It began with an idea, a play on words: Children (and increasingly, teachers) detest school because the current test-and-grade paradigm is degrading so why not de-test and de-grade the schools?
With that idea in mind, I contacted Joe Bower, whose stance against grades and tests I followed on Twitter, and we began discussing an idea of an edited volume addressing de-testing and de-grading our schools, a direct confrontation of the current high-stakes accountability movement. We were fortunate to invite Alfie Kohn on board for the introduction and a chapter. From there the book was developed—although we struggled through a few hiccups with publishers, landing at Peter Lang USA.
Since the volume doesn’t preview each chapter, I want to offer below some snippets from each chapter, and invite you to join the authors of this volume in our tribute to the teachers at Garfield High (Seattle, WA) for their courageous stance against MAP testing (to whom the volume is dedicated):
De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization
Joe Bower and P. L. Thomas, editors
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Roots of Grades-and-Tests, Alfie Kohn:
Most of the contributions to this book focus on problems with either grades or tests. In an article about college admissions published more than a decade ago, however, I suggested that we might as well talk about “grades-and-tests” (G&T) as a single hyphenated entity (Kohn, 2001). There are certainly differences between the two components, but the most striking research finding on the subject is that students’ G&T primarily predicts their future G&T — and little else. It doesn’t tell us much at all about their future creativity, curiosity, happiness, career success, or anything else of consequence.
In fact, the case for the fundamental similarity of grades and tests runs deeper than their limited predictive power. Both are “by their nature reductive,” as P. L. Thomas, co-editor of this volume, observes in his chapter. I would add that both emerge from — and, in turn, contribute to — our predilection for three things: quantifying, controlling, and competing. All of these are defining characteristics of our educational system but also permeate our culture more generally.
Part I: Degrading Learning, Detesting Education: The Failure of High-Stake Accountability in Education
Chapter One: NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure?, Lisa Guisbond, Monty Neill, and Bob Schaeffer (FairTest.org):
It is not too late to revisit the lessons of the past ten years and construct a federal law that provides support for equity and progress in all public schools. With that goal in mind, this report first provides an overview of the evidence on NCLB’s track record. Second, it looks at recent efforts at NCLB “reform” and what past evidence says about their likely outcomes. Finally, it points to alternative strategies that could form the basis for a reauthorized federal law that would improve all schools, particularly those serving our most needy students.
Chapter Two: High-stakes Testing Assessment: The Deus Ex Machina of Quality in Education, Fernando F. Padró:
From here on forward the discussion reflects how assessment and quality are used as proxies for each other. The discussion comes more from a higher education viewpoint than a P-12 one, but one reason for this is that higher education is facing many of the same issues and pressures; therefore, the concerns at the macro level are more similar than dissimilar. In other words, it is another way at looking at those external influences impacting education and all aspects of educational activity from early childhood until the brink of formally entering the workforce. While the focus is not always on testing and assessment, the discussion is always about testing and assessment because that is the stock in trade within the quality model that is strongly impacting education.
Chapter Three: Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble, Anthony Cody:
The sooner this groupthink bubble bursts, the better off we will be. In our classrooms, we must do our best to give our students meaningful opportunities to learn, in spite of the intense pressure to raise test scores. In the public arena, we can help burst the bubble by focusing on the big picture data that shows that in spite of a decade of obsessing over data, there is no evidence that better learning results (Hout & Elliott, 2011). We can help burst the bubble by calling out the self-appointed umpires like NCTQ, the Media Bullpen, and dozens of other test-obsessed advocacy groups that are attempting to overwhelm critical discussion of these issues. And we can support efforts to give voice to other points of view, through organizations that allow parents, teachers and students to raise their voices, without the filtering effect of foundation funding.
Chapter Four: Mean Scores in a Mean World, Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby:
Today, personnel from state departments of education are about as welcome in public schools as vultures. A wake of vultures seldom attacks healthy animals, but prey upon the wounded or sick. So, when student achievement levels wane, the state sees its role not as helper, but as disciplinarian—to punish a school for allowing its students to post achievement scores below the mean. If a school is contacted by the state, the news inevitably is bad— at best, a public humiliation and at worst, a tumult of teacher and administrator firings in a takeover. Firing people, while enjoyable for select politicians, is a tactic that helps neither student nor teacher.
