Tuesday, May 5, 2009

thank goodness the Boston Globe is shutting down

or I'd have to smack it down big-time for this editorial arguing that we shouldn't standardize and measure achievement on so-called 21st-century skills. The op-ed offers further proof--as if we needed it--that the Globe's editorial board has no idea how the playing field has been utterly transformed by participatory culture.

The impetus behind the op-ed is a move by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to put its money where its mouth is. The department recently awarded a $146 million contract to the designer of the MCAS, the standardized test mandated in the commonwealth of Massachusetts by No Child Left Behind, and part of that money is earmarked for integration of 21st-century skills assessment. This is a problem, as the Globe's editorial board will point out momentarily.

But first, it uses state MCAS scores as proof of public school rigor. As it explains,

Massachusetts stands apart in public education precisely because it created high academic standards, developed an objective measure of student performance and progress through the MCAS test, and required a passing grade in order to graduate. Students, as a result, rank at or near the top of standardized testing not just nationally but on tough international achievement tests in math and science. Any retreat from this strategy would be a profound mistake.

So to summarize: Massachusetts students are among the top in the nation because their achievement on standardized tests prepares them to...score well on standardized tests. It's like the iconic example of circular reasoning: The MCAS is useful because it prepares them for future learning. How do you know? Because Massachusetts students do well on other standardized tests. What prepares them to do well on those tests? Doing well on standardized tests, of course.

Given the Globe's wholehearted genuflection at the altar of bubble tests, one wonders why this editorial might oppose integrating assessment of 21st-century skills in addition to traditional subjects. It turns out their concern is less about whether we should measure 21st century skills than it is about how doing so on the MCAS will affect test scores in general. As the editorial points out,
[s]tate education officials have done a generally poor job of defining 21st-century skills - which can include interdisciplinary thinking and media literacy - or explaining how to test them statewide.

The problem for the Globe, it turns out, is that if we develop mediocre assessment strategies it'll ruin the MCAS for all of us. Because 21st-century skills can only be measured subjectively, the Globe argues, an "objective" test like the MCAS is an inappropriate place to assess achievement. Instead,
MCAS testers should concentrate on accurately measuring math ability and reading comprehension, which surely correlate with a student's success in the workplace.

Let's leave, just for now, the outrageous assumption that a standardized test could conceivably be considered "objective." Let's leave the assumption that a standardized test could "accurately" measure student ability in anything other than the ability to engage in the weird and peculiar game of test-taking. Which leaves just one last question:

In what world can anybody make the argument that achievement in math and reading without the accompanying facility with 21st-century proficiencies prepares any learning for any workplace worth the energy of applying for employment in the first place?

It's such a weird argument to make, that literacy practices like reading, writing, and doing math can be somehow isolated from the 21st-century contexts that make them meaningful. It's like asking someone if she knows how to tie her shoe, then making her
prove it by writing a detailed step-by-step description of how to do it. It's like asking someone to prove he can build a fire: But is the fire for warmth, for signaling for help, or for burning the whole house down?

Same with math: Knowing how to "do" fractions doesn't mean a learner is equipped to, say, resize a .jpg for a blogpost.

Arguing that we should keep 21st-century skills out of standardized tests in order to keep the tests objective is as lame as the argument that standardized tests are objective in the first place. Neither one makes any logical sense. Neither one gets you anywhere.


Anonymous said...

Here's the thing: I don't think anything can be properly understood without constantly zooming in and out of focus on subjects like math, reading, or our new 21st century skills as they are applied/not applied in today's society.

In order to have the skills to function in everyday work, let alone to navigate the rush of extra-curricular activities in anyone's social atmosphere, appropriate synthesis of information must occur. Standardized tests simply cannot necessarily show nor execute such synthesis; and neither is such synthesis appropriately occurring with the present educational model.

Learning how to take tests may or may not teach you how to anticipate intentions, critically analyze what is going on outside of the test itself, where the test-creators are coming from--wait, wait, wait, but not everybody has the chance to learn how to be a manipulative thinker/test taker. Well, but maybe if schools become massive SAT PREP COURSES, which they kind of have, but then what about the content? I lost my train of thought.

You have to look at what it is you are examining (the micro) and compare it to the macro and then compare it to a different micro and then compare it to another macro. And it's this synthesis, I think, that teaches not only mental flexibility but lends to a general well-roundedness of information contained within that learner's brain. It teaches synthesis. It teaches how to pull from not just one subject, but from every subject, and such global thinking is vitally important for functioning in the world today.

So how do we encourage and facilitate an education of this kind? It certainly takes an over-haul of our approach to education in general. The old model may have been legitimate back in the day as we needed to break it down in such a way so we as teachers could understand it ourselves—because we didn't know any other way. But now we do. And just as we were learners ourselves on the process of education, so became our actual students.

And now it's the 21st century and we're all learners and teachers at the same time. Some of us know more about one subject and less about another; some of us have more success here with this approach/strategy and some of us more with this one. Taking this idea and running with it, we see the potential for widespread learner success. With increased sharing and with an increase in access (which, I think, comes hand in hand with a willingness to share), not only can we see less division based on economic status, but so can we see less division among age groups.

A student is not a less-than simply because they are younger (of course this may be opening up a can of worms). A teacher is not a less-than simply because they aren’t aware of the latest strategy. It takes listening and sharing to negotiate the new pathways created by open access to information. And then with this comes the usual discussion of ethics and new media, etc: experience by teachers (or an adult) needs to be executed with care in participating with learners (children), and so forth.

Okay message truncated.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Wow. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Plz to leave your name next time so I can give credit where credit is due.

bill schechter said...


This was an awesome response. I have been tangling with them about their editorial stance and refusal to open their op ed columns to other viewpoints, largely without success since 1996. They are so smug and fearful of a genuine debate, so convinced of their own rectitude.

I agree with all you say here, but one. I believe that the more they are examined, the most that 21st century skills will seem pretty much like
the important skills of previous centuries: the ability to think conceptually and creatively, to write well, to compute, to read deeply, to focus, etc.

Stay in their grill!

Melissa said...

Plz to note that I will do my very best at becoming more willing to do so.

Also, I agree that the more these new skills are examined the more they might be able to be viewed like skills of prior centuries; however, I think an important distinction needs to be made. They will only seem like the skills of prior centuries because they are familiar. I mean to say that taking that familiarity for granted is a mistake. It doesn't mean a shift in ideology doesn't need to occur because in order to even begin to think of something as familiar, shift happens.

It is this cultural amnesia we tend to almost always have that makes us think there was never a change to begin with, which is why, I think, we are always so hesitant to make these shifts--even though we do it again and again, we think, at first, that because it's uncomfortable, we shouldn't do it.

(You can reference any civil rights movements in our history and compare it to current issues, to be specific, with the same-sex marriage rights movement occurring today.)

But once the shift is made, familiarity can begin. And so centuries from now we can refer to 32nd century skills and how they need to be worked into our current societal norms/educational processes and how, soon, they will become just as familiar as, say, reading with mouse in hand.


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