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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

An Event, Not an Exam, to Measure Learning

March 11, 2001|KEVIN C. BUDDHU | Kevin C. Buddhu lives in Ojai and teaches English at Adolfo Camarillo High School

Newly graduated from Amherst, a former student of mine sat in my classroom and chatted about her grad school options. When I asked what her classmates had chosen to pursue, Katie gave me a quizzical look.

"Many of them have gone into business--Wall Street, financial institutions, stuff like that," she said.

I pondered that for a moment and observed, "I didn't know Amherst had a strong business curriculum."

"It doesn't," Katie said slowly and somewhat didactically, "but people know that at Amherst we are taught to think. Businesses train us, knowing that we can do the work."

I think of Katie's words frequently amid the latest barrage of standardized tests, most notably the high school exit exam and the Stanford 9 for school ranking.

Our state's efforts to track eduction with a scoreboard belie what learning has meant for thousands of years and ought to still mean today: the ability to independently synthesize information, understand implications and possibilities, and act on those notions in written, oral and physical forms.

I believe there is a better way to measure and encourage learning that more closely parallels real life.

The reasons for standardized testing are many. The public wants quantifiable and uniform results that can be digested and compared like sports page box scores. Politicians on both sides of the aisle want to hold educators responsible. And everyone wants to make this process as easy as possible. What's easiest is to give the same test to all students, make it multiple choice and publish the results to show which schools are performing and which are not.

The fundamental fallacy with multiple-choice tests lies in their construction because the answers exist on the paper for the student to find. How often in our personal and professional lives do we have only three to five choices provided for us with only one of them correct?

Guessing well works as a strategy; SAT preparation courses provide strategies for helping to eliminate wrong answers. Are students who do well on such tests proving what they know, or merely how well they can learn to manipulate an exam?

Because of this and other concerns about standardized exams, the need for some measure that everyone can find meaningful should take precedent over filling in bubbles on exam answer sheets.

My proposal takes into account the needs of politicians, the public, faculties and students. Because it would require all of these parties to work together for the benefit of students without regard for time and effort, it doesn't stand a whisper of a chance.

I say our school system needs an assessment tool that more closely resembles the world outside the classroom. This view is informed by my travels in Australia, visits to restructured schools in this county and others, 15 years of conversations with foreign students and indirect knowledge of industry through friends who work in the private and public sectors.

Simply put, why not roll the outcomes desired from the exit exam and the Stanford 9 into one event? Event, not exam. Following a model once used at Oak Park High School, students would start in the sophomore year on a project that connected the English and social studies curricula. In the junior year, students would connect English, history and some other discipline. In the senior year, students would connect English, social studies, math and science.

What students did with these connections at each grade level would grow more complex each year but the task would remain the same: students would need to write about, speak to an audience concerning, create a physical product of, and use technology to present their self-chosen idea derived from the combination of the disciplines. For example, a student in the sophomore year could choose early African civilizations and oral myth making, in the junior year look at the slave trade, early linguistic language patterns of blacks and the mathematical implications of black English language growth in America, and finish in the senior year with a focus on jazz that embraces any four of the core curricula.

Impossible? Unrealistic? Oak Park High School did not allow students to graduate unless they had successfully completed their senior focus. This program no longer exists because funding ran dry, not because students could not rise to the challenge.


As part of this three-tiered escalation toward a senior presentation, students should have to sit for both written and oral boards before a panel of their teachers. Every foreign student I have had in the past 15 years has faced senior boards, which they considered a true test of knowledge retention.

Under our current system, students tend to "study for Friday and forget by Monday." A series of boards in June to test knowledge from all four years would end this kind of thinking forever, as long as students wrote essays that forced them to apply information already learned to new circumstances.

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