Who’s being held accountable?

When the educational system fails students, often students get the blame.

Lorie Smith Schaefer of Carson City is a reading specialist at Seeliger School. This column first ran in the Nevada Appeal. For more on this topic, see www.rethinkingschools.org.

Recent publicity about a Carson High student who successfully completed all required courses but hadn’t passed the math proficiency test has caused me more than a little anxiety.

On one hand, I believe students should be held accountable. I believe schools, parents and the community need to know that the high school diploma means something, means the same thing for all students.

Nonetheless, school officials have acknowledged that the curriculum the student completed may not have been an exact match for what was on The Test. They are working to more closely align them.

Which brings me to my other hand—just who is being held accountable? And for what?

The student, Amy, completed courses outlined by the state and district. She received good grades in classes taught by teachers certified by the state and hired by the district. She just hasn’t passed The Test. Yet. What strikes me here is that the only person being held accountable is Amy—the person at the bottom of the educational food chain, the person with the least power, the least voice.

Teachers who taught and passed her may reflect on what they might have done differently. Or not. But their jobs are not in jeopardy. I’m not convinced they should be. School administrators’ jobs are not at risk. The contract with the testing company is probably safe, although its test may have neither accurately nor reliably measured Amy’s competence. No one’s future is at risk the way Amy’s is—a future based on her performance on a single test.

As a teacher, I know there are many kinds of learners. Think of yourself. Do you learn best on your own or in a group? Can you read or hear new information and know it? Or must you talk, write, draw or build to learn? How would you prefer to show your ability? Would you prefer a test with only one right answer or to be able to show your work?

Just what is the desired outcome of 13 years of this free and public education? Students who have a multitude of facts rattling around in their heads or students who can see the big picture and solve problems? Students who can memorize or students who can think?

What bothers me about a single multiple-choice test is not that the bar is too high, but that the bar is too low and on the wrong track.

I want graduates with more than functional literacy, which assures nothing but a low-paying job. I want more than cultural literacy, which might allow them to win at Trivial Pursuit or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? but devalues or ignores cultures outside America’s mainstream. Both perpetuate social inequities.

I want graduates who can separate the wheat from the chaff, ones who know what is really true and why.

Above all, I want students to have a vested interest in learning—not because of a test or even earning potential, but because they understand their own power and their obligation to use that power to change the world. I want students to know they can change the system into one that honors even its least powerful members instead of turning them into scapegoats for its own injustices.