• Sara Needleman

Standards, Not Standardization: Authentic Teaching and Proficiency-Based Diplomas

Diane Ravitch’s July New York Times essay, The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students, lacks the nuance educators need to lead with as we confront the layperson’s hasty coupling of standardized tests with standards.

Some of Ravitch’s criticisms are accurate: the detrimental effects of NCLB through punishment of “failing schools”; misguided firings of teachers and closings of schools; the persistent achievement gaps among disparate socioeconomic and racial groups. But she takes a wrong turn when she explicitly connects the failure of NCLB and high stakes testing with what she calls the failure of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Ravitch resorts to a simplistic and misguided connection between standardized tests and standards. She says, “The quest to ‘close achievement gaps’ is vain indeed when the measure of achievement is a test based on a statistical norm. If we awarded driver’s licenses based on standardized tests, half the adults in this country might never receive one.” Agreed. But if we had no standards for what it meant to be a competent driver, we would see many more accidents resulting in injuries, increased hospital visits and rising costs to auto insurance.

She goes on to remind us that many of the troubling obstacles faced by students in the last centuries have followed us into this one: large class sizes and poor facilities, to name just two. I don’t dispute this. I disagree, however, when again she oversimplifies the solution by leading readers to believe that if we just “give teachers the autonomy to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the children in front of them and to write their own tests”, we bear no responsibility to agree on concepts and skills we should collectively value and pursue.

The nuance missing from Ravitch’s piece was amply provided in the March 2016 report on Proficiency-Based High School Diploma Systems in Maine, published by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation (CEPARE) at the University of Southern Maine (USM). This report reminds us that the Maine State Legislature passed a law (S.P.439 - L.D.1422) containing Statute 4722 - A stipulating that all students in the class of 2021 graduate from high school with a proficiency-based diploma.

The CEPARE report does not directly refute Ravitch’s claims of the failure of CCSS by providing evidence of improved test scores. But it does shine a light on the other factors we should consider as we weigh the effects of a set of common standards. Published after four years of “ongoing study designed to compile data, examine progress and explore impacts regarding implementation of this state policy within local schools and school districts across the state,” the report offers encouraging news with respect to changing beliefs, collaborative practices, the clarity of learning goals, and improved targeted interventions for struggling students (p.2).

For example, “across case study participants, many stakeholders agreed that the expectation that all students meet a common standard to graduate from high school had inspired educators, leaders, parents and community members to take a closer look at practices and attitudes regarding school climate, student failure and professional collaboration. (p.14)” I can’t point to any policy decision, program or guru in my years of working in public education that effectively moved all those stakeholders to look closely at all those issues.

On a more practical level, “the practice of collaborative processes to adopt changes, adapt standards, align curricula and assessments, calibrate grading practices and create systemic intervention structures was already in place for some teachers (p.16)” This forward motion in collective practice can’t be quantified by test scores, but make no mistake: It is an enormous leap toward improving learning for students across the board. The report goes on to mention that districts are engaged in the very hard work of defining what “proficiency” actually means. While in some areas they have yet to fully arrive at that definition, the simple fact that these conversations are occurring is another hugely important step forward. These changes, brought on by the passage of legislation in favor of proficiency, lead everyone invested in the education field to closely examine what it means to really learn and therefore what it means to really teach.

I have long believed that as we rise in our professions and come to better understand the complexities contained within them, we are obliged to help others who know less sort through those complexities. I know I rely on people I follow in print, online and in real life to do just that for me. I wish that in her July piece Diane Ravitch had used her deep and wide-ranging institutional knowledge of education reform, NCLB and standardized testing to help her New York Times readers see beyond the trite and misguided connections between standardized testing and standards. I wish she had helped her readers see what we in Maine see through our hard work and through the March CEPARE report. I guess this is a good time to thank my USM colleagues for their very careful analysis of the the proficiency-based work we’ve done so far. We are moving in the right direction.


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