Ignore The Test

It’s not “OK” for us to simply abstain from teaching kids to think simply based on the fact that we have to administer a test at the end of the year that’s expected to assess something as nebulous as learning.

How about a profound statement? Even if the tests went away tomorrow, very little would change in a lot of classrooms around the country, and teaching kids how to think would still take a back seat to teaching kids what to think. Call me cynical, but I don’t see a lot of teachers releasing their herculean grip from subject content in the name of teaching “21st century skills.” Why? Our education system has never been about innovation and adaptation; it’s been about perpetuation.

How do we reconcile standards and data-driven accountability with the “21st century skills” movement? The first step we need to take is forgetting about the test and teach kids to be curious while asking really, really good questions. I’ll never say that the tests are a positive, but I also won’t allow for them to be the scapegoat for why kids walk out of school without an ability to ask great questions of the world around them. Evidence? Multiple-choice tests existed in almost every classroom prior to the standardized testing movement, and they will exist long into the future regardless of what metric we use to assess student learning.

We also need to practice some serious introspection and ask ourselves what “21st century skills” are. I hear a lot of people boil “21st century skills” down to simply using technology. That’s a pretty myopic and cynical way of looking at the future of human progress. The truth is that “21st century skills” do have to do with adapting to new technologies effectively, but it has much, much more to do with being able to think deeply about topics, solve complex problems, and being capable of synthesizing information to form new solutions. If kids go through school unable to practice these skills, then everything else is for naught.

We kill curiosity in kids the same way that Sir Ken Robinson says we kill creativity. We point our fingers at standardized tests and cry out that they prohibit us from teaching the skills kids need, but we’re also not willing to accept that many classrooms wouldn’t be that different without them.

We, as educators, simply need to give ourselves a reality check on the messages that we send our kids that stunt their curiosity. I can’t tell you how many times I hear this comment and want to cringe:

Anything that we ever need to know in this day and age can be found on the Internet via Google or some other search engine.

Is that really the message we want to be sending kids? Do we want them to walk away from our classrooms believing that every, single question ever asked has been investigated by someone else and answered? What are they to do when they have questions that Google can’t answer? How, in those classrooms, do we teach kids to ask the really, good questions and solve the really complex problems that they will experience in their future? How is that statement any different from having kids select “A-E” without even getting a chance to contemplate “F” as the correct answer?

Throughout this post, it may seem as though I’ve ignored the very question that Scott has asked me to answer. Rest assured that’s exactly what I’ve done. The answer to the question is simple: start constructing lessons and classroom instruction around developing curious kids who inquire about the world around them. Ignore the tests. Until we live in a world where classrooms would look entirely different without the tests, we really have nothing to complain about while they’re here.

Aaron Eyler is a high school history teacher in central New Jersey. He has an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Rutgers University and is the writer of “Synthesizing Education” and (more recently) “The Democratic Classroom.” For his daily musings and rants, please follow him on twitter via @aaron_eyler.

9 Responses to “Ignore The Test”

  1. Why does everything have to be an either/or? If we truly teach children to think, then the standardized tests are easy for them. Process of elimination does take some thinking. But I do agree that we do not teach children how to think. It’s harder to assess and that it, after all, the most important part of school. (Said sarcastically).

    • You know Lisa, I don’t think it is a matter of either/or. I think it is a matter of resisting an imposed curriculum that was implemented for the sake of making life easier on adults.

      Standardized tests don’t measure real learning, but they are awfully easy to quantify into simple everyday metrics. It seems that intelligent and thoughtful discourse that explores the full spectrum of student-centered assessment practices that are necessary to measure authentic and lasting knowledge creation is beyond the attention span of policy makers and the mass media. It is also not valuable to politicians, at all public levels, because they are unable to boil it down to a catchy, vote-winning, stump speech mantra.

      We, as educators, have for too long supported this educational mindset and encourage our communities to value low level learning through our silence and our unwillingness (out of fear or apathy) to take a public stand against this sound-bite mindset. In doing so, we have reduced the perceptions of our profession to a low-level worker, more blue collar than professional, which can ultimately be replaced by a piece of software that won’t talk back.

      When we say through words and actions, “we are not worried about the test because it doesn’t measure real learning” we are really putting ourselves out there to public scrutiny. And yes, it is scary, but it is, in my opinion, what is best for our learners.

