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The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly of OBE
This article, by Ann Lahrson, was originally published in the May-June 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.


As a long-time parent of homeschooled children, I harbor a hidden past life, a life as a public school teacher. When I left public school teaching to live life as a homeschooling parent, I believed that I was leaving the public education sector forever, and I rejoiced. As it turns out, "forever" turned out to be about sixteen years.
Returning this year as a substitute teacher, I have found myself inside classrooms many times. I have seen the progress (and lack of progress) toward getting Oregon's Outcome Based Education Plan up and running and ready for full implementation two years from now. I have talked to teachers, looked at their classrooms, and kept my ear close to the media and legislative action.
Yet another opportunity presented itself, and I became an insider in the open-ended assessment portion of Oregon's Education Plan for the Twenty-first Century (OBE). This winter I worked with a team of teachers who scored open-ended math papers. From this mixed perspective, I discovered the good, the bad, and the deadly of Outcome Based Education in Oregon.
"Outcome based education won't change the way I teach," said the talk-show caller, "it will just change the way I assess what I teach."
Who is she kidding? I am still reeling from the impact of that comment. What does she think the point of assessment is, anyway? Why are we going to all this aggravation and expense, installing all these expensive programs, if we can have business as usual without them? Why didn't anyone call in to set her straight? Were their jaws still dragging in the dirt like mine was? Or did everyone else think she was right?
Yes, Oregon's Outcome based education plan, Education for the Twenty-first Century, the Katz Plan, HB 3565, The Oregon Educational Reform Plan, the plan with a thousand names, is a hot topic here in Oregon. Installed in a whirlwind-like, thought-free blitz, passed easily by our perennially in-fighting but apparently asleep legislature just four years ago, OBE slipped into law in Oregon without a hitch, with little dissent or discussion.
Oregon's Educational Plan for the Twenty-first Century, an expensive plan that was passed into law without funding, is scheduled to be fully in place two years from now. The education of Oregon's children will be among the first educational experiments of this magnitude since compulsory education was installed nearly two centuries ago!
Teachers and other school staff are overwhelmed and exhausted; they work frantically to create a new system of education while still carrying their full jobs as classroom teachers. Parents and students seem confused, and indeed, no one really knows how this great experiment is going to affect us all, and no one has explained it very well. Administrators, teachers, parents and students all seem to be saying, "Slow down! This is happening too fast!"
Many parents and students are eloquently speaking their minds in the one way in which they are truly heard. Students are leaving school in record numbers to be homeschooled. Others are attending private schools, which are full, even though new private schools spring up each year. And sadly, many teens who don't have those options are dropping out on their own, without a plan or a caring adult to help them on their way.
Citizens are alarmed. Of the eight candidates now running for the Board of Portland Public Schools(the state's largest district, with 50,000 students), no fewer than six would amend OBE, slow the process, or toss it out completely.
Even the legislature is responding to the uproar. Legislative hearings were held in January, and the public response was fairly negative. There is no doubt that there will be some kind of legislative adjustment this year. Many people believe that the legislature will act to delay the deadline for installing full OBE, and that there may be some changes in other areas as well.
So what is all the fuss really about? The teacher/caller was right: the keys to OBE that are causing the upset are the new forms of assessment: portfolios of student work; mandatory statewide open-ended assessment; and exit exams that will replace the high school diploma with certificates of mastery. I want to consider each form of assessment on its own merits, pro and con. I'll also consider the potential impact on homeschooling students.
Part I. Assessment by Portfolio
One element of the "new assessment" is the portfolio. A portfolio is to be a collection of a student's best work, or "masterpieces" that are saved for later evaluation. How the concept will be implemented throughout the state is not clear to me, but the portfolios I have seen so far are thick folders full of all kinds of paperwork, reports, and projects.
One plan for the portfolio is that it should include a videotape of every student. Several teachers got a chuckle out of this idea: who will pay for the video tape, equipment, and personnel to run the equipment? Where would these videotapes be stored? Who would want to view thousands of videotapes, and for what purpose? And who, I wonder, would control access to the videotapes? What would happen if students chose not to be videotaped? It would be a management nightmare!
Portfolio PROS
As a voluntary teaching tool, whether at home or at school, a portfolio can be a wonderful tool for assessment and evaluation of student progress. Academic progress is sometimes a slow process, and a portfolio establishes a means of easily observing progress over time. Parents can easily review and discuss work with the student. Students can gain a sense of pride in achievement, both from the work they have accomplished and from the improvement they have made.
Portfolios can be used to demonstrate a student's skills and understanding far more effectively than a list of grades or test scores. In fact, grading could be entirely eliminated, and teachers could write narrative student evaluations based on the materials held in the portfolios. Students might also write narratives that review their growth and progress, narratives that, along with teacher and parent evaluations, can help a student determine interests and strengths as they seek their next courses of study.
