Is Standardized Testing Failing Our Kids? (page 2)

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Updated on May 14, 2014

Enter a new trend in testing. While millions of school-children sharpen pencils in preparation for year-end state tests, a different method has students building, drawing, collaborating, and experimenting. It's called “performance-based assessment,” and it's based on the idea that kids should be evaluated based on what they can do, not their potential, or “aptitude,” for future success. “It's much more grounded in the application of what kids can do and what they know,” says Ann Cook, co-director of Urban Academy, a uniquely structured high school operating within New York City's public school system. “It allows kids to really use their skills and their creativity, and embedded in performance assessment is all the skills that kids need to move on.”

Urban Academy, whose student body is comprised mostly of minority and at-risk students, has a staggering 97% graduation rate, and most students go on to four-year colleges and universities. The school takes an egalitarian approach to learning, where teachers and students create an environment structured around inquiry and application to the real world. Instead of assessing student achievement through standardized testing, students demonstrate “proficiency” by undertaking a personal project on a specific topic. For example, for a science requirement, a student might pursue an interest in botany to investigate whether soil quality affects plant growth. Cook says that such assessments show how a student uses their skills to approach a problem, while standardized tests only tell you whether a student got a question wrong or right. “Learning is complex,” says Cook. “Assessment should be too.”

But while performance assessment may sound like the solution, the commitment it requires from teachers makes it a difficult sell for larger schools, where educators are already overextended. Standardized testing still presents the most efficient option for schools, and provides important statistical evidence for student strengths and weaknesses.

So what's the answer? According to Cook, an essential uncertainty over what defines successful learning lies at the heart of the issue. “People are not really clear what they want kids to do,” she says. “Are we really interested in getting kids to enjoy books and ideas? Because if we are, then we should be doing some different things. But if we're not interested in that, then we'll continue to give kids more of the same.” In other words, until we can decide what we want kids to learn, no method of assessment can tell us what we want to know.

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