On this Tuesday morning, 21 members of the second grade class at Greenvale Park Elementary sat with straight backs and quivering fingers behind rows of computer screens. For one full hour, they filled in bubbles as they scoured paragraphs and diagrams for metaphors and perimeters. Some lost focus–beginning to dream of the fresh May breeze and the call of the four-square court. Others powered through problem after problem, fighting test day nerves and competitive expectations. Today was a Tuesday for the MAP test. A part of the Northwest Evaluation Association, the Measure of Academic Progress tests Reading, Mathematics, and Science. Unlike other standardized versions of testing, this electronic test adjusts to the skill level of each student–offering increasingly difficult problems after each correct answer and less difficult problems following incorrect responses (MAP). However, despite this progressive format, the pressure remains palpable. After an hour of complete concentration, the kids are turned out to play–frolicking across the playground at impressive speeds. When they have run out a significant burst of pent up energy, they begin an outdoor lesson on measurement. Clambering on the playground in groups of two, the students find objects that are 9 inches in perimeter, then 41 centimeters in length, and finally 100 cm tall. All the while they run back and forth and enjoy the Spring air–learning from their surroundings as they explore inches with dirty fingernails.
Watching the second graders I have come to know so well over the past year unravel tape measures excitedly and later return to their classroom to play a fraction game with shaded cards, I believe that for most of them more has been learned by actually physically experiencing basic mathematical skills than by taking the MAP test. Inspired by the alternative learning environment often provided for the second graders at Greenvale, the use of authentic assessment and problem based learning in Montessori and Waldorf ideologies, and the desperate need for higher thinking American citizens of the future, I have begun to imagine what a new system of student evaluation could mean.
Bombarded with the stress of frequent tests given by individual teachers, varied statewide testing beginning at age eight, and high stakes nationwide testing that plays a large role in opportunities for life after eighteen, it’s no wonder American parents have become obsessed with making sure their children are “prepared” for the thousands of scantron bubbles that await them. Affluent parents cumulatively spend millions of dollars getting help outside of school for their children, while students without this extra aid may struggle to stay at grade level. In standardized testing, the achievement gap in America is made distressingly obvious. With laws and regulations like” No Child Left Behind”and the more recent “Race to the Top“, standards for teacher and student achievement are expressed through test scores. If a school fails to meet provisional test scores or improve in several subject areas of a standardized test, it is deemed a “failure” and forced to close. Teachers who can get their students to crank out certain scores often receive raises (as was the case in the D.C. district of Educational Chancellor Michelle Rhee.) The idea is not a bad one–requiring all students to take the same tests across the nation with the idea that this will make sure they are all getting an adequate level of education and the skills they will need and deserve. The theory of standardized testing is one that seeks to level the playing field. However, riddled with pressure and scoring that often doesn’t transfer to complete understanding of material, the sphere of testing that surrounds our current educational system may do more harm than good.
Standardized testing today is filled with horror stories. Stories of children cemented in their chairs for four hours at a time, breaking down in tears as they fail to finish within the time limit. Stories of teachers who spend months preparing students for unpredictable equations and sentence structure assessments, trying to incorporate fun into lessons without compromising results, only to find that many of their students are not making the expected progress. Consequently, their jobs are put on the line. Despite the loss of creative lessons and material taught beyond what the nation deems necessary, “teaching to the test” becomes a very understandable strategy. In test scores and student achievement, the teacher is held accountable. And so, the issue I struggle with in the creation of my ideal school system is how to give teachers the opportunity to teach and test creatively and intuitively, trusting them to assess students in multiple dimensions, while also requiring them to meet some form of admittedly necessary national standards that ensure an equal educational opportunity for all. In a system where so many students are under-served by their districts and teachers, reformed national standards might assure a more informed accountability.
