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Re: where do high-stakes tests fit in to the standards movement?

Posted By: Thomas Yarsley on May 31, 2002
 
Samantha:

At a base level, high-stakes tests are one embodiment of Learning Requirements. The standards movement is ALL about re-instating learning requirements into Education.

Here's a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago, in response to a request to elaborate on curriculum:

***

O.k. – so what’s a curriculum?

The dictionary offers a layman’s definition –
1: The courses offered by an educational institution
2: A set of courses constituting an area of specialization

But a menu is not a diet. In edu-lingo, a curriculum is far more than a listing of courses; far more than a course outline or syllabus. A true curriculum is far more comprehensive.

In simple terms, a curriculum is a system for learning. It’s a man-made system, so it has a designer. Presumably, the designer already has a very good command of the material and the skills that we want the student to learn. Perhaps more importantly, the designer has to have a sufficient level of understanding to enable him/her to organize relevant information and knowledge in such a fashion, that a person who enters the system without any of this knowledge or these skills can have a reasonable expectation of exiting the system, having attained mastery of them. In the vernacular, this designer has to be able to “see the big picture.” By that expression, we infer that s/he understands relationships that exist between otherwise disparate topics and elements. These relationships most often are reduced to, embodied as, and referred to as “hierarchies.”

The two simplest forms of hierarchies are the linear hierarchy and the branched hierarchy. Linear ones are of the “you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run” variety – each stage is dependent upon “prerequisites.” Branched hierarchies come in two varieties: diverging branch and converging branch. In a diverging branch, attainment of one skill serves as a prerequisite for learning several others. In a converging branch, attainment of several skills is a prerequisite for learning one new one. In practice, diverging and converging branches invariably are used in some combination with each other, and with linear hierarchies.

Thus, if you “step back” so as to look at the “big picture,” you can say that there exists (or should exist) a “top-level” curriculum for K-12 education. As you’ve likely surmised, this curriculum is comprised of hundreds, if not thousands of sub-set curricula that are linked together in an intricately organized web of diverging and converging branches. Well, at least that’s how its supposed to work…

O.k., so a curriculum is a man-made, hierarchic system for learning – so what are we going to learn? That question is the essence of a more technical-sounding one: “What will be the OUTCOME of our learning experience?” Ah, the outcome – believe it or not, when you’re designing a curriculum, you have to BEGIN with the outcome! Although you might consider that to be counter-intuitive, if you think about it by example, it’s really the norm.

It’s important to note that education is a process. As with other processes, it has objectives. It is incumbent upon the process designer to make clear not only what those objectives are, but to craft a process that will virtually ensure that participants who execute it faithfully will achieve the objectives. Consequently, it is reasonable to expect that before we engage in executing the elements of the process, we already know what the successful outcome would be. It is impossible to achieve success or failure in any endeavor, without defining those terms.

That brings us to the topic of adjectives – really! In this case, the word “outcome” typically is modified by three adjectives: expected, desired, and required (outcomes). Right away, the slope gets slippery, and ideology is allowed to overrule intellect. DESIRED outcome is easy – we desire that all of our children become brilliant! That runs smack into EXPECTED outcome – we know that not all of our children WILL become brilliant. Now for the part that should be easy, but which recently has been made to seem controversial by persons with vested interests in THEIR OWN outcomes – what should be the REQUIRED outcome? The essence of the controversy surrounding this seemingly common-sense question is whether or not the society has a right to require ANY specific outcome. This question cannot be avoided or postponed, because a required outcome is the lynchpin of any true curriculum.

One of the reasons why we must have required outcomes is to support the structure of the hierarchy of our curriculum. Your would-be high school graduate will be hard-pressed to demonstrate competence in differential calculus if s/he never successfully completed a study of arithmetic. But how can we know whether a student has successfully attained some interim required outcome? We must have mechanisms for ASSESSING the achievement of the student. In order for any assessment to be effective, two things must be established: what the standards are for “mastery,” and how the student’s attainment of those standards will be measured.

It is important to note that in order to have any value, performance standards must be accepted by both the party who is striving to meet (or exceed) the standard, AND by the party who is assessing the other’s attainment of the standard. Before it can be accepted by either party, it must be defined clearly enough that BOTH parties understand exactly what will be required to meet the standard, and what metrics will be used to measure attainment of the standard.

One purpose of the assessment process is to support the hierarchy by ensuring that the student has learned (“mastered”) the material and the skills that are required in order to advance to the next step in the process – whether that step is a promotion to the next grade, or just moving on to the next sentence in a reading book. Another purpose is to provide “feedback” to the teacher and to the student. An experienced teacher relies on the results of frequent “in-process inspections” of the student’s progress, to determine whether or not the student is making continuous progress, and whether it is appropriate for the teacher to adjust pacing, schedule, methods, and content resources in order to ensure that the student achieves success.

The student can and should make extensive use of this feedback, too. Little learning takes place under conditions of anxiety or confusion. Timely assurance that the student is achieving satisfactory progress fosters an atmosphere of trust, provides a sound basis for justified self-confidence, and verifies and validates the student’s natural self-assessment mechanisms. Further, the notation of steady progress toward a clearly defined goal provides a defensible rationale for the student’s motivation to dedicate him/herself to doing whatever it takes to achieve personal goals that are congruent with the goals as defined in the curriculum.

O.k., so a curriculum is a man-made, hierarchic system for learning knowledge and skills that are clearly defined, and includes clear metrics for measuring attainment of that knowledge and those skills. So, how are we going to do it?

At the risk of sounding silly – one step at a time. For the people involved in executing the process, they start at the beginning (as defined by the curriculum designer), and go forward. For the curriculum designer, s/he starts at the end, and goes “backwards,” identifying and defining prerequisites that will support each step along the hierarchic path (or “tree” or “web”) that ultimately converges upon the “top-level” objective – the graduation requirements that define the ultimate “output” of the process.

In the process of crafting the curriculum, the designer typically will identify specific knowledge, skills, and experiences that will support each node of the hierarchy. Specific courses will be designed to comprise subsections of the “web.” Oftentimes, particular resources will be specified, including but not limited to textbooks, facilities, and personnel considerations. Some curricula are remarkably detailed, reaching almost to the lesson-plan level. Others are less-specific. All of the good ones have several things in common.

In addition to the elements described above, good curricula are inviting and open to inspection by all of the stakeholders in the process. They are clear not only in stating their objectives, standards, and metrics, but they explain how each node of the hierarchy fits into the “big picture.” This is critically important, because unless this is done, there can be little expectation that process participants will find the motivation to engage the system in a productive, meaningful fashion. How many times have you heard a student ask “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” No student ever should have to ask that question, because the answers already should have been made clear. Beyond simply knowing the answers to that question, it is vitally important for the student to take possession of their own reason for learning. Such is the definition of motivation.

Any experienced teacher will tell you that s/he cannot teach someone who does not want to learn. A properly-designed curriculum will make it easy for students to WANT to learn.

I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of a very broad topic. But I hope that I’ve provided some background, some food for thought, and a simple measuring stick for helping some of you determine how the content of your own curricula (or your children’s curricula) measures up to a few of these very basic requirements. And as you can tell from this very brief primer, “social promotion” is the antithesis of curriculum. Whom do I help or harm by observing that since we have a LOT of social promotion (it is the de-facto policy of the teachers’ unions), we therefore must not have very much curriculum?
Thread Hierarchy
 High-stakes testing and standards by Samantha Murray on April 13, 2002
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