“I Choose C” Is Not the Answer: Moving Beyond Old-World Testing

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By Kristin DeJong, originally published in Education Week.

Ask any dedicated teacher how the plethora of current standardized tests are working and the answer you’ll most often hear is simple: “They’re not.”

The joy of teaching and the fun of learning are disappearing because the world of education has turned into test preparation. Gone are the days when the P-SAT, SAT or ACT were the only standardized tests administered with college admission as the goal. Year after year, educators from all grade levels face an unavoidable issue–they’ll need to prepare themselves and their students for a myriad of state standardized tests.

Many feel that their students are over tested. Students themselves feel stressed by the notion that high-stakes tests will dictate their future. In some states, a third grader cannot move to fourth grade without passing a reading and math test. Parents are overwhelmed during “testing” season as they worry and question if their child is prepared, both academically and socially, to perform well. This is not healthy for our society or our educational system.

Restructuring Assessment to Support a “New World Economy” Classroom

Let’s be clear: teaching to standards is not the issue. Having common standards across the nation is not a bad thing. When moving from one state to another, it’s quite comforting to know that students are being instructed with similar standards, developing similar skillsets.

Testing is the issue. Quite simply, there’s too much testing, and the formats of these tests are outdated. From district progress-monitoring tests, end-of-course exams, and high-stakes comprehensive year-end exams, our students become overwhelmed by testing throughout the year, and far too many “check out” of their learning.

Standardized testing also goes against all the work we’re doing to shift our educational strategies to address the need for collaboration, creativity and problem-solving skills in the classroom. In an age where forward-thinking, progressive educators are trying to “ignite” a passion for creating a “new world economy” classroom, tests continue to be formatted for an “old world economy” classroom.

Rethinking the Multiple Choice Testing Format

“I choose C” is a joke many educators understand. Multiple choice, one-size-fits-all, “standardized” testing, defeats all the ideas aimed at creating active learners, not passive absorbers of information, in a new-age educational environment. Our students are anything but “standardized.” They’re diverse, with varied interests and learning styles. Not all learners perform well on a timed, multiple-choice, computer-based test; yet, that’s often the only option to demonstrate their learning.

How can we improve the system and ensure that students are prepared–that they become masters of the common standards? Short of eliminating standardized tests, there are some specific and deliberate steps we can take to simultaneously reduce testing and improve results.

Changing Our Mental Model of Rigorous Teaching, Learning, and Assessment

First, we need to prepare teachers to understand the value of consistent monitoring of learning targets and success criteria multiple times within a lesson. We need to help them become skilled at tracking learning toward standards-based targets, examining student evidence, and using formative assessments that align with the taxonomy of the standards.

If we find out at the end of the year or marking period that a student hasn’t been meeting learning goals, it’s too late to do anything about it. Progress monitoring must take place every day, throughout every lesson, so teachers can identify and address learning gaps on the spot.

Giving Students Opportunities to Demonstrate Authentic Mastery of Skills

Second, the most forward-thinking way to assess the true abilities of all students is through capstone projects that allow for greater student autonomy. Completing a research project (for which the student chooses the topic of interest) over the course of one or two years would truly demonstrate higher-order thinking skills.