Chapter Five: Degrading Literacy: How New York State Tests Knowledge, Culture, and Critical Thinking, Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski:
In June 1999, New York State anticipated the political and pedagogical movement that has engulfed public schools through the federal legislation entitled No Child Left Behind (USDE, 2003). The state’s education department implemented learning standards meant to drive local district curricula. In addition, the state unveiled a plan to attach the standards to mandatory assessments for students in grades 4, 8, and 11, beginning in the area of English language arts (ELA). Consequences for students and educators were significant and comprehensive. In addition to gauging individual student performance, tests at all levels were designed to measure schools’ progress towards meeting the learning standards and to rank schools according to student achievement. Scores and rankings were to be published and distributed by districts, the state education department, and media outlets; and schools with consistently inadequate scores and unacceptable levels of improvement were threatened with the designation “School Under Regents Review (SURR).” So-called SURR schools would be required to show rapid, significant improvement on standardized assessments or face state takeover (NYSED, 1999). Tests were equally high-stakes for students. In June 1999, passing the commencement level ELA examination (intended for students in grade 11) became a graduation requirement for the high school graduating class of 2000.
Chapter Six: The Aesthetics of Social Engineering: How High Stakes Testing Dehumanizes/Desensitizes Education, Morna McDermott:
Schools in America, at least since the industrial age, have been vehicles of social control. Factory model schools, designed during the industrial era, and guided by the industrial paradigm served that framework through economic, ideological, and political means. Now, just as decades ago, high-stakes testing (HST) is the weapon of choice used by education reformers to manipulate the educational system in ways that benefit their agenda to privatize public; pushing a standardized and highly regulated curriculum (to match with the required tests), increased social engineering (using and tracking student data via the HST for other purposes), and corporate profit (through the development, implementation and evaluation of the HST). One cannot deeply understand the origins or purposes of today’s high stakes tests without examining the social, political, and economic climate in which they exist. High stakes testing is the thread that ties together a larger picture of reform that includes: privatization of public education, replacing public schools with charter schools, enforcing a curriculum which “force feeds” meaningless data to already disempowered and disenfranchised communities, and uses “accountability” to turn data into big profits. Each of these issues, as they interface with testing policies and effects, will be explored in this chapter.
Chapter Seven: Standardized Testing and Boredom at an Urban Middle School, Richard Mora:
While conducting a multi-year, gender study at an urban K-8 school, I witnessed and documented the ground-level impact the push toward greater accountability in public education had on the group of 33 working-class, Latina/o students that I followed. At Romero, as I call the school, standardized test scores served as the ultimate measure of the school’s performance. As a result, entire class periods, hours at time, were dedicated to both district and statewide assessments, with teachers teaching to the test, to the practice tests, and to pre-practice tests. During these tests and the various quizzes and exams their teachers administered, the students had to sit quietly at their desks for long stretches of time, an expectation that proven difficult for most.
Additionally, during the sixth grade, the majority of students I observed had a double math period meant to prepare them for the upcoming state exam. Students found these experiences excruciatingly frustrating and repeatedly summed up their feelings with some variant of the statement, “School is so boring.”
Chapter Eight: Reconciling Student Outcomes and Community Self-Reliance in Modern School Reform Contexts, Brian Beabout and Andre Perry:
Education for African-Americans has historically been linked to the broad movement to improve their lot in life. Ceaselessly, from slavery and Jim Crow, towards full membership in American society, schooling was as much about academic learning as it was for ensuring the sustainability of the community in which the school was situated. Due to both de jure and de facto racial segregation of their communities and public schools, there have historically been high levels of self-determination in schooling for African-Americans (Anderson, 1988). The boundaries of the racial community were often undistinguishable from the geographic communities in which African-Americans lived. Racial uplift became the raison d’être in all sectors of Black society, but education offered a pragmatic focus for community development, political empowerment, and economic enfranchisement. This has meant black teachers, the visible presence of the African-American experience in the curriculum, and significant local decision-making power….
This current pervasiveness of market approaches is reflected in the reform language of state takeover, school turnaround, and reconstitution. As a consequence, since 2001, administrative control of many schools serving students of color has shifted from local educators and elected school boards to the states and the federal government who set the accountability policies and determine student and school accountability rules based on test scores. The following chapter interrogates this facially benign policy of raising student achievement with respect to the potential impact on the legacy self-determination of African-American schooling.
Chapter Nine: The Role of Assessment in Empowering/ Disempowering Students in the Critical Pedagogy Classroom, David Bolton and John Elmore:
Since the focus of teacher education at West Chester University has shifted toward teacher training, Democracy and Education, the one foundations course that students take is often where they learn critical perspectives on education. In this class, students define and examine their own philosophies and beliefs about the purpose of education in democratic society and compare, contrast, reject, and borrow from the philosophies of others. Since one of the stated goals of education at West Chester University is to create public intellectuals, it is critical that that foundations course be as empowering as possible.
