Sunday, July 18, 2010

Harvard Wimps Out on Testing

To oppose “results-based accountability” in education is close to a taboo nowadays, a position so antithetical to the spirit of the age that few dare mention it. Let us, therefore, declare ourselves shocked and saddened that Harvard University, in so many ways a pacesetter in education, is embracing that very position.

Starting in September, courses in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will no longer routinely require final exams. For most of Harvard’s existence, any professor wishing to forgo the practice of final exams required formal approval by the entire faculty. At least since the 1940s, professors have been required to submit a form to opt out of giving a final exam. But in fall 2010, professors will need to file a specific request to opt in. The dean of undergraduate education, Jay M. Harris, is already predicting that Harvard will reduce the academic calendar by a day or two in response to the eased testing burden.

Moreover, general exams — requiring seniors to demonstrate mastery of the fundamental knowledge of their major — are given in fewer and fewer departments. Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are “generally educated” when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?

Some will say that other student work products — term papers, especially, but increasingly multimedia projects, too — are better gauges of learning than cumulative exams. Associate Dean Stephanie H. Kenen recently stated: “The literature on learning shows that hands-on activities can help some students learn and integrate the material better.”

In reality, however, the decline of testing at Harvard has little to do with any “literature on learning.” When we attended college there, four decades apart, some of our most fruitful learning experiences occurred in preparing for, and actually taking, final exams. They forced us to sharpen our thoughts and solidify our knowledge, whether it was by connecting the dots between Andy Warhol and Joseph Stalin for Louis Menand in 2006, or making sense of a year’s worth of American social history per Oscar Handlin in 1964. Term papers were essential, too — let us make no mistake. But they were easier to fudge with obscure research, borrowed insights, and artful prose. It was finals that forced us to think, to synthesize, to study, and to learn.

What’s really happening, we sense, is that Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience. It certainly isn’t the only university to succumb, but given Harvard’s reputation as a trendsetter, we should expect better. Just imagine: Students will be delighted to forgo finals, and instructors will be thrilled not to have to create or grade them. Everybody finishes the semester earlier. (The last few weeks of class don’t really count when that material won’t be tested!) Yet Harvard’s leaders may eventually have to acknowledge that, with fewer test results, they will know less and less about what students are or are not learning within their hallowed gates.

Not so long ago, Harvard was striding toward transparency and accountability. In 2006, under the leadership of interim president Derek Bok (no slouch himself as an education reformer and critic), the university participated in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). The CLA is intended to measure the kinds of skills and thinking at the core of an arts-and-sciences curriculum and, by comparing the scores of seniors and freshmen, to gauge a university’s “value added.” One of us, a senior at the time, even volunteered to participate. It was a rare chance to put the old joke to the test: “Why is Harvard such a great repository of knowledge? Because students enter with so much and leave with so little.”

Sadly, Harvard’s CLA results were never shared with participants, as had been promised, much less with the outside world. The flickering light of results-based accountability at Harvard was thus dimmed — by whom and why, we can only guess. (The authors contacted the office of the president last Friday to corroborate this account of the CLA at Harvard. As of Wednesday, July 14, officials were not able to either confirm or deny it.)

Granted, testing is complicated. How to assess a semester’s worth of learning in 180 minutes? How to probe what one has learned during three years as a history major? How, simultaneously, to measure the accumulation of knowledge and the development of analytical skills and effective expression? How to distill course themes into challenging essay questions or problem sets, and how to grade them fairly?

But avoiding tough methodological challenges isn’t in Harvard’s mission statement. In matters of education policy — including many earlier rounds of assessment, such as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams — Harvard has long been a pioneer. Other universities look to it for guidance. Why not with end-of-course assessments, too? Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is full of testing experts, and its psychology department is stacked with heavyweights. Its mathematicians, computer scientists, and statisticians are competent to sample the populations, crunch the numbers, etc. Couldn’t they help the university develop suitable guidelines, templates, and prototypes for measuring what its students learn? Would it be too much to ask them to actually develop better tests? Maybe even to share them with the world?

Harvard might fruitfully take a cue from K–12 education. Here we’re seeing slow but steady progress toward intelligent assessment and fair accountability. The primary/secondary-education community is approaching consensus on content standards for math and English language arts. Consortia of states are undertaking the development of “next-generation” assessment systems. The Obama administration has taken stock of No Child Left Behind and offered a new blueprint for giving schools and districts more flexibility to reach higher performance standards. None of this has been easy, and countless political headaches would have been avoided by simply jettisoning results-based accountability. Plenty of teachers would have been pleased, too. But most K–12 policymakers know better: Were it not for the dreaded tests, we would not be able to learn from our educational successes, or to direct attention to our most persistent failures.

