A high school junior sits listening to music through Airpods while taking a reading quiz on “Their Eyes Were Watching God” for his remotely taught English class. Set to locked mode, his Chromebook does not let him browse other websites for help. That’s what the phone in his lap is for.
His sister, meanwhile, is a whirlwind of energy in the dining room, calculating demographics and studying traffic patterns for her post-pandemic city-planning project spread across the length of the table.
Welcome to the new reality of high school.
As we navigate the rest of this school year, it becomes increasingly clear that the teacher who is least equipped to adapt to the new demands of high school teaching is not the one with a slow internet connection at home; it is the one who has been teaching to a test that has been canceled.
In contrast, teachers who have been challenging students to design urban plans, perform complicated pieces of music, make documentaries, create literary magazines, test scientific theories can forge on. Of course, they need to work out logistics — for example, getting students’ remote access to editing software. But their projects have lost no relevance in these troubling times.
We are facing an unprecedented pandemic. We are also facing a once-in-a-century opportunity to reconsider how we do high school. We need to reconsider what young people need to learn and be able to do going forward.
For any of this to happen, we must begin by distancing ourselves from old ways, for example:
- Standardized tests as they exist today. We were only two weeks into this lockdown when colleges began suspending SAT/ACT requirements for next year. What say we suspend them forever?
- School rankings. They are all flawed. The formula behind Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index was laughably simplistic. U.S. News and World Report’s methodology is excruciatingly convoluted. More than flawed, they are toxic. They reinforce inequality and stubborn school boundaries.
- The 4.0 grade-point system. Toss it. It’s a relic of the 20th, no, the 19th century. The system has completely lost meaning.
Will anything be left? Plenty.
I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz before it had grades. Teachers wrote evaluations for every student. Now, that might not be sustainable in high school, where a teacher can have as many as 150 students. But, when we write college recommendations, we are asked to fill out something like the following:
The assessment tool above is not perfect. But, filling out a chart like this is easier and more meaningful than squishing every assessment into a single, clunky letter grade.
Don’t like this chart? No problem. I am confident we can create an assessment scale appropriate for the 21st century — a scale intuitive for teachers, helpful for students, and meaningful for college admission officers and future employers alike.
High school, of course, cannot make all these changes alone. Colleges have to do their part to help revolutionize secondary education.
I was optimistic five years ago, when the Coalition Application introduced its “digital locker” — a space where students could upload essays, videos, poems — you know, real work.
Unfortunately, it did not take long for juniors and seniors to get the message that colleges were not using the digital locker.
That was a shame.
Imagine a student retooling a presentation on “Their Eyes Were Watching God” knowing there was a chance a college rep from Berkeley might be watching it some day.
Let’s stop burdening our children and young adults with an educational system forged for a world that no longer exists.
David Lopilato teaches at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
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