Learning to think critically about assessment should be a vital part of this foundations course. If students are critically examining the purpose and content of education, i.e., instruction, then students also must learn to become critical assessors of their students. They must be given the intellectual tools to refocus the debate about assessment, so that assessment is not their master, but is a tool that will empower them as they teach their own students.
Part II: De-Grading and De-Testing in a Time of High-Stakes Education Reform
Chapter Ten: The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn
Chapter Eleven: Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning, Joe Bower:
Since 2006, I have worked to identify and remove things like grading that traditional school has done for so long. And when I share this with others, I receive mixed responses. Some listen intently, nodding their heads in agreement, as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with what Seymour Papert (1988) described as School with a capital ‘S’ — which is a place that he explains as having a bureaucracy that has its own interests and is not open to what is in the best interest of the children. Unfortunately, when most people close their eyes and think of their Schooling, many have experienced no other kind of School than the one with a capital “S.” Some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grading. The people who have a hard time comprehending how children could learn without extrinsic manipulators concern me the most. They are so invested into traditional schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Unfortunately, some have a distrustful view of the nature of children. Meaning that they believe that without grading there would be nothing to stop children from running amok.
Chapter Twelve: Assessment Technologies as Wounding Machines: Abjection, the Imagination and Grading, John Hoben:
For me the questions surrounding grading are incessant: Do I subtract marks for improper citation style in a paper where a young teacher talks about the death of her father with remarkable insight, wisdom and grace? What grade do I give a teacher who has the courage to write and share her struggles with breast cancer and her fears about leaving her young daughter? Or to a young man who writes about his mother’s struggles with the late stages of multiple sclerosis? Conventional grading gives no consideration to the marks these students should receive for having taught me about grace under fire, about humility and a quiet kind of perseverance instead of “sorting students like so many potatoes” (Kohn, 1994, p. 38). As a quantifying technology which presents teachers with a set of bureaucratic practices for the management of human subjects, grading is a machinery of abjection: a set of technical and administrative practices which works by “casting out” since schooling needs the threat of the wound to maintain its own internal boundaries and hierarchies. More than a simple means of disciplining students and teachers (Foucault, 1995), grading is a mode of schooling the imagination rather than allowing the imagination to radically transform schools. It does this by excluding those who do not fit prescribed models of excellence and teaching us to revile those who do not conform to dominant ways of thinking and being.
Chapter Thirteen: No Testing Week: Focusing on Creativity in the Classroom, Peter DeWitt:
When I entered college, a friend’s parents, who were both teachers, tried to persuade me from entering the field of education, which I found very sad. They were both excellent teachers but they said the profession was changing, and not for the better. I politely smiled and listened to their concerns but I continued down the same path despite their warnings. After working in an after-school program, I knew that I wanted to be an educator. I never forgot the disappointment I felt when those two retired teachers tried to talk me out of entering the profession that they spent so much time in. After seventeen years in education, first as a teacher and then a principal, I understand why they felt the way they did so long ago. However, I still maintain hope that things will get better and strongly believe it is my job as the school leader to help teachers find that love again.
I have come to a crossroads in my career. According to the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, that sounds very Oprah of me. When I began teaching I remember more seasoned teachers stating that if you stay in education long enough you will see the pendulum swing from one side to the other. It is my hope that the pendulum has swung to one very dysfunctional side long enough and will make its way to a side that is based in common sense and sound educational practices before many of us end our careers.
It seems as though policymakers in education want educators to pay attention to research, data and accountability, but they feel that they do not have to play by the same rules. Apparently research, data and accountability only matter when it tells policymakers what they want to hear. Unfortunately, the direction they have been leading education is not good for kids. It is bordering on educational malpractice. Just like the present economic issues in the U.S., education will continue to benefit only the top percentage of kids who can afford it.
Chapter Fourteen: Creating an Ungraded Classroom, Hadley Ferguson:
It is often easy to identify the beginning of an adventure; but where that journey will take you is usually a mystery. That was certainly the case with my adventure into ungrading and using portfolios for assessment. There have been many unexpected twists and turns in the road, unanticipated challenges as well as significant and rewarding successes. When I asked my administration if I could teach an ungraded class, I knew that I was stepping away from the security of my established practice and into a place where all of my skills and knowledge would have to be applied in fresh ways. A new adventure was truly starting. I asked for and was given permission to teach the only ungraded class in an otherwise school with grades. The school was in a time of transition, and teachers had been challenged to experiment with the best strategies for meeting the changing needs of 21st century students. My class, 7th grade history, became a place where learning took place within a new set of standards and expectations. While there were a wide variety of assignments and assessments, none of them was going to end in a grade.
