Now That’s What I Call Achievement!

In a recent post, I wrote about Jacob Fialkoff singing the national anthem, unrehearsed and before a large audience, as an example of an achievement that made Jacob aware of both his capabilities and possibilities. I then recommended that we replace standardized tests with that kind of opportunity for all students and, by doing so, redefine student achievement.

In this post, I want to do more than suggest; I want to offer a blueprint for redefining student achievement. The blueprint is a set of criteria to assess high school students at the conclusion of a course. It begins with setting goals for the development of the students as learners and thinkers and then giving them the strategies for developing in the ways we determined are best for them and then, at the end of the course, asking the students to pull it all together and create something new with both those strategies we have taught them and the content we have explored. A surefire result of what the students will produce is that they will amaze us, just as Jacob amazed his audience.

An excellent veteran teacher ran into my office after administering his first exams with  that set of criteria and exuberantly proclaimed, “I can’t believe my students did what they did! I didn’t know they could do it!” I have seen that same reaction from innumerable teachers.  Nothing fires teachers up more than to see their students achieve.

Here is the blueprint for redefining student achievement:

                                  CRITERIA FOR MIDTERM AND FINAL EXAMS

Exams that assess student learning require that students: 

  1. Use critical thinking to identify, examine, and analyze the controlling concepts of the course.
  2. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies mqdeveloped during the semester.
  3. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Engage in a new challenge which is a learning experience in itself.
  6. Demonstrate individual achievement.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

High school students of all abilities and in various school settings have demonstrated  achievement with this kind of exam. In a school district in which I supervised 33 high school English teachers who taught students of all abilities, from those who struggled as readers and writers to those who were in AP courses and earning college credit from the University of Connecticut, all the students took exams, based on those same criteria. I read all 99 exams every semester and responded at length to the teachers about the ways in which they required their students of differing abilities to fulfill each of the criteria.

A wonderful result of the agreed-upon exam policy was the energetic and creative discussions about teaching and learning that came about among us as we talked together about creating those exams and grading them. I have copies of those exams and am happy to sharek them with other districts eager to pursue this redefinition of student achievement.

This kind of exam has redefined student learning in both suburban schools and urban schools, even ones termed “failing schools” as determined by standardized test scores.  In one of those schools termed a “failing school”,  a veteran, highly regarded teacher, after teaching her first semester with curriculum goals of developing the students as learners and thinkers and grading her first set of exams that followed the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams”, said to me. “I now know what it is to teach.”

Working with teachers, talking with teachers, and respecting the professional knowledge of teachers – that’s how we can redefine student achievement. Hiring standardized testing companies that require us to teach only what a standardized test can measure  and implementing the low-level Common Core standards not written by anyone who teaches has been a short-cut, but a short-cut to nowhere. It’s now time to abandon that short-cut and engage teachers in redefining student achievement. The blueprint of the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams” points the way.