Ideally, I believe each student should be evaluated in a series of portfolio assessments. This allows students to learn basic skills in individualized ways–embarking on personal projects that make learning more meaningful. As an institution without limits, this is an assessment model I have chosen for my Utopian school. Embracing the principles of Waldorf and Montessori education, a day at my ideal school includes lengthy structured periods of intensive and creative individual work time. From an early age, students begin to explore their personal learning styles as they latch on to strategies that work best for them. As they progress through grade levels and classrooms, they are able to utilize their personal learning styles in an open environment that expects these styles will consistently expand–informed by new projects, peers, and continued assessments. Portfolio assessments, though time consuming for the teacher, allow a more complete understanding of each student. Juxtaposing papers, artwork, discussion, and group projects, a teacher gets a true sense of how well a student understands a concept and where his or her personal strengths lie. This well-rounded form of assessment allows teachers to interact with students on a new level–catering to their passions and encouraging them to hone these passions as they move toward future careers. As a result, students receive more personalized encouragement and will be more motivated academically. Instead of receiving a numerical grade on a multiple choice test, students receive extensive feedback about a more cumulative representation of their knowledge. Students in this form of assessment are able to pursue their interests at their own speed and level without being separated into different “tracks.”
Beyond portfolio assessment, students in my ideal school are expected to learn from and evaluate one another. In my own experience and research, I have come to believe in the concept of democratic education. When students stand up in front of a class and teach a lesson, they acquire a valuable responsibility to their education. In many cases, the fear of “failing” in front of peers is greater than the fear of failing a traditional test. By giving students the opportunity to choose text for English classes, controversial events to debate in History, or the choice of which animal to dissect in Biology, we allow them to invest in their curriculum. A structure of content is necessary, but it should be flexible enough to allow students to have a say. In assessing one another through the use of supplementary peer evaluations, students learn to be honest without being cruel, and benefit from the careful advice of fellow classmates. Furthermore, the ability to compromise, confidently speak in public, and build a connecting mind are all potential benefits of democratic education.
In addition to portfolio based assessment and semi-frequent democratically taught lesson plans, students in my Utopian school will participate in “authentic assessments.” Used in many charter schools , these assessments are given as basic concepts (reading, grammatical understanding, general mathematical principles etc.) are simultaneously explored. They serve as a way to apply what has been learned rather than regurgitate it. By offering authentic assessment alongside lessons providing background knowledge, we avoid the problem of throwing students into the challenging environment of authentic assessment without the basic skills necessary to be successful. Authentic assessments might include such experiences as writing to local government representatives, presenting a mock trial, or somehow becoming civically engaged in the community. This idea of civically engaged students is one that is central to my Utopian school. As I have waded through positive and negative examples of education and learning, I find that the best schools are those that erase the line between the community and academia. (This expectation of engagement, activism, and applied local problem solving will be covered in the next part of this series.)
Though the achievements of alternative assessment are one of the most important goals for my Utopian school, students must also be prepared for national testing. In my ideal education system, this testing mirrors the MAP testing I have researched–altering to fit the skill level of each student as they go through the motions of taking the test and to decrease anxiety. This is a benefit that comes with the information era and increasing presence of technology in the education. In my ideal system, the content of these national tests is based on an expertly crafted group of Core Standards. Like the Core Standards already developed in our current education system, my ideal core standards stress “real world” learning and the achievement of certain skills by specific grade levels. They allow teachers to reach these “real world” criteria in any way they choose, but also provide an optional curriculum that has been proven effective. Instead of pushing “real world” assessment and lesson plans in high school, my ideal core standards begin this application from first grade and continue it at every grade level. These standards are constantly evaluated and discussed–revised in panel meetings that range from the local to the national level.
This brief outline of testing in an imagined school by no means accounts for all of the complexities of assessment in the education system. It is a glimpse of what testing could mean. It is the beginning of a dream. In the expanding corners of my mind, a system where students might be tested through portfolios, authentic assessment, and a fairer version of nationalized testing is a system students are more likely to feel invested in and proud of. As I move on with my own version of a project-based portfolio assessment for a major I created at a college that allows me to democratically mold my own education, I hope that my experiences and input will in some way, no matter how small, pave the way for progress.