Chapter Fifteen: “Parents Just Want to Know the Grade”: Or Do They?, Jim Webber and Maja Wilson:
Occasionally, someone has the nerve to suggest that grades are overrated, that a focus on them is detrimental, and that everyone might be happier and learn more if we de-emphasized or got rid of them completely. A widely discussed article on Inside Higher Education (Jaschik, 2010) described Cathy Davidson’s efforts to “get out of the grading business.” In her English classes at Duke University, students held regular meetings to decide if their work was acceptable or needed revision. Davidson gave no grades—only descriptive feedback. At the end of the experiment, Davidson declared, “It was spectacular….It would take a lot to get me back to a conventional form of grading ever again.” …
Still, the research accumulates: a study (Pulfrey, Buchs, & Butera, 2011) demonstrated that when students anticipate grades on papers (with or without comments), they become more likely to avoid difficult work than when they anticipate teacher comments without grades. This finding complements Ruth Butler’s (1987) study showing that grades (with or without comments) lead to lower levels of intrinsic motivation and creativity. But suggest that we act on this research—by de-emphasizing or replacing grades in the classroom—and even sympathetic teachers conjure up parent protests: “I’d be the first to get rid of grades and just do writing conferences and narrative feedback! But parents just want to see the grade!”
Chapter Sixteen: De-grading Writing Instruction in a Time of High-stakes Testing: The Power of Feedback in Workshop, P. L. Thomas:
It is now 2012, and I am at the end of my first decade as a college professor of education. After 18 years teaching high school English, a career that was deep in my heart and bones as a teacher of writing, I moved to the university in part as an act of professional and scholarly autonomy. Teaching in education courses, however, has proven to be far less fulfilling and off-kilter to my central concerns with directly addressing human literacy—fostering writers.
After being allowed to teach one section of the university’s introductory English course, I was fortunate that my university re-imagined its curriculum, replacing the two required freshman English courses with two freshman seminars designed to inspire and fuel student engagement in learning. One of the freshman seminars must be writing intensive, and the seminars are taught by professors across departments—not just the English faculty.
This curriculum change has afforded me a unique opportunity to teach a writing-intensive freshman seminar each fall at the university level, where I have the autonomy to implement writing workshop and, most significantly, to de-grade the feedback process of my students crafting their essays. In that context, this chapter opens with a brief discussion of how the writing curriculum has suffered a failed history in K-12 education—almost completely disconnected from the research and craft of composition as a field. Then, I detail my own evolution as a teacher of writing from my high school years as a teacher and into my recent experiences with de-grading the writing classroom for freshmen. I also examine how K-12 teachers of writing are both inhibited in best practices for composition because of the accountability era as well as how those teacher should and can reclaim the teaching of writing for all children.
Chapter Seventeen: One Week, Many Thoughts, Brian Rhode:
Have you ever had the pleasure of watching a school bloom? I have. I watched the walls around me burst into color, like flower petals extending themselves to the great warmth of the spring sun. Splashes of primary shades crawled throughout the school thoroughfares in which I spend my days as a professional. The entrances to classrooms became bustling hives of activity and the productivity was evidenced in the variety of posters, pictures and projects that emerged. Suddenly my small elementary school in upstate NY resembled a field of flowers in the full throws of its spring awakening!
I am certain many of you are asking what possibly ignited such a school-wide explosion of creativity. Quite simply, it was the result of a week without testing. My principal, Dr. Peter DeWitt, had the idea back in the fall of 2011 to give us, as a staff, a much-needed break from the relentless drive of standardized assessment based instruction. As a veteran of the classroom himself, he recognized a way to re-invigorate his teachers by endorsing a respite from the type of instruction that seems to stand in a starkly antagonistic position to the attitudes and beliefs that typically bring people into teaching.
Conclusion: Striving Towards Authentic Teaching for Social Justice, Lisa William-White:
What does it mean to prepare emergent teachers in an era where we bear witness to anti-immigrant discourses and policies; where we see (or even know) scores of people who live in poverty (Measuring Child Poverty, 2012); or where there is widespread bullying of children and youth in schools and communities (From Teasing to Torment, 2005)? What does preparation mean in a country where we have championed education reform since the 1950s; where we extol the importance of literacy and critical thinking; and yet, we further prescribe what constitutes appropriate knowledge, including what content teachers must teach (Common Core State Standards Initiative n.d.)? And, what does this all mean in an era of education deform (Pinar, 2012) – a time of shrinking state budgets, eroding of educational enrichment opportunities for children and youth, rising tuition costs in universities, and where democratic learning spaces in higher education are further undermined by business models for educational decision making?