“Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”
– Chinese proverb
Another reason why standardized testing does not work is because we, as humans, naturally pursue—and excel at—things we find interesting and relevant to our lives. Test prep does not inculcate this natural curiosity. If students have to know something for a test about a subject they are disinterested in, they will cram and then usually forget the information. (Ask most high school students, and they will tell you the same thing. In fact, if you had told me in high school that chemistry would be useful when I started cooking, I probably would still remember chemical equations. But as they had no relevance to my 17-year-old brain, I forgot the information as soon as the test was over.) Relevancy as it relates to memory is not just something teachers, parents, or students use to make excuses for why children do poorly in certain subjects—it is how the brain works.
Excellent teachers understand the practice of using multiple assessment methods and construct their lessons based on this concept, as well as the idea of connecting new knowledge to students' interests. Master teacher Misty Adoniou, for example, posits that “[i]f spelling words are simply strings of letters to be learnt by heart with no meaning attached and no investigation of how those words are constructed, then we are simply assigning our children a task equivalent to learning ten random seven-digit PINs each week. That is not only very very hard, it's pointless.” Her idea about teaching morphemes so that a child will write “jumped” rather than “jumt” not only helps students develop meaning about words and therefore attach relevancy to them, but also helps them with deductive reasoning, which is a skill that is transferable to almost anything. But most standardized tests do not test deductive reasoning; most are based, instead, on rote memorizing, like spelling, which will likely be forgotten.
So if standardized tests do not effectively evaluate what students know, what does? According to the Center for Teaching and Learning, assessments come in many forms, not just written tests—including activities or projects that require students to demonstrate an understanding of a topic. These alternative forms of assessments not only accurately evaluate students' knowledge, but also blend several learning styles together and give students specific tasks to complete—thereby creating a more meaningful assignment. For example, my mentor teacher had her seventh-graders perform a reader's theater version of a Langston Hughes poem for the end of their unit on the Harlem Renaissance. They were required to work in groups and used basic instruments, which served three purposes: learning how to collaborate, figuring out how to solve problems (which rhythm would best present the mood of "A Dream Deferred"?), and illustrating the meaning of the poem through their performance. Further, it addressed multiple learning styles and the assignment was meaningful for the students.
As another example, I gave my 10th-grade students a choice of projects when they were finished reading Othello; they could decide to create a "time capsule," create a soundtrack for the play, or design costumes for the characters. Regardless of their chosen project, the students were required to present their project to the class and justify each of their choices. Each project tested the same skills: Did students understand character motives and plot developments, and could they symbolically interpret these elements? Since students could choose their project, the project served different learning styles and interests, and the choice made the project enjoyable for students.
It would be difficult (if not impossible) to test soft skills like collaboration, tangible problem-solving, and the ability to justify with a standardized test, but alternative assessment methods can effectively test these skills—which will serve students well in the real world.
In Adoniou's words, standardized testing is not teaching. Nor is it learning.
Elaine Ferrell, guest blogger, is a GED teacher in D.C. and previously taught high school English. She also co-chairs an all-volunteer group of educators and policymakers that helps develop policies affecting low-income children and adults in D.C. Reach her via email.