By John Potter and Matt Willmott
Jay Mathews, in his piece, “A visionary’s final ideas on fixing high schools,” observes the work, style and inspiration of Ted Sizer in a nicely measured and appropriately enthusiastic way. For member schools in The Coalition of Essential Schools, the Ten Common Principles provide an extraordinarily reliable set of guidelines.
By exploring the considerable academic advantages of oral exams, Mathews is touching on one of those principles in particular, that of the importance of authentic assessment. Coalition schools often use both student portfolios and student exhibitions as assessment tools, and when these are applied optimally there is heavy emphasis on the oral components (presentation, fielding questions and engaging in discussion).
Authentic assessments such as oral exams have many advantages over standardized testing: they give teachers a more nuanced sense of students’ actual accomplishments, and they let students know that they are expected to be able to do more than pass a standardized test. Moreover, they affirm to students that the educational experience is one that cannot be reduced to or summarized by a simple standardized test. It is something much richer.
It is not uncommon to hear Coalition schools describe their pedagogy as “dialogic” — that is, involving an ongoing academic conversation among students, between students and teachers, and among teachers. The importance of an ongoing dialogic experience in high school is critical to an optimal learning environment. Students who participate in a dialogic model can feel a sense of ownership of their education; they see education as an evolving process, and they discover that, in that process, they have a voice and a role. In the end, they can emerge not only having the academic competencies one hopes secondary education will provide, but as self-aware, poised and inspired individuals.
Mathews is right. Finding ways to increase the emphasis on meaningful dialogue and orals could begin the essential transformation our education system so desperately needs.