A tale of two boys

In the wonderful world of modern education, there is a very determined push toward constant assessment.  “Summative assessment” theoretically tells us what kids have learned from a specific unit/chapter/topic.   It is supposedly the “sum” total of their knowledge about said subject/topic/idea/book/whatever.

Then there is the newly popular “formative assessment” in which teachers constantly measure the skills/knowledge/mastery of each child in each subject/skill/topic/chapter/unit/standard/framework.

If you are laughing out loud right now, with tears running down your cheeks, you are probably a teacher.

The very idea that I can keep “data” on 26 kids in every subject, on every skill, every week, is beyond ludicrous.   I. Can’t. Do. This.

More importantly~ I don’t want to do it.


Well, not because I am lazy.

Because constant measurement and “feedback” to students using “rubrics” is not going to help anybody with anything on any day.

If you are not familiar with the term “rubric”, you are clearly not a teacher or a kid.  A rubric, you see, is the clearly defined list of expectations for excellence on every project, every assignment, every test, every presentation that a kid can complete.

A rubric is supposed to tell each kid what he has to do to earn a score of “great!”, “not bad” or “are you kidding me?”  A rubric explains what the teacher wants, and gives explicit directions for achieving each score.

Why, you ask, is this a bad thing?  Good question.

First of all: If I have to tell the children what “good writing” is on every single assignment, doesn’t this get in the way of their internalizing the expectations? What if I forget to write “fluent sentences”on a rubric: will they omit this skill and fill the page with sentence fragments or run ons?

Second of all: Kids are supposed to learn out of a love of learning. Out of curiosity and intellectual interest.  When we give them a rubric for every single endeavor, they only strive for success in order to please us.

So where is creativity?  Where is the “out of the box” thinking that is supposedly so desired in the 21st century?  Where?  It’s gone; replaced by a score of 10 out of 1o on the damned rubric.

Finally: The scores do NOT reflect the success or failure of the child.

I give you, my friend,  The Tale of Two Boys.

Boy #1 is the blond, winsome, very bright son of upper middle class parents.  Dad is a lawyer.  Boy #1 is funny, popular, athletic.  He is a very advanced reader with a wonderful vocabulary.  He opens a book every time there is a moment of unstructured time in our classroom.

Boy #2 is the happy, handsome son of Guatemalan immigrants. He struggles with English, although he has been in the US since shortly after his third birthday.  He has difficulty with abstract concepts and does not see himself as a student. He often tries to use humor to deflect his insecurity about his intellect.

I have worked with both boys all year long.  I have done my best to encourage both of them to take some academic risks, to challenge themselves, to ask good questions. I have tried again and again to get each of them to reach beyond his comfort zone.

It is now April of fifth grade. Boy #1 continues to rush through his art (“I stink at this”) and tune out during math (“This is hard.”)  He refuses to take on any challenge, and consistently seeks the easiest version of every assignment.

Boy #2, in contrast, has stopped asking his classmates how to spell every word. He has asked to read harder books.  He raises his hand to ask good questions in math, and sometimes starts his answers by saying, “Well, this is just a guess, but…..”

Test scores and rubrics will show us that Boy #1 is a thriving and successful fifth grader, while Boy #2 is barely at grade level in most subjects.

But who is the real “student”?  Who is the problem solver, the critical thinker, the one who dares to take a risk?

No rubric that I know of will show me what I know.  Boy #1 is at risk of peaking in the seventh grade. He makes me sad because he is wasting his natural gifts by avoiding every challenge.  Boy #2, in contrast, has grown in confidence so much this year that he is my “most improved player”.  I believe in his future, in his ability to achieve his dreams.

Because, you see, Boy #2 can see some dreams!!

Boy #1 can sees only potential failure.

Where is the rubric/assessment/test that can show me that incredibly significant difference?


4 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting – a bit like the tale of “The Hare and the Tortoise”


  2. MY high school student used the word rubric to me a couple of years ago and had to tell me what it was…..and he sneered as he told me. He is an A student so the issue is not in the testing…it is in the emphasis on the testing…not the teaching.


  3. Posted by Lisa Williams on May 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    I have had the same experiences with these two types of kids, and you are spot on with your view. The same can be held true with those kids who are “labeled” at risk, Title One, etc. A student I had in 3rd/4th grade was this kid. He struggled in reading, which led to struggles in other areas, but his work ethic was great and his attitude was “I will do this”. I encouraged and guided him into challenging himself telling him to keep trying and doing his best, things will happen. His parents were supportive as well. He is finishing up his 10th grade year and is an honor role student, great kid, and has always done his best even though the struggle can haunt him. I went to his 8th grade graduation and was so proud (in tears) when he received an award for the “All A Honor Roll” for the year. You’re right… no rubric will show that innate desire for learning…


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