      It isn’t about either/or, it is about supporting what is best for students and ignoring or resisting practices that are not.

  2. I have a big sign on my door that says, ” if your students can Google the answer to your question, maybe you should rethink the question.”

  3. Schools have been reform-proof for decades, so I am glad that online learning is finally a force that HAS to be reckoned with AND has the potential to make learning more interactive, flexible and relevant.

    Excellent post…I agree with this whole-heartedly!

  4. There are some good points to your post. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Yes, 21st century skills are not all about technology. Tech is just the vehicle to help facilitate those skills. But, I disagree with ignoring the test. In Oregon our state test is pretty easy. Kids better be able to pass it. If they don’t then we are not preparing them with minimal survival skills. A football team prepares all week for their test – the game. During the game players execute all the skills they have been learning. If they don’t, they lose.

    Can our tests be better? Can they be more rigorous? Should they be more authentic? Yes, yes, yes. Should they be ignored? No. I’ll end the response by making this prediction: If a teacher is truly challenging students, explicitly teaching and practicing 21st century, skills, and accessing higher level thinking, then her/his students will have ZERO difficulties on a multiple choice, state test. Don’t sweat the 45 minutes it takes to administer it. Just do it and move on.

  5. Kudos, Aaron. About State testing: Here in Illinois we use as a major part of NCLB testing, the ACT. That’s right a college aptitude test used to measure high school achievement–a test designed to “sort.” And of course, by “2012” ALL students should be over the threshold of success…and all of the subgroups and… Oh, by the way…Success on the test is not tied to graduation.

    The bottom line, all we are “measuring” is reading and math, with a test designed to sort out “wheat from chaff.”

    What saddens me most is all of the hours spent remediating, meeting, teaching, and reteaching, identifying, screening…that could be spent on something much more meaningful and valuable.

  6. I agree that assessments can often provide opportunities for more thinking and learning. I agree with Jon; often it sounds like we have to “fix” what’s wrong. What we teach must be relevant. Should we ignore the tests and have students do projects on topics that they want to learn?

  7. I love the differentiation between “how to think” and “what to think”.

    I think that while the test is not the entire problem and certainly not the entire solution, the focus on results in magic bullet standardized tests will lead many to “write children for tests”. Why not focusing on education, on being able to ask good questions that google can’t answer, and look for solutions.

    There is a lot of content out there.
    Can students:
    -identify reliable sources.
    -identify classical errors in logic.
    -engage with people working in the same area.
    -geek out in a certain area, and share the knowledge gained.
    -identify their personal biases, and identify others interests in viewpoints defended.
    -ask and answer questions that test and identify key points of what they learned.

    The knowledge that comes from within, from the genuinely engaged student, remains. Artificial and irrelevant content that flows out of the students life like Justin Timberlake’s last album or a stale Nestle Crunch. Worse, it can function as a vaccine against genuine learning.

    Learning in itself is exciting, and the internet sets the stage for a new Victorian age, where ANYONE can push the envelope and explore new territory somewhere. This is an exciting time to be alive.

    Carrot and sticking teachers, students, or even parents over content isn’t the answer: it means we aren’t even thinking of trying to ask the best questions.

    Ignore the test, damn the torpedoes, and educate until they fire us all!

  8. Great thoughts. Many have written over the last two decades about the impact of technology on society, and in turn the implications for learning and teaching. The issue is centred around the central belief that outcome based education, though a curriculum that gravitates practice toward functional literacy is a civic structure, not just an educational one.

    Pedagogy, the shift to adopt not just new technologies, but explore better taxonomies to assess understanding presuposes that those outside education will clearly use new measures to determine employment and in turn socio-economic status.

    When the human resource machines find ways to value people, beyond simply paper qualifications (and not paper plus time served), only then will we see a civic move away from crude qualifications reliant on examination and inflexible academic writing.

    Society is highly resiliant to changes in social-capital, let alone displacing those who enjoy the encumbent privlidge of wealth.

    Coach the damn test — but dont pretend that covering content and recital scores will do anything more than get kids to college. They dont keep them there, nor do they reflect the need for innovation and creativity to solve the problems that future generations will undoubtedly face in the carry on with this brain-missing, yet convenient industrial age mentality.

Leave a Reply