Op-Eds

We need real measures of learning

[This op-ed was first published in City & State on April 6, 2016.]

What’s a better way to judge how much someone has learned – hours of marking bubbles on a standardized test, or a semester-long project like building a robot, mastering a piece of music or a deep dive into a moment in history?

As a teacher, I know which one I would choose – the long-term process that allows a student to develop real mastery over the material, and then to demonstrate that mastery.

As the statewide “opt-out” campaign has demonstrated, New Yorkers have had it with the mania for standardized testing. But as teachers, we want more than just a new test. We want a new way to think about testing, a way to help students gain the real knowledge and skills they need. What’s more, we need a way to measure and demonstrate their progress in real time, unlike standardized tests whose results come back too late to be helpful.

At Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, for example, students still take the state English Regents exam, but the school is one of roughly two dozen city high schools that have won state approval to create their own graduation requirements. Its students must present original work in English, history, science and math by the end of 10th grade, and again in their senior year, in order to graduate.

The work could be a historical research paper, a literary analysis, a dissection of a mathematical question or a scientific investigation. And like a mini-Ph.D. thesis, Harvest Collegiate students have to defend their ideas in a public forum. To earn their diploma, they must finish four of these performance-based assessment tasks, in addition to passing the English Regents exam.

Teachers at Urban Academy Laboratory High School on Manhattan's Upper East Side – another school in the New York Performance Standards Consortium that has received state waivers from many Regents exams – teach drama not just by surveying playwrights or genres, but by leading the students through the process of developing their own stories and creating works that can be performed.

Are these kinds of homegrown assessment rigorous? In fact, they are much more demanding than typical standardized tests, requiring consistent, independent and creative work over months, rather than the weeks of empty test prep that now occupy the time of too many teachers and students.

And such assessments better prepare students for the real world. Modern workers are evaluated not by bubble tests, but by how they perform actual tasks and projects.

Is this strategy expensive in time and money? Yes, but there are ways to reduce its cost.

Schools and districts can pool their teachers’ talents to create libraries of vetted, online assessments that can be shared. And even added costs will hardly make a dent in a budget of $24.8 billion in statewide education spending.

The old Pearson standardized tests were the worst of all possible worlds. Weeks of classroom time were spent prepping for them, yet the final results were a single math or reading score that did nothing to identify a child’s strengths or weaknesses, and the meager information the tests did produce arrived after the school year was over.

The state's new testing company, Questar, is asking New York’s English and math teachers to help write new exams. Their input will no doubt make the new tests better than the old.

But even better standardized tests are not the real answer. As New York weans itself off its reliance on fill-in-the-bubble tests, it should be looking at strategies like projects and portfolios that cover an entire semester or even a year of work and offer a real assessment of what students can do.

Such a shift to more authentic assessments would be a solid investment in the future of our students and our state.

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