Standards vs Audience, or: what good is a student, anyhow?

I wouldn’t fit in very well in a public school.  I don’t do benchmarks and I draw up rubrics haphazardly.  Nobody has ever asked me to work with externally imposed standards, nor did I, when I was English Department Chair, ever ask anyone else to do so.  Our school is old-fashioned: we don’t talk about standards but about students.  We talk about what they’re thinking about, and how different young people think and how different adults think and what’s the relationship between us.

When I was asked to participate in a forum on testing in Chicago schools, for some wider representation, I asked my colleagues, “how do we assess at Parker?”  (Here’s another blogger’s report on the event.)  Here are a few snippets from their responses:

“I don’t give traditional seated exams of any kind in my classes, with the possible exception of in-class essays.  Normally, I do projects, papers, and presentations that are heavily scaffolded in class.  There is a lot of guided work, revision, peer feedback, and one-on-one guidance from me.  Generally, I try to focus student assessment on analytical work and helping them refine their ability to effectively express themselves.”

 “In my classes, assessments come in multiple modalities — analytical writing, multiple-choice reading comprehension exams, performance-based research projects — and are rolled out in a sequence that employs assessment as a teaching instrument to support skill-based expectations in precise and rich language usage.”

“I ask myself: What’s going to be useful in the world they are inheriting, and that leads me to:
Exposing them to multiple perspectives as readers, then supporting them as thinkers, speakers, and writers to bring forward their thinking in diverse contexts for a diverse audience. So I assess on the basis of clarity and polish and thoughtfulness of expression so that they may gain an audience as speakers or writers, and I assess on the basis on whether or not they have cast their language and their writing in a way that will gain the audience they seek and deserve.”

Each teacher takes a different approach, and this is encouraged in an environment where teaching is understood to be an art, not a trade.  Yet I see a common theme across the board in my colleagues’ responses: a view of students as subjects.  In these remarks, my colleagues don’t even mention teaching and learning.  Their orientation is unequivocally toward what students do with the material, experiences, and ideas they encounter.  They talk about how young people express themselves and about audience.  When we think of people as subjects, we talk about their audiences – who their words affect and how – this is part of living in a democracy.  Members of democratic society are always understood to have an audience – what we say and do is not separate from other people; always must speak to other people.

When we talk about standards, however, we’re using industrial terminology; and if that’s all we’re talking about, we risk relating to people as objects, not subjects.  When students’ value is measured by standardized tests, this means that students are not seen as actors in the world, responsible, thinking contributors to democratic society.  What is valued is the standards.  The genius of democracy – a world not just lived in but shaped by all members of society – is not served by an exclusively standards-based education.   Young people – in all school environments, not only private schools — are valuable and necessary contributors to society.  The policies of our democratic society must be grounded in this recognition, and unless standardized tests directly foster democratic citizenship, their place in the education of our children should be strictly limited.