Education: Standards and Assessments in Practice

Article excerpt

The Changing Face of American Education

In my nearly 15-year progression from teaching in a high school classroom to teaching future teachers in a university classroom, I've gained an unusual perspective on American education, one that led me to want to take stock of our currently standards--and test-obsessed climate. In 1995, as I began my teaching career, I was blissfully ignorant of both content standards and high-stakes standardized testing. I received my initial teacher certification that year from the state of Ohio, one of the first states to institute a benchmark, high-stakes exit exam for its students.

My university methods class in English/Language Arts had taught me how to write a lesson plan, structure a novel unit, and respond to student writing. But even though the Ohio 9th Grade Exit Exam had been instituted three years before, there was no talk of standards, content or otherwise, and no discussion, as far as I can remember, of teaching to the test. When I compare my own teacher-training and student teaching experiences with the teaching and research I have conducted recently, I see so few similarities between them that it almost appears I was trained for an entirely different profession.

When I received my first job later in 1995, teaching 9th and 10th grade English in California, nothing had changed fundamentally from my training in the Midwest. I know now that California had a curriculum framework for English/Language Arts (E/LA) in place at that time (specifically, 1985's Model Curriculum Standards: Grades Nine Through Twelve), and this framework had grade level expectations for students, but I never would have guessed that from the materials handed to me at my new teacher orientation.

My department chair gave me two small binders, one for each grade level I was teaching. The 9th grade binder told me I would teach short stories, To Kill a Mockingbird , and Romeo & Juliet, and I was free to choose additional novels from the included reading list. Additionally, I was asked to teach a variety of literary terminology specific to prose (exposition, conflict, rising action, etc.), as well as the narrative essay.

My 10th grade binder looked much the same. I would teach poetry (and its related terminology), two core novels (Lord of the Flies and Black Boy), the persuasive essay, and the research paper. There was a general expectation in both grades to teach vocabulary and grammar, but no guidelines as to which words or concepts. That was the extent of the direction I was given as a 22-year-old teacher fresh off a plane from Ohio.

Six years later, the world had changed. When I returned to the classroom after a one-year stint in graduate school, California had instituted their brand-new curriculum frameworks and content standards. I now had an expansive, state-mandated list of items to cover with my students, running the gamut from vocabulary acquisition to public speaking. Students were tested on these standards, and 10th grade students now had to pass an exit exam in order to receive their diploma. In my district, course outlines had to be rewritten showing how every aspect of every class related to the standards. We adopted a textbook anthology that provided teachers with discussion questions, worksheets, and tests all tied directly to California's content standards and we were encouraged to use these resources to ensure that we were meeting the standards.

Site administrators required teachers to conspicuously post the content standards that related to that day's lesson, and they were diligent in spot-checking classrooms to ensure that the standards were, in fact, posted. Department meetings, staff meetings, and staff development days focused not on how to better meet student needs, but on how to better meet the content standards and their accompanying tests, apparently assuming that these two very different goals were actually one and the same. …