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Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Mastery Need Not Be Accountability Trade-Off

May 15, 2007 1 min read

To the Editor:

In his recent Commentary, Joseph DiMartino tempers his compelling argument for the benefits of demonstration over measurement by suggesting that mastery is a trade-off for accountability (“Accountability, or Mastery?,” April 25, 2007). But perhaps the problem is simply with our definition of accountability—whom are we holding accountable to whom?

Our accountability system allegedly benefits taxpayers, assuring us that schools are using our money well. Standardized tests reduce the complex phenomenon of student learning to neat little numeric packages that allow us to say who is winning and losing. But the test-makers and even the No Child Left Behind Act acknowledge that these tests alone are insufficient to judge student or school performance. Yet that is exactly how we use them.

While standardized-test scores are portrayed as “shining a light” on schools, they actually add to the mystification of student achievement. What does an 800 on California’s Academic Performance Index really tell us about a school or why that represents success, while a slightly lower number may indicate a need for improvement?

As Mr. DiMartino makes clear, demonstrations of mastery allow students to show us what they know and can do. If we define accountability as being to our students and parents, then a system that requires public demonstrations of mastery can meet both of Mr. DiMartino’s goals. This requires the unremarkable belief that our teachers, parents, and communities are able to recognize well-prepared, capable students when they see them in action.

This month, the Coalition of Essential Schools is celebrating its National Exhibition Month, when more than 100 schools in 25 states will open their doors and invite parents, community members, and other outside experts in to join teachers on panels evaluating student performance assessments.

These “jurors” will see firsthand how well their schools are doing, and teachers will have real-time feedback that can lead to improvement in instruction. Most importantly, our students will have been engaged in authentic learning that is both rigorous and relevant.

Lewis Cohen

Executive Director

Coalition of Essential Schools

Oakland, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as Mastery Need Not Be Accountability Trade-Off

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