Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Than a Number

As the tenth grade honors English teacher, I have an interesting mix of students. And although I teach only honors this year, they are most certainly not a homogonous group. Within the honors courses I have a variety of levels in terms of student maturity, preparedness, discipline, and understanding. In talking with my students, some of them have very definite ideas about what they would like to do with their lives – writer, book editor, fashion designer - while others are still trying to figure out who they are, let alone what they would like to be doing ten years from now. Some of my students have a very narrow path laid out before them: I will get a 4.0 (unweighted), graduate valedictorian, go to Princeton, then to Harvard to become a doctor or lawyer or writer.

Lindsay, over at Students 2.0, recently posted a poignant reflection on what it means to be a student competing in our high-stakes testing, standardized educational system.
“The further into my high school career I go, the more my face, name, and personality gets traded out for a couple of numbers. It seems as though modern high school is becoming less about personal growth through learning…”
Since when did education become all about the numbers? My students take the PSATs, SATs, ACTs, the Pennsylvania state tests (PSSAs), and four times a year they take the district administered 4Sight tests. With all this testing, it seems as though we’ve lost sight on the individuals that sit in our classrooms.

But as responsible educators, I don’t think any of us stay awake a night worrying about what sort of numbers our schools are producing. I teach fifteen and sixteen year olds. I am concerned about the people that leave my classroom. I want my students to be critical, self-motivated, self-aware, questioning people. I don’t see my job as one that prepares future numbers. My job is to prepare thinkers. I want my students to be successful people, not just statistics on a page.

There is a growing divide between how we (students and teachers alike) are judged and current educational philosophy. Districts provide teachers with the “eligible content” from state tests to teach, while teachers struggle to find ways to incorporate authentic assessments and problem-solving opportunities to make learning meaningful. We are told by NCLB, state standards, and school boards that we need to teach “critical thinking” skills to help students reach adequate yearly progress. However, the criteria for evaluating whether or not students have attained said critical thinking skills often comes in the form of a multiple-choice bubble exam. Since when did it take creativity and problem-solving skills to bubble in a scantron?! The divide between how students (and more recently, teachers) are being held accountable is at odds with the skills that we say we want our students to have. The philosophy of education is at odds with its reality.

Our newspapers are filled with numbers comparing this district to that one, leaving our students caught in between. It is no wonder that Lindsay writes,
“…I plan to take my own future in my hands, all the while retaining who I am—not my numeric representation.”
I wonder how we will bridge the divide between who we want our students to be and how we judge them.


Clix said...

*grin* The only reason I don't stay awake at night "worrying about what sort of numbers our schools are producing" is that I'm generally too exhausted! ;D

I'm very concerned about our numbers, because the numbers aren't meaningless. Each percentage point in our graduation rate or proficiency score represents a couple of our students. I may not know the individual, but that doesn't mean the individual has no value.

Remembering that numbers are representational can help keep things in perspective. Of course none of us is "just" a string of numbers. We're not "just" a string of letters, either, but we often use that as a simple way of referring to ourselves :)

Jennifer Ward said...

Good points! And to some extent, I agree. However, this is also a discussion that I've had with my students this semester - what happens when a name is replaced with a number, when a number is generalized to a group, when we talk about trends rather than particular people? Although numbers give us a way of easily looking at particular trends within a school, a district, or an area, they do not capture the individual's experience. I think there is a danger at relying on numbers to tell us what is going on with our students. I think this may boil down to looking at concerns in a quantitative way verses a qualitative one, or, in the psychometric tradition, the nomothetic verses the idiographic.

Katie Wilhelm said...

As a high school student myself, I have some strong opinions about the whole scantron tests thing. In almost all of my classes, we spend the whole year pretty much 'learning a test.' We aren't learning how to apply what we've learned to real life; we're learning how to bubble in a scantron. Regardless of whether we pass a certain test or not, there is no real guarantee that we, students, truly grasp the information taught and truly can take it for what it's worth. I am in the gifted program at my school. We are given tests that are standardized in a gifted program. I feel that that's not an accurate way to assess the knowledge of students, especially those in a gifted program.

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