Chuck the Tests- Project Based Learning is Better

We have effective, research based models for assessing student learning that do not rely on standardized testing. So why aren’t we using them?

A friend of mine recently got hired at one of the city’s performance assessment consortium schools. What is unique about these schools is that the students only take 1 test- yes that’s right, just 1 standardized test in four years of high school. So, instead of wasting valuable time on tests and test prep, portfolios of authentic student projects are used to assess learning and determine eligibility for graduation.

Also unique about these schools- Despite a population comprised of high numbers of English language learners and low-income families, these schools have far higher graduation rates than traditional high schools and an 91% college attendance rate.

How do they do it?

Teacher autonomy and “in depth” project based learning. That’s how.

I met a teacher from Brooklyn International High School at a workshop recently and wistfully listened as she described the year long  history and ecology project about water pollution she had designed with her students.  Meanwhile, in depth, interdisciplinary projects with real life relevance are few and far between in my elementary school because testing and data take priority over everything else.

Which begs the question: why can’t we have portfolio assessed middle and elementary schools too? Why can’t elementary schools apply for the same waiver these schools receive and use performance based assessment instead of torturous tests?  Especially when excellent progressive schools like Central Park East are under threat, why not use these successful alternative high schools as a model and give all schools the opportunity to choose project based learning over testing?

We know skipping standardized tests in favor of deeper learning works with our neediest high school students. And we know testing is far more cumbersome and developmentally inappropriate for young children than it is for teens. So there is no reason not to bring this successful model down to our youngest students.

If we really want to offer parents “school choice” we need elementary, middle and high schools that go beyond data factories. Alternatives like portfolios, project based learning and performance assessment should be an option for children of all ages- not just high school students.

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The Power of Play

Friday was the last day of testing. Day 3 of the math was brutal by all accounts and after 3 days of standardized sitting, it was clear to everyone who was paying attention that our kids needed to get outdoors.

So on Friday afternoon, I brought my class to the yard for some extra outdoor play time and discovered at least 6 other classes already at play. There were 2nd graders, 3rd, graders, 4th graders and 5th graders all outside in our giant schoolyard together.

It was pretty magical. There were mixed age games of kickball and football. There were races and climbing. There were kids acting out stories and kids running through the yard, holding hands in a chain.

One 7 year old leapt by me, exclaiming, “It is just such a beautiful day!” Another student ran up to me in the midst of a very intense soccer game to ask me if I knew who had discovered the earth’s magnetic field. “William Gilbert!” he told me, and then dashed back to his game.

A third grade girl quietly sitting by herself told me that her favorite thing to do during recess is to imagine fantastical creatures and then write poems about them in her head. Another girl ran up to me and said, “I figured out why we came outside instead of doing science- it’s because we’re using kinetic energy and sound energy when we’re outside and because of motion!”

Very little instruction happens during testing because the exams exhaust children’s reserves of stamina and attention. This particular day, all I did was monitor a hallway, and take 2 classes out to play. Initially, I had dismissed the day as a waste of time  because “I wasn’t teaching anything.” But it wasn’t a waste of time. Not because the test was worthwhile in any way. It was not. But because we played.

Kids need play. It is how they learn. It is how they process new ideas and become themselves. This is something study after study has shown- that children learn best through play, through social interaction, through exploration, through movement- yet we continue to insist that real learning happens silently at desks in front of “rigorous” worksheets.

Getting outside last week was a powerful reminder that play is not separate from learning- play is learning. We should be doing everything we can to make our teaching more play based, not cutting recess and choice time out of our schedules. And we should remember that play is never, ever a waste of time. Rather, the best teaching happens when students explore, make choices, use their imaginations, build and move- in short, when we finally let kids put their packets down, get out of their seats, and play to their hearts’ contents.

 

 

 

 

The Real Opt Out Movement

Teachers, parents, students and administrators all have been threatened with consequences for opting out and challenging  DOE mandates.  Principals have been force fed talking points on testing, teachers have been threatened by the chancellor and parents have been fed a confusing mixture of threats and misinformation to keep them from opting out- and more important, to keep people from questioning the top down directives coming from federal and state governments.

The real story of opt out is the thousands of people- children, parents, teachers and principals who wish they could opt out but do not.

I spoke to a parent the other day who told me she hates the tests, her son hates the tests and is miserable at school but they are not opting out because…

1.The administration has put a lot of pressure on parents around testing

2. Her son is worried about what his peers would think if he went to another classroom during testing

3. They are nervous about getting into a public middle school without 4th grade test scores.

All understandable- especially for low income parents with few options for middle and high school. Just like it is understandable for teachers with mortgages and families to fear speaking out. So many teachers I work with fiercely oppose high stakes testing and  wish they could bring creativity and empowerment into their classrooms instead of test prep, but they don’t want to put their jobs at risk. And I’m sure that there are school leaders out there who wish they could use their budgets to hire more teachers instead of paying for test prep materials and curriculum. Taking or administering these tests is by no means an endorsement of high stakes testing.

So for every family that opts out- know that there are 3 families who wish they could. For every teacher that speaks out, there are 3 teachers who would say the same thing if they felt safe. For every principal who writes a letter or stands by their school’s commitment to children over data, there are 3 principals whose positions are too tenuous for them to take that stand.

Whatever we end up saying or doing-triple it- because that’s how powerful this movement really is. That’s how many of us want to see the end of high stakes testing. That’s how many of us want teachers to be respected and nurtured- not sorted and punished. That’s how many of us want to see children learning more than ELA and math. That’s how many of us want to see creativity, community, collaboration and joy in our public schools. Opt out numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Untimed Testing is Not a Solution

 

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

Make no mistake. These tests hurt children. And removing the time limits has done nothing to change that.

She was not the only one. Many 3rd-5th graders at my school took at hours  to finish their ELA tests over the last three days. When most students take more than 70 minutes- can you really call it a 70 minute test?

Children should be challenged. But challenges should be meaningful, differentiated and developmentally appropriate. No matter how many superficial concessions the state makes, this is not meaningful, not differentiated and certainly not appropriate for young children. This is torture. Opt out.

A Child Opts Out

Yesterday was the first day of the state ELA test. I spent the morning in Pre-k with one 3rd grader who is opting out. Because of his struggles with attention, sitting still for two hours filling in multiple choice bubbles would have been torturous for him. Even so, he was a little embarrassed at first to have to hang out with the little kids while his peers were testing.

But that soon changed.

In pre-k, much of the day is spent in centers. Children choose what to do and who to play or work with and their options are multi-sensory, open ended and creative. Because of this, our pre-k classrooms are a learning wonderland. The kids are excited about everything- reading, building, sensory explorations, art, animals, singing, exploring shapes and counting at their “numberland” math center. Not only do they have agency over what and how they learn, but also, time in every day is devoted to cultivating valuable social-emotional skills. Which makes for some happy kids. So happy and motivated that they are  veritable learning sponges- absorbing and practicing new skills at an amazing rate.

So what did this third grader choose to do in Pre-k? He helped some students build a tall tower and explained to them how to make it sturdy.  Then, he observed bee and butterfly specimens and played with bug puppets.  I listened as he played and overheard a pretty high level conversation about insect bodies and how pollination works, reminding me that young children need time to internalize new concepts through play.

When it was time to go back upstairs to third grade he left reluctantly and said, “I wish third grade was more like pre-k. ”

Me too.

This is why we should all opt out. Because he’s right. 8 year olds also need play. They also need sensory experiences.  They also need choice. They need so much more than we are giving them. All kids, not just 4 year olds, deserve to be happy, motivated and engaged in developmentally appropriate learning.