Islamic Schools Under One Umbrella

Featured in: Islamic Horizons
Issue: March / April 2012

By: Samana Khan


Subhanallah, Muslims living in North America should be proud of their efforts in establishing Islamic education in the west. Early Muslim immigrants who settled in the U.S. and Canada quickly recognized the need to teach the basics of Islam to their children. Many individuals across the nation dedicated their time to establish schools, curriculum, and books to educate a new generation growing in the west. Alhamdulillah, Islamic education has come a long way from make shift classrooms in the basement of person’s home to over 600 weekend and 230 full-time schools nationwide . As immense as these accomplishments have been it is important that our efforts in educating our children does not stop here. We need to continue to dedicate our time and innovate ways to improve our past accomplishments. Many parents and educators alike have asked the question, “Where do we go from here, how do we continue to raise the bar of Islamic education?” To answer these questions on “next steps” two prominent educators have been interviewed, Dr. Tasneema Ghazi, a pioneer of Islamic education in the west and director of research and curriculum at IQRA’ International Educational Foundation, and Br. HabeebQuadri, M.ED, principal of MCC Full-Time School, educational consultant,author of Islamic literature for young adults and parents, and well-known public speaker.

Q: Dr. Tasneema Ghazi, you were among the first to establish Islamic schools in North America, develop curriculum for Islamic studies, and research and write approved Islamic textbooks, what direction does Islamic education need to take as we move forward?

A:  Now that schools and resources have been established, we realized that going forward we needed to create learning benchmarks in order to progress.  For example, when teaching secular subjects like math, science, language arts, etc. teachers are required to follow state and national standards while developing the curriculum.  Having an approved set of standards for each subject ensures that all students across the state and even nation are learning relatively the same content based on their cognitive ability within each grade. 

Q: Dr. Ghazi, have efforts been made to apply a similar approach in establishing curriculum standards for Islamic studies?

A: Yes. I have personally worked with a team of educators, researchers, and scholars to help develop national standards for Islamic curriculum.  We started by first finding the commonalities within Islamic textbooks from various publishers.  Then we looked for commonalities among Islamic curriculum from several schools in North America.  With guidance from scholars we created a curriculum map based on the data collected.  Eventually a set of standards and competencies have been created for Islamic studies subjects: Qur’anic Studies, Sirah (Life of the Prophet (s)), Aqidah, Fiqh, and Akhlaq, and Islamic Social Studies .

Q: Dr. Ghazi, how would you like to see schools utilizing the established set of standards and competencies?

A: Ideally the standards should be used as a guide when developing the curriculum.  Having standards ensures that all students, no matter where they attend school, are learning the same age-appropriate content for their grade level. 

Q: How can parents assure that their child’s school is utilizing this resource?

A: The best way to monitor if students are learning is by implementing an assessment instrument like the Islamic Studies Standardized Tests (ISST).

Q: What is the ISST?

A: The ISST is a standardized test that was developed by the same team of experts who created the national standards and competencies.  Test questions are derived from these standards and assess a student’s mastery of concepts.  Prior to implementing, the test went through a rigorous data and item analysis by Dr. John Wick, a Northwestern University Professor, published extensively in areas of psychometric, measurements, statistics and school improvement.  Currently, tests are distributed and scored by Strategic Measurement and Evaluation, Inc. (SME) headed by Dr. Denis Jarvinen, an award winning educator with over twenty years of experience managing the development of assessment material and analyzing data. Dr. Jarvinen is a recognized authority on facilitating test development and serves as the primary psychometrician.    

Q: Br. HabeebQuadri, your school participates in the Islamic Studies Standardized Tests-- why do you feel that this is important?

A:I feel this test is helping to move Islamic education in the right direction.   We need to start impressing upon parents, students, and the school community the importance of Islamic education.  Programs like the ISST can help equalize Islamic education with secular education. In many cases Islamic studies courses are often put secondary to secular courses like math and science.  

