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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Curriculum Mastery Overrated?

The March 21, 2011 edition of On Board, the weekly journal published by the New York State School Board Association, shared an interesting article in their "research briefs" section. (p. 13)

"Business executives, students, teachers and parents all believe that higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving and the ability to work in teams are of greater importance to college and career readiness than higher-level curriculum content."

"More than 90 percent of each group surveyed said that problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to work independently were 'absolutely essential' or 'very important' for students to be ready for college and careers."

Later in the article - "But only three in 10 business executives (and half of teachers, 64 percent of students, and 71 percent of students) said 'knowledge and ability in higher-level science such as chemistry and physics' was absolutely essential or very important for college and career readiness. Similar percentages of respondents in each group believe that knowledge and ability in higher-level math - such as trigonometry and calculus - were absolutely essential or very important."

To review the entire survey, go to

Let's move from a survey of various stakeholder groups with investments in education who are critical of the value accorded certain elements of standard curriculum in public schools, to a summary review of the value of standardized assessments as they currently exist as measurements of learning. This excerpt comes from Richard Rothstein, author of Class and Schools. (p. 86)

"The problem is not that tests of academic performance are invalid. Standardized tests can do a good job of indicating, though not with perfect certainty, whether students have mastered basic skills, can identify facts they should know, can apply formulas they have learned, or can choose the most reasonable inference from alternatives based on passages they have read. Such tests have a place in evaluating schools, as they do in evaluating students. However, they are of little use in assessing important academic skills, like creativity, insight, reasoning, and the application of knowledge to unrehearsed situations - each a part of what a high quality school should teach. Such skills can be assessed, but not easily in a standardized fashion."

Reading these two pieces, albeit representing only a thin slice of the voluminous research on curriculum and assessments, nonetheless offers some insight on the great debate existing within the arena of educational policy makers. No Child Left Behind pushes for assessments of basic skills and is reliant on standardized assessments as a form of promoting higher levels of achievement. Meanwhile, many researchers claim that the skills that business executives and others suggest are essential for success in college and career are the same skills that are not being properly assessed by the standardized tests endorsed by proponents of No Child Left Behind.

There you have it. Are we identifying certain skills as vital because they lend themselves to standardized tests, and discounting other skills considered critical because they don't lend themselves to commercially produced large scale assessment instruments? What about the soft skills that are significant in the workplace - like the ability to work in teams, successfully solve unrehearsed problems..? What about the attitudes and values that often determine success in careers and can't be measured in standardized tests - like dependability, responsible behavior, creativity, cooperation...?

What do you think?

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