Opting out only goes so far

Next week, most students in New Jersey will spend four days taking the state-mandated end-of-year tests.  But not Will Richardson’s son. In New Jersey, parents can legally opt out of the tests, and that’s what Will and his wife decided to do for their 12-year old son, Tucker. Bravo to Will.

Here’s an excerpt from the open letter Will sent to the school’s principal (the whole letter is available on Will’s blog post, Opting Out)

Our current school systems and assessments were created for a learning world that is quickly disappearing. In his working life, my son will be expected to solve real world problems, create and share meaningful work with the world, make sense of reams of unedited digital information, and regularly work with others a half a world away using computers and mobile devices.

* * *

At the end of the day, we don’t care what our son scores on a test that doesn’t measure the things we hold most important in his education: the development of his interest in learning, his ability to use the many resources he has at his disposal to direct his own learning, and his ability to work with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face.

If I lived in New Jersey, I’d do the same thing as Will’s family. But I’d take it a step further and pull my kid out of the system entirely.

Indeed, that’s why I’m opening Triangle Learning Community, a middle school for empathetic global citizenship opening in 2013 — because I believe we need to (and can) do far better by our young people. They are far too capable and too special to subject them to a regime driven by standardized testing.

Opting out only goes so far, because while Will’s son Tucker is opting out of four days of testing, the testing regime has far more of an impact on Tucker’s education.

Those tests influence his teachers’ ability to be creative. If a teacher finds that a class — or even a student — is passionately interested in a certain subject — say, the War in Afghanistan (which I blogged about a few days ago) — the teacher does not have the flexibility to allow that student to pursue his/her interest because “we have to move on to the next chapter.”

Why?

Because it’s on the end-of-year test.

Great teachers can squeeze in a few creative projects over the course of the year, but then they have to race to catch up on the material on the test, because those tests determine all sorts of things.

I had a great conversation recently with a math teacher at a private school. She’s also her school’s technology integration specialist. She seems like an amazing teacher, and she’s having her students do all sorts of great stuff in math.

But as the end of the year approaches, she feels the crunch because she has to get through at least 12 of the 14 chapters in the book. And this is in a private school, which is free of state mandates, but has self-imposed mandates using its own curriculum.

Why does she feel she needs to cover 12 of 14 chapters?

Because that’s what the other teachers agreed to at the start of the year, and the teachers for next year expect that all students will have “covered” that material. But whose interest does it serve to rush through so much material? And how much of it do students retain?

Instead of teaching students bits of information that we can test them on, why not help students learn what they’re passionate about? We can frame those topics so that they learn all the skills we care about — here’s that excerpt from Will’s letter again:

…solving real world problems, creating and sharing meaningful work with the world, making sense of reams of unedited digital information, and regularly working with others a half a world away using computers and mobile devices.  

Could you do all of those things while learning about the war in Afghanistan? I bet you could.

Could you also do all of those things while learning about the plight of the endangered honey bee?  Sure.

Let the students choose the topic, and make sure the teacher learning facilitator can help support and connect the student with resources around the world.

And make sure the student creates something.

At the end of the day, Will’s son Tucker could do something pretty cool in those four days when his classmates take tests. At the end of the four days, his classmates will have created nothing of value, while Tucker could have done all sorts of neat things.

But broaden our lens to look at the whole school year — what are students creating? What are they excited about? Are our schools helping them develop necessary 21st century skills while also allowing them to pursue their passions?

If not, why not?

It’s time to A) create learning environments that treat students as capable, and B) honor students as individuals. Standardized testing doesn’t do either job — and the effects of such tests extend far beyond the days of actual testing.

I spoke recently with a teacher who left the public school system in Chapel Hill — a very well-regarded public school system — to teach in an independent school. I asked him about how his new job is different.

He said that the main difference is that he gets to teach 180 days out of the year.

He said that a conservative estimate of the number of days lost to testing was 40 per year — about 10 days for actual tests, but more for “test prep” work and then a few more for “post-test review.” None of this is to enhance learning — it’s all about increasing scores on future tests.

And these tests do nothing to “measure the things we hold most important in his education: the development of his interest in learning, his ability to use the many resources he has at his disposal to direct his own learning, and his ability to work with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face.

We can do better.

I can hear critics saying “but how will we hold students accountable?  How will we ensure rigor?”

Here’s a novel idea — look at the work that the students produce and publish for the world to see. Look at the contacts they have made all over the world by working on projects and problems that matter to them. See what their digital footprint looks like (everyone has a digital footprint, right?)

If you want students to take a few standardized tests to measure basic competencies, fine. Students who do real-world learning should ace standardized tests — as long as the tests are reasonably well designed. Oh, and can we please make some of those tests open internet?  Like the rest of the world? (oh wait, that’s a whole different blog post)

Under our current system, the tests are driving the curriculum — and although opting out of four days worth of testing is a bold move and one to be applauded, we need to opt out of more. The system needs to change.

We don’t need students who all come out with the same number of credits in English and science and math — we need empathetic global citizens who can think and create.

Here’s a radical idea — let’s create learning environments that encourage students to think and create!

This does not mean we’re sacrificing rigor! Indeed, thoughtful creation requires both the lower-level skills (the ones standardized tests are good at measuring) and application of those skills in novel contexts.

Here’s something to think about: How often do students revise work after the test is over?

How often do professionals revise their work in the real world?

And how many revisions do you think students’ work might go through if they knew their work was being published to the world?

And what if, after they published something, someone actually responded, and they got into a dialogue? Wouldn’t that be cool? Doesn’t that sound like “working with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face”?

Are we in the business of helping students learn? Or are we in the business of making sure they perform well on standardized tests?

If it’s the former (and it better be), then we need to seriously re-examine these tests on which so much is riding. In so doing, we will re-examine our whole system — and that’s a necessary thing to do, given that our system was designed for an industrial age.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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