Educational Accountability Doesn't Have Time Limits

12/08/2010 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have a big gripe with the misuse and overuse of time in "education accountability." I don't like:
timed tests, the artificial "year" during which all students are supposed to make a "year" of "progress" which leads to...the worst practice of all -- flunking and labeling students who supposedly do not make a prescribed amount of progress in a prescribed amount of time.

Isn't the goal of education to make sure students know and can do important things? If a student actually does or knows something, how much should it matter how long it took them to learn it? The last time I checked, our state goals don't say anything about how fast a student is supposed to do or know something.

Of course, speed is related to competence in many if not most jobs. But education is not job training and children are not workers, they're learners. They need to be given the opportunity to learn before they are subjected to speed trials.

Time and the Gotcha effect

Last week, adults were grousing about whether students in a New Jersey school district are getting the grades/scores the "deserve" since the district decided to eliminate "D's" as passing grades, raising the failure score to anything below a 70 instead of a 65. According to the AP, the number of failing grades for middle and high school students dropped 42.5 percent in the first quarter under the new program, and more students earned A's and B's.

Sounds like a success, right?

Not according to some, who complained that "the new policy allows students to retake exams and redo assignments after initial failing grades, often bringing up their scores."

So, evaluating students based on what they can actually do rather than just what they can do in a one-shot, timed test isn't acceptable? There has to be a Gotcha? Yes, you did it, but it took you too much time, too many tries, too long to do it. Gotcha!

Testing before teaching?

Last year, it was the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) giving a knee-jerk response to media reports that some high schools were waiting to give the state-mandated high school exam to some students when they were seniors instead of technical juniors. These students had not earned enough credits to be juniors at the end of their third year in high school, and the test is only given once a year, so the schools waited to test them the following year, when they were seniors.

ISBE decided the schools were gaming the system. That is certainly a possibility, given the high stakes placed on these exams by the No Child Left Behind Act. The districts said they wanted students to have the best shot at success, and make sure they had been taught the content of the exams before they were tested on that content. That makes sense educationally. No matter, ISBE decided to take action. They decreed that a student is a junior for test-taking purposes three years after he or she was an eighth grader. Gotcha!

Non-graded classrooms

I support non-graded classrooms, where students are not in an arbitrary grade level based on age. Instead, they progress to the next level of knowledge and ability once they have mastered the last one. And no one gets punished or labeled if this doesn't happen in a certain set amount of time. Lots of people seem to agree with me. In this poll from last year, more than 77 percent of those responding liked the idea.

Putting students in a room based on their age alone is an archaic idea. Flunking them when their age and progress level don't match some arbitrary standard is ridiculous and cruel. People learn at different rates -- why is the school system set up to punish the ones who learn a little more slowly and hold back (and bore) faster learners?

And closing schools and firing staff when some percentage of students in a building are not meeting that absurd standard is a criminal waste of human and financial resources.

Radical tampering with schools?

People, especially parents, can freak out over any kind of tampering with school the way they experienced it. Report cards are supposed to have letter grades, children are supposed to move up from one grade to the next every year, classmates are supposed to go to a senior prom and graduate together.

Non-graded classrooms would be too radical a change for many.

But schools are already being radically tampered with. Standardized testings iron fist has a choke-hold on U.S. public education. We are seeing massive student retention, higher dropout rates at earlier ages, and loss of school subjects like civics and art, which we all took for granted. The tests have enabled the growing disaster of school privatization which is beginning to force parents to "shop" for schools, and to allow privatized schools to pick and choose their students.

Here's an overview of non-graded classrooms from the ERIC digest:

Graded education assumes that students who are the same age are at basically the same level of cognitive development, can be taught in the same way, and will progress at the same rate. Intellectual development is assumed to be the goal, and the division of curriculum into discrete skills and subjects to be the most effective organization. Research has discredited all these assumptions...

In its influential position statement, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Bredekamp 1987) summarized this accumulated knowledge of child development and described appropriate teaching practices for primary-age children. Its list of developmentally appropriate practices closely matches the components of nongraded education. The inappropriate practices it lists are typical of traditional graded education." (emphasis added)

Isn't it past time for us to drop the inappropriate practices -- eliminate the Gotcha -- and begin to center learning on children's real needs?