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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

A reform too far: Sorry, your kid's only 67% of a 'whole child'

Liam sat through a semester of geometry and got a C for turning in homework, earning a 75 percent average on tests and bringing in Kleenex. Mia earned credit by studying online and passing an exam with an 87 percent score. Who learned more? It's hard to say without looking at the tests.

The Carnegie Foundation is working with Education Test Services (ETS) to replace the seat-time based approach, known as the "Carnegie unit," with a mastery-based approach, writes Jenny Anderson in Time. ETs will create "skills-based assessments to measure competencies and mindsets such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication or perseverance and empathy."

Letting fast learners test out of subjects they already know has some merit, writes Max Eden, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, on Real Clear Education. But Carnegie is looking for a lot more than academic mastery. "Whole child" evaluation is practically and politically impossible," he writes.

Carnegie CEO Timothy Knowles envisions “stealth assessments” for soft skills, writes Eden. Would AI analyze classroom videos to evaluate students' collaboration, creativity, etc.?

Conservative parents "won’t take kindly to the prospect of classroom cameras datamining their kids to grade them on character skillsets defined by progressive do-gooders," he writes.

The left won't go for it either. "The edu-left . . . will attack any character evaluation as rooted in a standard of 'whiteness',” he predicts.

The left is already turning against standardized tests on the grounds that differences in math achievement prove that math tests are racist. How would they react if Carnegie’s tests were to show racial gaps in “empathy,” “communication,” and “collaboration”?

Even if "Carnegie could wave a magic wand, develop reliable tests, and somehow implement them at scale without political backlash," there's no reason to believe schools can teach these skills, Eden concludes.

Rick Hess isn't confident that educators know how to measure mastery of academic subjects and are willing to "hold the line" on learning standards. "We live at a time in which advocates of “grading equity” dispute the notion that mastery can be fairly judged, school systems have grown reluctant to issue bad grades, and fewer and fewer colleges require ACT or SAT scores."

Thirty-ish years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at an event discussing a school district's plans to add "whole-child" and "wellness" criteria to graduation requirements. They wanted graduates to be joyful learners and a bunch of other nice things. I said: "Imagine a student who's unhappy, unhealthy, hates school -- but he aces every class. Imagine denying this student a diploma because he's not healthy and joyful." A sort of groan went through the audience. "That's right," I said. "You wouldn't do that. You couldn't. So, don't say something is a requirement if it's not."

The idea was dropped.

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