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Nadworny: Outcomes

The word everyone loves to say, when it comes to education in Vermont, is Outcomes.

They wonder how we can improve student outcomes. They ask how we can spend less while maintaining excellent outcomes.

And it’s words like Outcomes that drive me nuts. Merriam-Webster defines the word Outcome as: "Something that follows as a result or consequence." Seems to me that translates the phrase “educational outcome” into something almost completely meaningless.

We have a group of school board members here in Burlington who love using Outcomes in everything they say about education. When you scratch the surface about what they really mean, what they all describe leads to the same thing: Standardized Tests. When they say we want to improve educational outcomes, they really mean they want more or better tests. The problem is that a lot of very smart people, like our Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe and education expert Diane Ravitch, are calling for fewer standardized tests. Some even suggest getting rid of them altogether.

As a community, we pay out-of-state companies a LOT of our educational dollars for standardized tests. We also spend oceans of classroom time, which also costs money, in preparing students for those tests.

Across the nation, the loudest proponents of those calling for more standardized testing seem more concerned with privatizing our public education than they are with our kids learning better. Since there’s a lot of money spent on public education, there are quite a few business people who would like to get their cut.

So I’m pleased to see the discussion on education in Vermont starting to define Outcomes as Proficiencies instead. That is: how well a student knows something and is able to use it. And measuring proficiencies is the precise opposite of standardized testing. Think of it this way: To get your Learner’s Permit, you take a short standardized test. But to get your Driver’s License, which allows you to drive alone, you drive with someone who actually measures your driving proficiency.

That’s what education needs to be more like: fewer tests, more proficiencies. It just stands to reason. In the real world, almost no one has to take a standardized test as part of a yearly review to determine whether they get a raise or keep their job. Private business and the free market have completely rejected standardized testing as a means of measuring proficiencies.

So the next time I hear a school board member, or anyone else, using the word Outcome, I plan to ask them what they mean. And if they say standardized test, I’ll ask them if they’d be willing to take one in order to keep their position.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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