Maine's 'Big Test' Blowhards
Big doings on the education front!
Fans of standardized tests, burgeoning paperwork, top-down meddling in the classroom, shifting goalposts for students, and turgid prose from professional pedagogues will have much to celebrate, if the Maine legislature approves a new plan to change the requirements for high school graduation.
Since roughly the dawn of time, schools have employed a fairly consistent method for deciding who gets to graduate. It’s not too complicated: certain courses are required, and students have to pass them. Generally speaking, this takes four years. Right now in Maine, the requirements for finishing high school look like this:
• Four years of English
• Two years each of history, science, and math
• One year of music, art, debate, or drama
Apparently that is too simple. Or too old-fashioned. Or too easy to understand. Or something. Because a panel of 16 education professionals was convened last year with the mandate of scrapping this time-honored system and replacing it with an all-new “standards based” system that will surely be a vast improvement because, among other things
• No one understands how it will work, including members of the panel.
• All the recent upheavals in the classroom — from No Child Left Behind and the Maine Learning Standards to the ever-growing number of standardized tests — have made everyone so happy and our children are so much smarter now.
• Teachers have a lot of time on their hands and shouldn’t squander it on their students when they could be designing Personal Learning Plans and “course/ learning experience/assessments.” I’m not making this up.
Here’s how the new system would work. A required level of skill would be defined for seven “content areas.” (This is the exciting new name for what used to be called “subjects.”) These fall into two categories that are, in effect, Really Important and Kind Of Important. Really Important subjects are: English language arts; science and technology; math; and social studies. Kind Of Important: world languages; visual and performing arts; and physical education and health.
Now remember, this new system is called “standards based” — a term that E.B. White would undoubtedly hyphenate, shorten or despise. To graduate, every student must prove that he or she meets the standard in all four Really Important areas, plus one Kind Of Important area. He or she must also “partially meet” the remaining two standards — though at this point, literally no one knows what “partially” means.
How will students do this? Why do I need to ask? Obviously, there will be a Big Test. Actually five Big Tests, along with (I presume) two Partially Big Tests. The entirety of a student’s high school career will consist of being prepped for these tests. To pass, after all, is to graduate. I expect that some students — including most of my own class at Watershed — will be able to do this by the end of their sophomore years. Others ... not so fast.
What about students who don’t test well? What about students who will never be able to meet a given standard? Fret not, my friends, for we live in the era of No Fine Print Left Behind. The 16-member panel has anticipated your concern and, in its final Report to the Commissioner proposed the following solution which is so ingenious that, I wager, not a single educator in Maine can possibly understand it. (I make no attempt to repair the punctuation here.)
“Students may demonstrate achievement of the standards in multiple settings such as in Career and Technical Programs and other innovative, integrated programs. Course/learning experiences using multiple measures, such as paper/pencil, exams, quizzes, portfolios, performance, exhibitions, projects) with multiple opportunities on these assessments based on state developed rubrics or locally developed rubrics that have been determined to meet established
I’m not sure who authored those sentences — but aren’t you thrilled at the thought that this expert wants to redesign your kid’s English curriculum?
It is hard to overstate how huge a change this will be, if we’re so foolish and feckless as to let it happen. Gone, at one swoop, is the idea that spending time among other students in a classroom has any intrinsic value. Gone is the notion that even the most brilliant and dedicated teacher has anything personal to contribute. Gone is the whole concept of learning as a process, an adventure, an exploration. Learning, in this brave new world, is a satisfactory test result.
It’s all rather odd not least because no one seems to know exactly what problem this radical program is designed to fix. A DOE spokesperson mumbled something about “students graduating with minimal grades and credits. Coming out of high school with Ds” — as though
everything will magically change when we scrap the current exam system for the Five Big Test method.
Odder still, even the 16 members of the committee seem a little flummoxed by what they have wrought. "We have a real fear about the unrealistic timeline and the lack of funding," said one of them, a teacher from Waterville. Another remarked, "Standards-based education takes a lot more time for everyone, students and teachers, and there's still a lot we don't know about how these graduation requirements will be implemented."
Such enthusiasm! And this is from the folks who affixed their name to this misbegotten project. Imagine the excitement among their peers in classrooms around the state who have not yet had this nonsense rammed down their throats.
I trust that common sense, and Maine cussedness, will prevail here.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville, is a contributing editor of Down East and is the author of "Another Green World."