My brilliant friend Renee Moore—who writes for the Teacher Leaders Network at a blog known as TeachMoore–recently asked a pretty interesting question in a conversation that we were having about No Child Left Behind.
NCLB requires that all children be at grade level in reading and math by 2014. What is "grade level" and why do we use that as a measure of student learning ( I know the textbook history here, but would love to hear any other takes on it)? Are there reliable, widely agreed upon standards for what the "average" child at each grade level should know? Should we even be using grade levels as markers of progress for student achievement?
This is a question that has been rambling through my head over the past two weeks too. You see, I’ve been doing a bunch of research on middle grades students—the level that I teach—-in preparation for a presentation that I’m doing at the end of the summer.
One of the things that I learned—-14 years into my career, but that’s a different strand—-is that early adolescents are anything but predictable! Cognitively, their brains develop at significantly different rates. Specifically, their prefrontal cortexes—-the part of the brain that controls organization, attention and planning—-is still developing.
That explains the organizational challenges that plague middle schoolers and drive their teachers/parents over the edge! Missing assignments and last minute completion of tasks is a result of this continued development—-not intentional acts of laziness.
It also explains why some of my students master content immediately while others need repeated exposures to content presented in different formats. Quite simply, at no time outside of infancy are humans so physically and cognitively diverse as they are during early adolescence.
So if early adolescents physically develop at different rates, how can we clearly define standards for "where they should be?" Are the hard targets expected of students and schools by many avocates for "reform in education" plausible? Or do they ignore what we know about human development?
While I understand the need for standards and benchmarks, I’m starting to wonder if they’re even possible.