David Aderhold, a superintendent in New Jersey recently put an end to HS mid-term and final exams in a well-intentioned attempt to ease pressure on increasingly anxious kids--pressure also discussed in this recent NY Times opinion piece and the film Race to Nowhere.
Aderhold’s decision led to a vigorous debate in his community--with one side firmly standing with the superintendent, led by concern about their children’s mental health. Those on the other side worried that the superintendent was dumbing down education.
It’s possible that neither side is completely right or wrong and that there’s a way to satisfy both camps: standards-based learning (and grading).
What we really want to do is focus on learning, not grades. At the same time, we want to ensure that what kids are learning and how they demonstrate that learning is rigorous and prepares them to take on deeper and tougher material as they proceed through high school and beyond. Done right, SBL satisfies both sides. It takes away the singular focus on grades and GPA and it provides a rigorous pathway.
Using SBL, courses have clear standards--what students must know and be able to do to prove that they have successfully completed a course. Instead, each of the course’s power standards are clearly unpacked, so that any teacher teaching the course, any student learning in the course and any parent what mastery looks like, what approaching mastery looks like, and what it looks like to exceed mastery. It’s then up to the learning community to support students to reach for mastery and beyond, while supporting students who struggle by clearly showing what’s needed to get to the next level.*
Getting to SBL takes time and work and consensus building as it’s a change from what we’ve always done. I truly hope we’ll all get there someday, but until then, I have a few suggestions for schools who want to both ease pressure and promote rigor.
- Don’t throw away mid-term and final exams: Large scale displays of knowledge are important for students, they allow students to cohesively package what they have learned over the course of several weeks or months and show what they know and can do
- Do rethink what a mid-term or final looks like: Ensure that mid-terms and final exams are largely performance based and the expectations are shared ahead of time--so that students are thinking, consciously and subconsciously, about how they will pull the standards and the work together to a culminating piece
- Do allow retakes to the greatest extent possible and practicable BUT make sure the purpose of retakes is to allow students to learn from mistake and have additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery . That way, students will believe us when we tell them “It’s Not About the Points”
It is actually possible to have kids love rigorous learning. SBL could well be a key.