In The New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch reviews two books on opposite sides of the school reform debate, and in the process passionately advocates for more nuanced attention to all of the factors that affect student performance. So what are some of the factors affecting student (and faculty) performance? There’s grade inflation: Inside Higher Ed offers two meditations on its causes. One of the less obvious culprits that Peter Eubanks identifies is our hesitation to assign grades that might suggest our teaching is not as effective as we think it is. Michael Morris says that’s no excuse: we have a moral imperative to enforce rigorous standards. The New York Times hosts a debate (participants include Harvard College senior Pamela Ban) that gets at the heart of teacher accountability. The question: with the advent of Google, is the research paper no longer an effective way to measure learning? The consensus: the research paper remains a vital learning tool, but the onus is on teachers to require thoughtful engagement with the material. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein argues that current assessment methods don’t do enough to encourage students to work hard, but studies suggest that college faculty actually underestimate the amount of time students spend preparing for class. Another study indicates the solution may be as easy as changing your schedule around: students in early-morning classes do better than those who take afternoon classes, for the very simple reason that heavy drinking affects academic performance, and it’s harder to be a heavy drinker when you have to be in class at 8 a.m.
A deeper solution is for those higher up on the food chain to take teaching more seriously. Ernest Boyer argued that teaching should count as research and should be the subject of scholarship: the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s recent assessment finds that while the evaluation of teaching has become much more rigorous in response to Boyer’s ideas, the importance of teaching, especially for tenure and other promotions, remains far too low to be a motivating factor. The state of Texas is on task: it recently adopted a comprehensive plan to assess faculty efficiency and effectiveness by making assessment data public.
In the midst of the debate about assessment methods comes a timely reminder, from public-school teacher Ama Nyamekye, that the real value of standardized testing lies in its potential as a pedagogical tool, not in its effectiveness as a scare tactic. Tests showed Nyamekye how she had skewed her teaching to her own strengths and allowed her sympathies to affect her judgment of her students’ progress. “The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners.”