Portfolio CONS
If portfolios are mandatory, as under the guise of OBE, they take on a sinister life of their own, separated from the friendly use noted above.
I have grave concerns about state mandated portfolios, concerns that stem from these unanswered questions: Who will control what goes into the portfolio? Who will control who sees the portfolio? Who will control what items are removed? On what timeline are items added to or removed from the portfolio? If an item or test is placed in the portfolio against the students' or parents' wishes, what recourse do parents and students have?
Mandatory use of portfolios is a huge invasion of privacy. Grades and test scores, as obnoxious and invasive as they are, are far more limited in the invasion of a child's mind. Grades and scores are based on how well a child measures up to the standards designed by others. While the child may or may not measure up according to the standard, he at least is being compared equally with others.
A portfolio, being a highly subject collection of work, will be subject to wide interpretation. A student's mind is invaded in the sense that her skills, strategies, attitudes, beliefs, and opinions will be laid out for strangers to review.
Open-ended, mandatory assessments (see below) will also be included in Oregon's students' portfolios. Based on my experience as a scorer, I think that inclusion of some of thse papers will do students more harm than good.
The portfolio system is no more fair than the unfair system that is already in place. Portfolios will continue to favor students who are paperwork-oriented, and be disadvantageous to students who learn better in other ways, no matter how many videotapes are included in the portfolio.
If mandatory portfolios are to be used at all, the contents of and access to portfolios should be under the strict and sole control of the parents and/or the student. Teacher advice should be welcomed and encouraged, but the student and her parents should have the final say about what remains in a student's permanent portfolio, and who has access to it.
Impact of Portfolios on Oregon's Homeschoolers:
If we can believe our legislators, who assure us that homeschooling laws and rules will remain outside the public school sector with private schools, homeschoolers will not be affected by the state's use of portfolios in public education. This sounds good! However, in Oregon as elsewhere, homeschoolers have to watch both the legislature and the Department of Education carefully. Many times in the past, decisions have been made that were prejudiced against one form of homeschooling over another.
On the other hand, keeping portfolios for your students as an option might have some usefulness for your family. They are beneficial learning and assessment tools if used with discretion, and could be a helpful aid to entering the college of your choice.
Part II. Open-ended Math Assessment
Scoring the open-ended math papers was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. Yes, it would be pretty boring sitting there with a group of teachers as we read 40,000 math papers day after day, but it would bring me to the forefront of Oregon's new education plan. I could interact with the people who are making OBE happen, talk to other teachers, and get a look at how student work is being affected.
Besides, I was a little bewildered about this whole idea of open-ended assessment. How could students be expected to write at length on one problem only, and still be evaluated fairly? Frankly, I didn't see how this type of assessment could possibly be fair to students. I wanted to see it from the inside.
The problems I was to score covered mathematics topics that included reasoning ability, geometry, measurement, probability, numeration, and more. Each student was given a single problem at random, one of twelve problems.
Already you can see the unfairness of the assessment. For a student to be evaluated on one problem a year and to be required to have it placed in your mandatory portfolio seems grossly unfair by any standards. It would be the equivalent of taking a child's temperature once a year and deeming him healthy or sick based on that one arbitrary evaluation.
As a scorer, I was trained to score each of the twelve problems. Training included coming to agreement about what constituted an excellent paper, what constituted a good effort, and what to do when a student didn't have a clue. Every paper was scored on four different strands, and no student was completely penalized for misunderstanding or misinterpreting a problem.
A number of methods were used in attempts to keep scoring as even as possible. Each paper was read and scored twice; scorers read one type of problem for a period of time, but rotated through all the different problems on a regular schedule. Refresher training was scheduled.
We were given feedback on how consistently we scored within an accepted range of other scorers. This feedback had an interesting effect on me. It caused me to first rein in my scoring to be conservatively within the range of the other scorers. Then later I over-reacted and strove to be outside the range when I had any doubts at all about the score I was giving! I wonder if other scorers did the same thing?
Scoring guidelines (called the scoring rubric) were used, and we were trained to use them carefully. Still, I had a creeping feeling that by trying to be objective, we were trying to slice water.
On the first day, I read two papers that completely amazed me. I wondered if I had been wrong in my judgment.
Both papers were written on the Jogging problem. It wasn't a very hard problem, but since many eighth grade students are confused by the set up of this problem, it was deemed appropriate for this test.
The first paper was brilliant. Now, when I worked the problem in practice, I did it by traditional school math, checked my arithmetic, and I was done. But based on the given directions, I would not have scored well, because the directions required not just the answer, but a deep understanding of how to solve the problem, and an ability to explain my processes of thought.
