells Bart Simpson's class in a legendary Simpsons episode in which the essential indifference to 'direction from average' in schools is demonstrated. "Do you often find yourself bored?" the school psychologist asks, "All the time" replies Bart.
- Ira Socol