Harvard doubtless assumes that no formal measures of learning are needed to demonstrate its educational value to students. Just peek inside Lamont Library late on a weeknight and behold the heaps of books, index cards, and coffee mugs. Listen to the keyboard clatter of great term papers in the making. Well, we studied in Lamont — one of us quite recently — and we have a secret to share: There is a difference between effort and learning, between putting in the time and coming out with something worthwhile. For every undergraduate writing the next Great American Novel, another student is frustrated, confused, and stressed by ambiguous expectations from instructors. Harvard would be greatly aided in its struggles with mediocre instruction by better tests aligned with clearer expectations — not by giving up on exams altogether.

Harvard is blessed with talented students — it can pick and choose among America’s finest — and that doubtless encourages it to pay scant attention to how much they actually learn during their undergraduate years in Cambridge. University leaders also understand that public accountability can be humbling. Arrogance and pandering are more convenient. They just don’t get us any closer to veritas.


Maryland planning mandatory "environmental" indoctrination in High Schools

Top state officials in Maryland are promoting a plan that would make the study of environmental education a requirement for all students to graduate from the state’s public high schools.

The proposal, which will be made available for public comment beginning today, is set for final consideration by the state board of education in the fall. If adopted, it would represent the first time a state has added a high school graduation requirement focused on environmental literacy, according to Donald R. Baugh, the vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Annapolis, Md., that has been a strong champion of the measure.

“This is one step toward what we hope will be a stronger, more comprehensive effort in Maryland” to provide environmental education, said Mr. Baugh. “What we really like about the high school graduation [requirement is that] it’s for all students, it is a systemic solution.”

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, said the proposal—which still is subject to change before being taken up by the state board—enjoys widespread support among local superintendents in Maryland, and also is backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

She emphasized that the proposal would not mandate that students take a particular course, but instead would call on school districts to ensure that environmental literacy is “threaded through” the curriculum. “I think it has much more importance because it isn’t just, ‘Take one course, and that’s all you have to do,’” Ms. Grasmick said in an interview.

The Maryland initiative comes as advocates for environmental education are continuing a push to enact new federal legislation to advance the issue. Their goal is for companion bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, which would authorize $500 million over five years for environmental education, to be included in the overdue reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Mr. Baugh said.
Districts Have Leeway

The new Maryland proposal stems from the work of a task force created by Gov. O’Malley, a Democrat. The task force, called the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature, was co-chaired by Ms. Grasmick and John R. Griffin, the secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. In April 2009, the panel issued a final report and recommendations to the governor, including the call for a new graduation requirement on environmental literacy.

However, the task force had actually recommended requiring that all high school students take a specific course on environmental literacy, while the proposal moving forward calls for the topic to be “infused” into current curricular offerings.

To be sure, observers say, environmental education is nothing new in Maryland, and many schools have long included environmental literacy in the curriculum.

In fact, this would not be the state’s first mandate pegged to environmental education. The Maryland education code in 1989 was first amended to require a “comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program of environmental education within current curricular offerings at least once in the early, middle, and high school learning years.”

But Mr. Baugh, from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that implementation has never reached all schools, especially following the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, with its emphasis on improving student achievement in reading and mathematics.

He also argues that the earlier measure required local systems simply to include environmental education within their instructional programs, but did not stipulate that all students must participate.

“A requirement tied to the ability for students to graduate high school will apply to all Maryland students, and carries greater weight and significance,” he said.

He added that the proposed new requirement also “provides much greater guidance regarding appropriate high school instruction and requires school systems to provide professional development for teachers to assist them in meeting the requirement.”

At the same time, Mr. Baugh said the proposal gives districts considerable leeway in how they choose to bring environmental education into classrooms.

Kevin M. Maxwell, the superintendent of the 75,500-student Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said he welcomes the proposed requirement. “We have an obligation to make sure that we equip our next generation with the tools they’re going to need ... to, quite frankly, clean up the messes that we’ve made,” he said, “and to make sure the Earth is a sustainable home for the people who inhabit it.”


Teacher conduct hearings to triple after complaints about British teachers rise 800 per cent

Complaints about teachers rose 800 per cent last year, with record numbers being charged. Regulators will have to triple the number of hearings they hold in order to deal with the rising volume of misconduct cases they have to examine.

The number of Initial Conduct Referrals (ICRS) made against teachers by parents, other teachers and members of the public rose to 151 in the year to April, following just 16 in the previous 12 months.

The increase last year was put down to the publicity surrounding child protection issues following the death of Baby Peter. In the three months since April there have been a further 35 ICRs.

The General Teaching Council for England (GTC) – which Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has pledged to shut down – currently has a record 136 cases waiting to be heard.

Alan Meyrick, GTC registrar, told the Times Educational Supplement: "In the past there have been 170 hearings every year, now we want to hold three times that volume. There's a need for us to run something closer to 500 a year."


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