The student explained her work and her thought processes in careful and interesting detail. The student showed how to solve the problem as I would have, and algebraically, and by drawing several models. She explained herself along the way, checked her work, and clearly communicated her mathematical understanding of the problem. I learned from this student!
The author of the second paper on the Jogging problem stated from the beginning that he did "not know how to solve the problem, but here goes..." He then selected a problem solving strategy and attempted to apply it to the problem. When that didn't work, he abandoned the strategy, and attacked the problem in a different way. It was clear from the way the student wrote about his work that he did not understand how to solve the problem and was trying a variety of methods until he stumbled on one that worked. That is exactly what happened. His third attempt resulted in a decision to try using a systematic list. He found a reasonable solution on his list, and was able to then extrapolate the formula he needed for finding an average. He was able to look back at the problem, check his problem for reasonableness, and explain what he had learned.
At the end of the paper the student wrote that he felt that the problem was both interesting and challenging and that he had learned a lot from working out the solution. And I agreed wholeheartedly. I had learned something important from grading the paper, too. I learned the value of writing about the thinking process, or otherwise expressing thought process. I learned that a single problem could be a good indicator of some students at some point, if only individually.
In short, I was sold on the open-ended math problem process, thanks to those two papers. The first taught me that no problem is truly trivial if you understand it thoroughly. The second reminded me that a single problem can be a powerful learning tool.
By the time I had finished scoring papers for nine days, I had many opinions about this new model of evaluating student work! I never felt that scoring the papers was fair or right. I just got used to the idea.
The most important thing that I gained from reading those papers that day was a clear conviction that open-ended math problems are terrific for helping kids develop problem-solving abilities. Here was a clear pro to some of the agenda growing out of OBE.
Open-Ended Math Assessment PROS
One advantage that I can see for the state-mandated open-ended math assessment is that recalcitrant teachers are forced to improve their methods of instruction. No longer can they get away with looking like good math teachers by simply turning their students into human calculators, or by coaching them through complex math books, giving them good grades, and calling that complete math instruction. The assessment should motivate teachers to be accountable to teach students thinking strategies, strategies that they themselves may not have or be comfortable teaching.
If the assessment were strictly voluntary, I would be pretty much in favor of this type of evaluation, even though it is often unfair to individual students. If it were only for internal use within a district or school, or even if it were a one-shot state mandate, it could be a valuable tool for self-improvement for students, teachers, and schools. Unfortunately, it is deadly if abused, and it will be abused if it is mandatory.
Open-Ended Math Assessment CONS
Any assessment that is both subjective and mandatory, no matter how well controlled, should set off shrieking alarms for anyone concerned about fairness, privacy, or quality of learning.
The students writing the tests knew how unfair it was to get only one problem, and then be judged solely on how they wrote about it that day. And if they got the Staircase problem, anger, resentment, and tears were known to erupt.
I'll repeat myself. A subjective assessment is deadly if abused, and it is abused and abusive if it is mandatory.
Students who want to succeed will "learn the formula" for scoring well on the annual assessment. The scoring rubric is visible in many classrooms, and I can foresee future "Math Assessment Study Groups" meeting to prepare kids for the annual event, just as SAT preparation classes are used today. And as usual, teachers will teach to the test.
Students who really work the problems and fully show their thinking are letting strangers into their minds. Should we really be teaching our kids that anyone else has a right to know what they are thinking? While the math assessment doesn't trouble me too much in this regard (who really cares what you think is the best solution to a problem), the assessments of other subject areas are more troubling.
It is impossible to protect a student's right to privacy and freedom of speech when mandatory writing is scored and kept in a portfolio over which the student does not have total control. Impact of Open-ended Assessments on Homeschoolers:
Again, if we can believe our legislators, who assure us that homeschoolers will not be required to submit to the guidelines offered by OBE, there should be no impact on homeschoolers. As long as the assessments remain optional, homeschoolers may want to participate voluntarily, and will probably be allowed and even encouraged to do so.
In Oregon, the Department of Education can write new administrative rules pretty much as they feel is necessary. If the Department decides that every child in the state should have a portfolio, I have no doubt that the rules will be rewritten, or new "updated" legislation introduced. Homeschoolers will have to remain vigilant, and guard against being brought into the fold "for our own good."
Part III. Exit Exams
The most controversial part of Oregon's Plan is the replacement of the diploma with two Certificates of Mastery. The first, the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM), can be earned as early as tenth grade. Students who do not pass the CIM at tenth grade will receive two years of additional training, training that will have a strong "career" bent towards a vocation. Students who pass the CIM at tenth grade will spend the next two years working to earn the Certificate of Advanced Mastery (CAM), and will also be required to focus on career options.
