Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A School's Responsibility to its Students

I ran across this article in the LA Times that described a class-action lawsuit brought by students who failed an exit exam from high school. It caught my attention because one of my professional areas of interest is writing assessment, and I have spent ink considering exit exams and their values and drawbacks. I think there may be some value to them (though very little and value that can be achieved through less drastic measures), but I want to focus on one of the drawbacks here.

Certainly I think it is a laudable goal to set standards for student to graduate from high school. As a university teacher, I see students come to college who could have had better preparation. But all students are different, and each student matures intellectually at different times (if they mature). Read William Perry's study of college students and then read Mary Belenky et al.'s Women's Ways of Knowing.

Back to the exit exams. Here is one of my primary beefs with them: I think it is unethical to allow a student to matriculate through four years of school and not prepare them to pass a test designed for that school or district. I believe it is the job of the faculty to prepare all students, and when that doesn't happen (often the student's fault), the faculty must prevent the underachieving students from advancing. Now, I know this is a simplistic analysis. There are social ("social promotion"), cultural, political, religious (ID freaks and abstinence) and learning developmental issues to consider, but society has endowed an authority in teachers (see Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge) to determine what students should know, how they should learn it, and how well they should know it. By instituting an exam, teachers can abdicate that responsibility or they've had it wrenched from them by some of the forces listed above.

The bottom line: allowing a student to pass four years of high school and not prepare them for a test is just wrong. They should be stopped well before they get to that point -- ideally where they fall behind.

p.s. The students will win.

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