There isn’t much to be enthused about in Sunday’s report from Austin on Texas governor Rick Perry’s proposals to further regulate higher education. According to the article, “Perry’s higher education plan praised: A senior federal official calls governor’s plan for more aid, incentives and accountability ‘a bold step,” academic “rigor” is again being held up as a fundamental educational goal:

“There was a lot there that we liked,” she [Sara Martinez Tucker, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education] said of the governor’s plan. “There’s a lot of similarity with our commission report. Number one, holding schools accountable and ensuring taxpayers are getting a return on their investment in higher education. Also, simplifying financial aid and making access (to aid) easier and holding out incentives for academic rigor.”

Instead of lauding “rigor,” we need to reject it and instead embrace differentiation, flexibility, and high expectations. “Rigor” is not what we need in K-12 or higher education.

More testing is not an “educational reform” we need in higher education either. Again according to the article:

She’s [Sara Martinez Tucker] also comfortable with Perry’s proposal to require an exit exam for each student earning a bachelor’s degree.

A low score would not prevent a student from graduating. However, colleges, which would be financially rewarded for each student who graduated, would get even more funding when students did well on the test, when students from low-income families or otherwise deemed at-risk graduated and when students majored in so-called critical fields such as math and science.

I think legislators and government officials remain enamored with high stakes testing because they have little educational experiences of their own with authentic assessment or differentiation of the curriculum. I’m speculating that few if any of them have read John Dewey or Paulo Freire extensively, or have formally studied issues of curriculum and instruction over an extended period of time.

As usual, politicians seem to pursue silver bullets for education and spout off “sound byteable” phrases like “rigor” and “accountability” with apparent disregard for how these priorities actually play out for learners in 21st century classrooms. We don’t need high-stakes end-of-course examinations in the K-12 arena, and we don’t need to reform higher education by imposing a set of exit evaluations either.

The SAT is a decent predictor of college performance, but a quick Google search for “SAT good predictor college performance” reveals a wide variety of opinions on this subject. One of the most important issues regarding tests like the SAT is that they may better reflect demographics than aptitude. Dr. David Berliner, a noted educational scholar and statistician, is of that mind. I have not and am not advocating an end to testing, but I certainly do advocate for a more differentiated, authentic focus on ongoing assessment and an end to our common and destructive myopic focus on high-stakes summative testing.

I have been doing some thinking lately about how to summarize the key elements we need to focus on in reinventing U.S. education for the 21st century. This vision of “school 2.0” needs to focus on:

  1. Remix: Students need to regularly remix their learning to own the ideas.
  2. Deregulation: Learners need to be freed to take the TIME required for in-depth rather than shallow studies in problem-based, project-based constructionist and constructivist learning activities.
  3. Differentiation: Learning opportunities, challenges, and assessments must be differentiated to meet the needs as well as interests of a diverse array of learners.

I’ll be writing more on these themes in the weeks ahead. Hopefully at some point, these phrases and the fairly complex educational dynamics they reflect will become part of the political dialog we read about in the mainstream press in Texas as well as other places around the world.

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2 Responses to Rigor and testing in higher education praised in Texas

  1. Robert says:

    Wes – It would appear that nobody has a real understanding of what rigor actually means in a higher education setting. It most certainly does not equate to high scores on standardized tests. But rigor does actually mean something — something very important to the world of higher education, and I think saying we need to reject it shows an equivalent but differently-directed misunderstanding of the concept of academic rigor.

    We here in higher ed think of academic rigor in terms of high expectations for performance and of personal discipline and responsibility. A “rigorous” course expects students to have mastered prerequisite knowledge (or at least commit to ongoing mastery), to take on the responsibility of doing work outside of class, and to submit work that is of a high level of quality in a number of discipline-appropriate terms. This sort of thing is not in opposition to the kinds of things you envision for “School 2.0”. Indeed, I think these things are necessary in order for “School 2.0” to devolve into mere indulgence — ie. just letting students do what they feel like doing, or doing what makes the school look good.

    Actually, I take that back somewhat — rigor and the concept of “remixing” are often incompatible. Students will not “own” anything by remixing if they have not got a foundationally solid, “rigorous”, handle on the basic ideas. You can’t expect a good improvisational solo from a musician that hasn’t spent hours drudging through learning scales backwards and forwards. Right now I am teaching a precalculus course in which 80% of the students cannot add fractions or multiply signed numbers together. They don’t need remixing — they need to go to the woodshed!

  2. […] Wes Fryer’s blog is a regular read of mine — typically a place to find consistently wise, realistic discussion of Web 2.0 as it relates to K-12 education. But I had to disagree strongly with the ideas in this post. Snippet: There isn’t much to be enthused about in Sunday’s report from Austin on Texas governor Rick Perry’s proposals to further regulate higher education. According to the article, “Perry’s higher education plan praised: A senior federal official calls governor’s plan for more aid, incentives and accountability ‘a bold step,” academic “rigor” is again being held up as a fundamental educational goal. […] […]

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