I’m a principal of a full-time Islamic school for a reason; it’s because I believe that Qur’anic studies is just as important as science, in fact in many cases the two subjects go hand in hand.   For this reason its my responsibility as an educator to put the same emphasis on Islamic studies courses that I do for secular courses.  For example, our school participates in the IOWA standardized tests.  We do this so that we can measure how each student is performing against other students in the class and how our school is  performingagainst other schools in the nation.  I think the same action should be taken for Islamic studies courses.  As a principal I find the data collected from a standardized test vital to making decisions about my school.  I want to know if my students are performing at the approved level for Qur’an, Fiqh, and Sirah just as much as I want to know if my students are performing at the approved level for language arts, math, and social studies.  

Q: Br. Quadri, what can the reports from the ISST tell you?

A:  Schools use the data collected from standardized testing in a number of ways.  The primary use of data is to track student achievement over time across different subject areas in relation to school curriculum.  In addition, test scores give insight into program and instructional needs.  Based on over all data, schools may choose to change educational material, redesign course curriculum, and update program planning.  For example, if scores are high in one subject area over another, schools may opt to temporarily reduce funding for one subject in order to pay for new textbooks for the low scoring subjects.  Standardized test score results also aid in petitioning for new resources such as up-dated computer labs, after school enrichment programs, training sessions for current staff, additional support staff (teachers assistants), or bringing on board educational consultants.  

Q: Br. Quadri, do you have any concerns about the tests?

A: Yes, initially I had a few concerns.  Though a standardized test is an  important instrument I wanted to clarify with my staff that it should not be the only tool used to assess student performance.  Teaching the deen is also heavily based on tarbia and experience.    Also prior to taking the tests I wanted to ensure that the ISST was not based on any one specific textbook series.  I was pleased to find out that even though several members at IQRA’ aided in the research and development of the tests; they took extreme precautions to ensure the the test is non-biased and can be incorporated by users of  virtually any textbook series.       

Q: Br. Quadri, In your opinion, why do you feel the ISST is beneficial?

A: In talking to other religious (non-Islamic) school educators I learned that it is beneficial for schools to have commonalities.  Schools with similar curriculum and standards make it easier to track student achievement, simplify the process of student transfer from schools, and aid teachers in working together to share ideas and lesson plans.   More importantly the ISST provides an individual and class report that can be used as an excellent tool to determine areas of  achievement or remediation. 

Q: Br. Quadri, in what ways are you working with the makers of the ISST?  And how do other’s get involved. 

A: Initially I assisted in the process of selecting the curriculum and textbooks from various publishers used as reference to develop the national standards.  Additionally, I met with several Chicagoloand principals to encourage participation in the test pilot program. Now that the tests have been in circulation for three years the makers of the ISST are looking to make revisions and requesting educators to get involved.  Currently two surveys are being put together to help test writers make the appropriate changes.  The first survey is a general questionnaire about the test itself.  The second survey is a detailed analysis of the curriculum standards in which those wanting to participate give their feedback on standards and competencies for each subject.  Based on the feedback received, the ISST test makers plan to invite a panel of experts including representatives from major textbook publishers, renowned educators, and scholars in order to revise curriculum standards and test items. The best way for others to get involved is to encourage your local full-time school to implement the ISST program.  Those wishing to be apart of the surveys should contact Dr. Tasneema Ghazi to receive a copy of the survey.         

Q: Br. Quadri, you are well known for your public discussions on current issues within Islamic education.  What message would you share with others about curriculum standardization.

A: The aftermath of 9/11 has left many feeling negatively about Islamic schools within America.  Several media groups have begun investigating Islamic schools based on false accusations that Islamic schools in America teach hate.  MSNBC conducted a two day segment trying to gain an inside view of local Islamic schools.  The segment was followed by an online poll that shockingly revealed that 33% of 57,000 voters admitted to feeling concerned about the increase of Islamic schools in the U.S.  This is why I believe that now is the time more then ever for Islamic schools to unite.  By standardizing the curriculum we will be taking Islamic education to the next level, as well as help remove any doubt about what is being taught in our schools.   When I heard about the Islamic Studies Standardized Tests I quickly jumped on board and encourage other administrators to do the same.  In order for us to see change we all need to work together towards a common goal.     

 As of last year schools from 14 states (including Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) have participated in the ISST.  These schools are taking a step forward to ensure that Islamic curriculum in the west is not only standardized but being valued equally to secular subjects.  They are being applauded by parents and educators for their efforts to advance Islamic curricula, and are being commended for their commitment to exceed the quality of Islamic education their students receive.