I recently participated in a committee to score the results of student projects submitted to substitute for one of the state-mandated end of instruction tests. While each project had weaknesses, each also had great strengths. One student’s literary analysis essay was content-rich and demonstrated maturity and depth of understanding. The other student’s presentation demonstrated superior research skills and interest in the historical context of the literature he was asked to read.
By unanimous decision of the committee, both students were scored as “proficient” on their projects, which meant the difference between receiving a diploma and not. One of the students was a former student of mine, and I texted her English teacher as soon as I left the meeting to tell her the results. The student was waiting at school with her to learn her fate. “Wow!” she said. “I’m officially a graduate!” My next message was that she should be proud of herself for a great project. I also told her I was proud of her for not giving up. She almost did; many others would have. What she has that others don’t is a young son to support. “What I do, I do for him,” she says.
I understand the need to ensure that academic courses are rigorous, and I believe most are, but it’s no longer sufficient for students to prove themselves in the classroom. Students must now prove to lawmakers and public officials that they deserve a diploma by regurgitating disconnected course trivia on multiple choice exams. In the face of these accelerated punishments for failure to succeed on high stakes tests, many simply give up and drop out. The rewards just aren’t worth it to them. What we need to figure out is how to structure an educational system that encourages students to work toward accomplishing the rewards they do value. Trophies and medals just aren’t enough.