How do you know if you've learned something? Think of yourself and your own experiences. It could be in school or in college or at home or at work or at the beach or anywhere. Think about something you know and understand very well--how did you learn that? Think about a time when someone tried to teach you something--like how to wash clothes, or how to fix something, or how to download a file on a computer. How do you know when you have learned something? How can you prove that you have learned something?
Now let's look at our students (and our schools) and the question becomes, How do we (the educators) know that our students are actually learning? How can we prove or demonstrate that they have actually learned something? And does this "proof" really demonstrate learning; or does it merely give the appearance of learning?
Do grades accurately measure learning? Do tests accurately measure learning? Do performance tasks accurately measure learning? Can we use multiple such data points to measure true learning? Maybe we can. What if schools come up with a system of classwork and homework and written tests and verbal tests and formative tests and performance tasks and standardized tests; and we put all of the information from these multiple sources into a "bowl" and mix all of these multiple results together and then we make a determination of the level of learning attained by each student? Since students demonstrate true knowledge and understanding in different ways, this method would allow each student to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.
Of course, I am describing exactly the method that our public schools use to help us to make these determinations of learning. Often, sadly, the end result of this process is a single letter grade. So the challenge is, Does this single letter grade accurately describe the student's ability? When it does, we have succeeded in communicating real learning; when it doesn't we have only communicated the appearance of learning.
So the next question is: Who cares if the "B" or the "A" represents real learning or the appearance of learning. If a child receives the same rewards (such as college admittance), then it doesn't matter if the learning was real or perceived. The difference is, real learning is lasting and real learning can lead to future learning that builds on previous learning. The mere appearance of learning is fleeting. Eventually the student will reach a point where he or she will no longer be able to keep up the appearance of learning.
This occurs in our students' P-12 schooling experience as they move up in the grades. So often we hear parents say that they child did so well in school in earlier grades and was unable to continue to do well in later grades. Of course, there are many reasons for this to occur, but one of these reasons is the issue of actual learning vs the appearance of learning. This is a particular problem for over 50% of students that go to college. They get accepted to a college and they cannot complete their degree program (sometimes they cannot complete their first full year of college) because their P-12 grades gave them and their parents only the appearance that they were learning.
As a country, we can argue (and we do) over the purpose and validity of testing and grades and homework and course content and so many other aspects of our P-12 experience. I believe that such arguments are generally good for the democratic purpose and I hope that such well-meaning arguments lead to better schools. However, I would contend that such arguments should focus on helping our students to truly learn and attain knowledge. When we (for instance) argue against a particular test because we fear that it will expose that our students are not as able as we want to think that they are, I would suggest that that is the wrong reason for refusing such a test.
As hard as it can be for some of us, we have to be honest with ourselves and with our children. The goal shouldn't be to "win" at all costs. The goal should be to learn. School shouldn't be a competition against each other. School should be about learning--and only about learning.