Co-constructive method for measuring student performance
Co-constructive education liberates the students from having to worry about having an aim in mind. Students are free to explore knowledge and construct understandings on their own term. The hope is that this freedom will inspire new and creative ways of comprehending the world. One assumption behind this method of education is that knowledge is subjectively constructed. There is no single body of knowledge that necessarily grounds all understandings. How we look at the world, and thus the "foundation" of our knowledge, changes depending on the narrative with which we make sense of the perceived empirical data.
Co-constructive education challenges many aspects of the traditional aim-oriented education (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/brained10/org). The question of setting a standard for student performance is still an unsettled debate. United States does not have a unified standard for measuring education outcomes. Standards are as varied and changeable as the words of politicians. Many states made the move of lowering the standard to allow more high school students to graduate (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/12/education/12exit.html). Lowering the standard is clearly not a substantial solution to solve bad student performance. But having no standard for evaluation makes many people uneasy. The idea of not knowing or not wanting to know where the students will end up goes against the deeply ingrained belief that outcome measures success. I believe that the answer lies in between. In this paper I want to argue that co-constructive ideals can inform a more productive set of measurement to help students succeed.
One can argue that co-constructive methods assume a certain level of intellectual maturity and an educational environment relatively shielded from social expectations. It is great to allow the student to wonder intellectually without worrying where they will end up. Intellectual wondering exercises our reflective capacity as human beings. This act alone is noble and worthy of pursuit. But this luxury is not equally affordable for everyone, especially for low performing students who are from a poor immigrant family.
My experience as a poor low-performing immigrant student in middle school indicates that the first assumption is not entirely accurate. In middle school I did not even know the English alphabet. My mind wondered, but just not in English. One common solution to my situation is to put me in a classroom focused on building linguistic foundations: grammar and vocabulary. For each lesson the object has to be clear and the learning outcome measurable, so that students like me may consistently build on language skills. This method is effective to some extent. But it is limited because it does not allow enough room for the students to fully engage in language learning. Students are being instructed to follow certain paths instead of being allowed to play games with language. One of the best learning opportunities for me was my interaction with my classmates. We talked in broken English across the lunch table, not because we had in mind specific goals of practicing the grammar or learning new words. We worked with what we knew: bits and pieces of grammar and words. We constructed a conversation as best as we could. Some would argue that in the same amount of time I would learn more from a structured lesson with clear objectives. Maybe so, but what I would not learn as well is to be creative with language. In the process of free conversation, I struggled with my classmates to exhaust all the possibilities of the little knowledge of English language that we knew. This process of exhausting the use of limited linguistic knowledge has the potential for exponential growth in one’s linguistic ability. The means to create new knowledge with the limited resources is more vital than the knowledge itself.
The second assumption that co-constructive method operates in an environment shielded from social expectations is not entirely true either. It is true that co-constructive method does not focus on “usefulness” as an end. Some argue that it does not focus on an end, period. Although having no explicit ends in minds is a feature of the co-constructive method, I think it nevertheless has a set of agendas. In a broad sense, it seeks to provide the students a good education. More specifically, it attempts to reveal the constructive nature of knowledge and facilitate students’ efforts to create new knowledge accordingly. This attempt does not mean oblivion to the urgency to meet social expectations such as graduating from high school, doing well in the SATs, and passing the bar exam...etc. It may well be that the creativity in constructing new knowledge helps students to meet those social expectations. One can indeed argue that although it helps, it helps inadequately. To achieve the best, according to the standard, that one can achieve, focused efforts with clear goals are needed. It seems like if one were to advocate for the co-constructive method across the board one would have to challenge all the aim-oriented social institutions. Given the social reality, such a liberal method of education is hard to apply broadly. However the co-constructive method can inform a more liberating and productive set of measurements to evaluate the students.
First I want to discuss two of the common drawbacks of an aim-oriented standard of measurement. Take a specific example, in New York State high school students have to pass Regents exams (math, English, history, sciences...etc) in order to graduate. (For more information please see http://collegenow.cuny.edu/nextstop/finish_hs/creditreq/index.php). The aim-oriented measurements such as the Regents tend to emphasize arbitrary results instead of students’ academic ability. Some teachers have complained that a passing score of 55 out of 100 is too lenient (http://timeoutfromtesting.org/timeline.php). Politicians find it easy to manipulate the passing score to achieve a desirable graduation rate instead of fixing the real problems. On the other hand, the Regents can be onerous for English Language Learners (ELLs). ELLs often do not have adequate time and help needed to meet those standards. They are either being rushed through the public education system ill-prepared or dispelled from the system as dropouts (http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/pubs/2005/elldropout.pdf).
Is the standard too low or too high? There is no easy answer but we have to ask a different question: is standardized measurement helping students succeed? Judging from the case we have discussed, it seems like measurement is not the root of the problem but the standardization of the measurement is. I think we do need some mechanism of measuring student success to keep accountability, but the measurement has to tailor to the specific population of students. Echoing the co-constructive ethos of starting with where we are and build from there, I propose four suggestions to measure student performance. I believe the following suggestions allow more flexibility in the curriculum and the teaching methods; thus, enable schools and teachers to address the diverse needs of the students.
1. Decentralize the evaluation of student performance. A centralized evaluation is often arbitrary. It is very difficult if not impossible for a standardized measurement to account for all the students in a big and diverse school system.
2. Give more evaluating authority to the teachers. Instead of having to take a standardized test to graduate, teachers would bear more responsibility to monitor student progress more closely. Who knows the students better than the people who spend the most time with them: the teachers?
3. Add written comments as part of the evaluation. Only giving students a number score does not take full advantage of the close teacher and student relationship proposed in suggestion number 2.
4. Create a non-binding common guideline of learning objectives. This may sound contradictory to my first suggestion. But I want to highlight the “non-binding” part. It is different from a standard measurement like the Regents in that it does not ask all the students to take a test to decide whether they can graduate. The purpose is rather to provide the teachers a sense of direction and perspective, and where roughly the other students are heading toward.
The four suggestions are my attempt to synthesize the need for measurable success and the co-constructive philosophy. If I have displeased people on both sides, I hope I have succeeded at least in furthering the discussion on the issue of performance measurement.