There is a prevailing expectation that as children progress through the public education system, a measure of their individual success lies in their preparation for the next level. Kindergarten strives to provide children with underlying concepts that will influence their grasp of numeracy and language, while developing socialization skills in preparation for elementary school. Elementary school builds on these skills while supporting kids in mastering the mystery of “doing school” in preparation for middle school. Middle school . . . you get the idea. In addition to exposing students to content and further addressing their social and digital citizenship, there is a common goal that is stated frequently and with urgency: “you’ve got to get ready for high school.” And so it goes.
I am not scoffing at the need to adequately prepare students for success at the next level. But, is that it? Isn’t there more to our K-12 system than that? What about all of the other stuff - the development of personal interests, an experience that resonates with the individual and allows them to exercise their creativity and curiosity in the pursuit of learning within an experience that is relevant? The current system just feels so mechanical. It seems to reinforce the suggestion that our system of education resembles an assembly line; with the function of each station to be the presentation of a polished “widget” for the hand-off to the next step on the line. Any observed blemishes or idiosyncrasies at the point of the exchange are blamed on the previous team. Is that the best we can offer?
Nowhere is this more evident than high school. These four years are the ones where the messages given to kids get really pressing. “Now everything counts.” (Does that mean everything up to then didn’t?) “You’re building a transcript. The strength of that transcript, that academic record, will determine the path of your future.” “What you do now will make or break your chance to attend college.” And, for many students, it is that opportunity to be welcomed into the university gates that drives the remaining years of their K-12 experience.
The notion of “college readiness” drives many decisions that affect the experience of students while they are in high school. Some would suggest (count me in that number) that university systems exert tremendous, and undue, influence on these decisions; deliberations that influence the interests and aspirations of kids that may, or may not, aspire to college. (This topic, college readiness for all, will be the topic of a future post.) Following the progression outlined here, a purpose of high school is to prepare kids for college. What we may have here is a classic case of “the tail wagging the dog.” “The end” (college) “justifies the means.”
Q: Should we include Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses to our curriculum?
A: In addition to the challenge of enhanced rigor, most colleges and universities look for success in these accelerated courses as part of their admission decisions.
Q: We should revise our reporting systems to reflect what kids actually know, rather than the traditional A - F grade designations. What could this look like?
A: Letter grades are what universities understand and expect. It would be a disservice to kids to make such a change.
Q: What about SAT or ACT scores?
A: Let’s require that every student takes one of these college admission screening tests as a requirement of graduation. Many districts are doing this as a well intended gesture of “equity and equal access” while many kids see it as yet another hurdle to cross in order to get on with their lives.
(This is where anyone reading this post can easily anticipate a heavy sigh of sadness and concern from me.)
But, there is a piece of bright news, a glimmer of hope, that may point to significant change!
On October 9, 2019, PBS NewsHour published an article authored by Alina Hugend from The Heshinger Report. It’s titled: “Record number of colleges stop requiring the SAT and ACT amid questions of fairness.” You read that right. A “record number.” It would be silly of me to re-summarize Ms Hugend’s excellent reporting. I strongly encourage anyone interested (that should be everyone) to read her article in its entirety. But, here’s the promising bottom line. Increasing numbers of post-secondary institutions are making SAT or ACT scores an optional component of a candidate’s application package. This implies (I hope I’m not getting over my skis with optimism) that a more holistic approach may be emerging in making admission decisions. Who is this person? How have they distinguished themselves, both within and beyond, their school-based academic environment? What do they bring to this future academic community that would be of a mutual benefit?
Could this be the emerging recognition that a single score on a test is not an accurate indicator of one’s potential to succeed? I know I’m exceeding any reasonable expectation in hoping that this is a signal, a small chink in the mortar that binds traditional practices. Yet, the incurable optimist and idealistic kid advocate in me is anxiously poised to embrace the gradual, painfully slow, progression away from our national obsession with standardized tests as a measure of anything meaningful. Perhaps, just maybe, a shift is occurring.
Perhaps, just maybe, we will begin to address the needs and interest of kids first, ahead of the expectations of a system; a system defined by the progressive preparation of students toward a standard and common outcome. Perhaps, just maybe, the dog will learn to control its own tail and we will realize that the “means” matter equally to their eventual end.
Perhaps, just maybe, we are catching the first glimpse of an instructional revolution.