A Good Education Idea. Really!

A Defense for the Spinning Heel Kick

This past week we completed the 2009 version of the California Standards Test. It is a standards-based test designed to assess the degree to which children mastered the standards at their grade level. If they get higher than a scaled score of 350, they will be considered "proficient" and everyone will be happy.

Of course, anything less than that means they are "not at grade level" and it will be a reason for great concern. And if 45% of our overall students or 45% of our Latino students or 45% of our English language learners are not at grade level, the state of California will declare us to be a "Program Improvement" school.

So here is what I don't get.

If we have a standards-based curriculum, and students' mastery of those standards is determined by a standards-based assessment (in our state: the California Standards Test), then why aren't kids grouped in classrooms according to their mastery of those standards? In other words... a true, standards-based school.

Where do we see standards-based schools? In that Taekwondo studio down the street-- the one in your neighborhood strip mall.

In Taekwondo and other martial arts, students are assigned a white belt until they demonstrate mastery of ALL of the techniques, blocks, kicks, forms, and philosophies that are taught at that beginning of the learning continuum. They advance through the curriculum- color belt by color belt-- until they reach the level of black belt. There is a high price to pay for not mastering all of those blocking and striking techniques if you spar with another black belt so Taekwondo instructors tend to promote students only when they are ready to be promoted.

Not so in your school or mine.

In fact, in a few weeks we are going to promote quite a few students to the next grade level who have not yet mastered the standards for this year. We'll know who they are, because those will be the students who don't do so hot on the California Standards Test. We will agonize over the perennial "promotion/retention dilemma", we'll choose our poison (social promotion being the lesser of twin evils)... and we'll promote each student whether they are ready or not. But at least we are not sending them to spar against accomplished opponents throwing spinning heel kicks.

The significant difference is that in Taekwondo we group students by their demonstrated competence. In public schools we group kids according to 1) their chronological age and 2) the grade level they were sitting in when the clock ran out at the end of the game last June. Our 11 years-olds are fifth graders no matter what level of mastery they have attained in school. And next month, they will become 6th graders and they will struggle to catch up all year until it is time to take the California Standards Test again. When that time comes, they will be handed the Sixth Grade Test-- not because they are ready for it... but merely because we placed them in a student grouping called "Sixth Grade"!

So what if we organized our students for instruction according to the martial arts, mastery-based model that is thousands of years old instead of the archaic, age-driven system that we all perpetuate today?

For starters:

• Students would be grouped according to where they are on the continuum of standards.
• We wouldn't need grade level groupings at all.
• Students would move fluidly forward and back according to their demonstrated needs and evidence of mastery.
• Teaching would be far more differentiated.
• Students would progress at their own pace.

With regard to testing:

• Some 11 year-olds would take the 4th grade version of the California Standards Test... because that is the level they are ready for.
• Some 11 year-olds may take the 7th grade test.
• Some 11 year-olds might take the 5th grade test for math, but the 3rd grade test for language arts.
• Every student would be "at grade level" because, as in Taekwondo, they would be taking a test to demonstrate what they can do. It is geared to their level... so they will all be--by definition--"proficient".
• Since all students would be proficient, schools would not show up as "Program Improvement" and the states' metrics that are now based on counting percentages of proficient students would be obsolete. So they will need new metrics.

Since we are a charter school known for our willingness to try stuff, we are intent on pursuing this model. We know we will have to do our homework and that we will be accused of 'gaming the system.' And yet, our real intention is to completely align our school-- curriculum, assessment, and student groupings-- to a standards-based model.

The Adams County School District 50 in Denver, Colorado is already taking a courageous lead on this. And I'm sure there are others.

But I am wondering...

What questions, suspicions, criticisms, warnings, come to your mind when I describe this project?

Hearing no comments... we are going to go full speed ahead!

h/t Kevin Riley

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