Our K-12 schools are organized more like a swim meet than a swim lesson. The emphasis is on student placement results rather than on ensuring all students learn. Students move on to the next lesson, concept, or skill regardless of whether mastery was achieved at the previous level.
Donald P. Nielsen explains this analogy in Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education:
In a swimming meet, the purpose is to determine who is the fastest swimmer. In public schools we spend a lot of time grading students on what they have learned and then ranking them, rather than ensuring that every child has learned. What we need, however, is a public school system that is organized like a swimming lesson. In a swimming lesson, the instructor’s goal is different. The goal is to make sure all students, even the slowest, learn how to swim. Swimming meets can be a result of swimming lessons, and grading can be a result of learning, but ranking students by ability should not be the primary goal of teachers or of the system as a whole.
In swimming, as in any other athletic or artistic endeavor, classes are grouped based upon the current achievement level of the students, not based on age. A swimming coach would never consider putting advanced swimmers and beginning swimmers in the same class, even if they were of the same age. Similarly, a music teacher would not put an advanced piano player in a class with beginners…. Age is not a relevant factor in either swimming or piano lessons, but it is the overriding factor in our schools. No other major learning activity is strictly age-based. Our schools shouldn’t be either.
Nielsen sheds light on a related concern — the faulty grading system in place in U.S. schools:
Testing is another area in which our public education system uses group-based measurements rather than looking at individual performance. Most academic tests, whether given at the local level or applied nationally, tend to measure a student’s performance compared to that of other students. “Above the national average” is a term many school districts use to evaluate their students’ performance. However, being above average really does not tell the student or the parents what the student knows and is able to do. Is the national average itself at a good level, or merely a mediocre level? Who knows? Is an “A” grade given in Mrs. Wilson’s class superior performance or just above average? Who knows?
Grading this way tells us which students are achieving within a particular classroom, but does not give us a clear indication of learning. Some teachers grade hard, others easy. Some high schools have high academic standards; others do not. Universities know that grade inflation has run amok in this country. They know that a 4.0 grade-point average from one high school may bear little resemblance to a 4.0 grade-point average from another.
In all of these instances, the issue of learning is subordinated to the issue of ranking. Knowing who had the best test scores or who learned the fastest is not the correct measure. What we need to measure is whether every child learned.
According to Clint Bolick and Kate J. Hardiman, during their K-12 careers, students in public schools take about 112 mandatory standardized exams, costing about $1.7 billion per year. An excessive amount of time and money is spent preparing students for and conducting standardized tests — and for what?
The grave result of our outdated K-12 public education system — and something that the public is painfully unaware of — is that the majority of students fail to reach proficiency in even basic skills and areas of knowledge. According to the Nation’s Report Card, the following disastrously low percentage of students reaches at or above proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) per grade and subject area:
In other words, the overwhelming majority of students are not mastering their grade-level learning content across an array of subjects in U.S. K-12 public schools. Yet the bulk of students still earn passing grades on report cards and are promoted yearly to the next level. Worse, the scores indicate a compounding effect, with proficiency scores falling at the higher grade levels.
For example, while 40 percent of students in fourth grade reached proficiency in math, only 33 percent do in eighth grade, and by 12th grade the number drops to a mere 24 percent. Similarly, students reaching proficiency in U.S. history decreased from 19 percent in fourth grade to 14 percent in eighth grade to a dismal 11 percent in 12th grade.
It doesn’t take an expert to realize that passing students along to more advanced grades despite their not grasping the earlier foundational concepts is a disservice to them. Instead of rigorous teaching to ensure subject mastery, our system shields students’ dismal learning outcomes by inflating classroom grades, teaching to standardized tests, and evaluating results in terms of comparative percentile ranking. It’s unacceptable that our country — a global leader — puts up with this illogical, ineffective education system.
A K-12 redesign is long overdue. And COVID-19, which overall has been a disaster for public education as children across the country were forced into ineffective online learning and dramatically reduced instruction time, may turn out to be the catalyst we’ve needed for making necessary changes. In short, parents and the general public are asking, “Isn’t there a better way?”
A major aspect of a K-12 education redesign should be the reorientation of the purpose and practice of academic assessments (I argue elsewhere that an effective redesign also requires a financial overhaul, revamping the school calendar, and a system based on achievement instead of time.).
The goal of assessments should be to ensure that each learner has achieved subject mastery before moving forward. The process should start with an acknowledgement that no two students are alike. Students come to school with varied backgrounds, abilities, experiences, interests, self-motivation, and overall knowledge. Therefore, a test of a student’s learning readiness, commonly termed “pre-assessment,” should be conducted when a student enters school and annually thereafter. That data should inform the creation of an individual learning plan, including the student’s placement level for each subject.
The individual student learning plan, in turn, should guide the teacher’s approach to each unique student. To be effective, the plan must be reviewed and revised weekly based on an ongoing evaluation of the student’s comprehensive learning needs and performance of skills. This can occur through quick, informal assessments — conversations and activities that allow the student to demonstrate his or her learning. Gathering this data in real time as opposed to at the end of a unit, academic quarter, or course would provide a vital way for student progress to be monitored and individual learning plans to be adjusted accordingly.
In most classrooms across America, teachers follow one-size-fits-all daily lesson plans, teaching the material for a predetermined length of time and moving forward when the lesson plan dictates, with little to no responsiveness to varied rates of student learning. A better approach, often referred to as competency-based learning, allows students to advance when they demonstrate subject mastery.
Returning to the swim lesson example, it obviously would be disheartening for parents and students alike if the instructor waited until the end of the season to assess the swimmers’ knowledge and skills through a single high-stakes swim meet. While one student will feel victorious after the race, others will leave defeated. If a student’s performance is deemed too low, he or she may be retained to repeat the same learning all over again next year. And the opportunity to adjust the instruction to ensure all swimmers achieve mastery would be lost. Sadly, this is the approach dominating K-12 classrooms nationwide.
We can and must redesign our K-12 education system to ensure that all students learn. A crucial aspect of this change requires adjusting how we assess learning — favoring frequent and informal evaluations to adjust individual instruction and advancing students based on their mastery of subjects rather than merely by ranking them against their peers, who far too often aren’t learning proficiently either.
Fortunately, this paradigm shift can be enabled by adaptive technology, a form of artificial intelligence that provides a powerful tool to aid teachers. These remarkable tools customize learning for students by monitoring an individual’s progress in real time and adjusting instruction accordingly to optimize learning. When effectively used, this new technology can transform learning in the classroom by providing specific information about each student’s learning strengths and gaps and identifying which instruction methods best help the individual achieve mastery. Now that nearly all students nationwide have access to a school-issued computer or tablet, it’s time we employ those devices to their full capability, transforming the purpose and practice of assessment.
Editor’s Note: Other articles in the K-12 Redesign series include “Perfect Time for a K-12 Redesign,” “A Financial Overhaul,” “School Calendar,” and “Achievement Instead of Time.” Future articles will explore additional components of a K-12 education redesign.
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow at Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.
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