The CAM is the keystone to the system, and it is due to be awarded to students in two years. The CAM has not yet been developed. This fact doesn't bother some people, but it terrorizes many Oregonians, including many of the students who will be the first to earn the certificates.
The polarization among critics and advocates is extreme. Some educators believe that the CIM will be equivalent to the high school diploma, and the CAM will be equivalent to roughly two years of community college.
On the other hand, others see a dilution of academic excellence as the final end. Some homeschoolers, in phone surveys of out-of-state colleges, discovered that the California state system of higher education does not plan to recognize Oregon's CAM in place of the diploma. Whether or not California will stand firm on that position, or use that position later as a political weapon, is not known.
Because the CIM and CAM are under development, and no one knows what they are yet, frustration and confusion and distrust are running high. Some enemies of the CIM and CAM describe the OBE exams as an Orwellian method of controlling and forming social behavior.
Exit exam PROS:
As a person who is adamantly opposed to mandatory standardized testing of all kinds, I find nothing positive to say about CIM and CAM.
Exit Exam CONS:
Considered together, the CIM and CAM will function as giant sieve through which every student is to pass before leaving public school, whether she falls through on her own or is mashed through like so much applesauce. Folks, we need more than applesauce to achieve an educational advantage! Public educators have fallen for a methodology that cannot, in the long run, increase creativity or productivity. I submit that there has never before been a time when there was a greater need for diversity of instruction in the public sector, and that OBE will make students more alike than ever before. Impact of Exit Exams on Homeschoolers:
The CIM and CAM are expected to be an optional route that homeschoolers can choose if they want. For those homeschooling families who want to be in the same category as public schooled students, CIM and CAM offer that opportunity.
I worry that there will be well-meaning people who will want to make it very easy to point all homeschoolers in the direction of the CIM and CAM. Homeschoolers will have to be very watchful to make sure that these tests don't "accidentally" become the status quo for everyone.
Homeschoolers are still being reassured by legislators that there is not an intent to require the exams of them, and that new legislation will be written in such a way that private and homeschooling as we now know them will not be affected. We'll see if reassurance becomes guarantee.
Even a guarantee is no guarantee, though.
To Summarize
In one important sense, the teacher whose quote opened this article, who believes that the way she teaches will not be affected by OBE, is absolutely right. As soon as the spotlight of public attention has moved on from education, OBE controls will begin to relax, and much educational practice will drift back to old ways. Educators are just too entrenched not to revert when the pressure relaxes. Besides, OBE does not fix what is broken in public education. Until the true problems are fixed, nothing will change too significantly.
Until then, as long as alternative educational avenues remain protected, and home, private, and charter schools are permitted and encouraged, students and families will continue to be able to vote their opinion of OBE schools and stay out of them if they want to.
In some ways, OBE is little more than extensive interior decorating. Things will appear very different for a while down at the local school, but behind all the flurry of activity, and the new paint and window dressing, you will find the same four walls of traditional American schooling, warts and all. The true ills of American education will once more be glossed over, and American youth will continue to be confined, controlled, and manipulated within those attractively decorated, color coordinated walls.
Yes, in some ways OBE is surface paint, but, sadly, not in all ways. The biggest loser will be local control of education, while the big winner, the state, will have a virtual monopoly on the content and methodology of education.
The state tossed a bone to local communities. Site councils, school-based committees of parents and teachers to oversee instructional improvement, are to be established in every school. The site council will be hamstrung from day one, since instruction will be driven by the state controlled exit exams.
Local control will be gone. Local control will continue to exist, but as a figurehead. Decisions such as where and when to build new schools, raise salaries, whether to purchase Heath or Scott-Foresman textbooks, will remain under local control.
However, true control will be in Salem, determined by exit exams and other forms of state-mandated evaluation. Add in the many federal programs that override local control, and try to figure out what will be left to control locally. Whether to sell candy bars or pepperoni sticks to support the band? Oh, please.
We ruggedly individualistic Oregonians have lost our edge and and we have lost our vision. OBE effectively gives to the Oregon Department of Education, i.e., the government, complete control of both content and method of instruction through the exit exams, CIM and CAM. The tail will wag the dog. Control of evaluation equals total CONTROL. Period.
The cost of OBE, as measured by expense, loss of local control of education, loss of privacy, and loss of parent and student rights, will be staggering.
Yet, I still wax hopeful. Why? Because the problems of school that were there before OBE came on the scene will still be there after OBE is fully in place. Dare we hope that the added burdens and expense of OBE will drive a failing school system to collapse under its own weight?
1995 Ann Lahrson

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