When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Reynolds. He would give us projects instead of tests, and would always say "In the real world, they are not going to sit you down on a Tuesday and give you a test."
That was 20 years ago.
Two days ago, I took my principal exam. Two days ago I heard a teacher relate that during her student shadowing experience her student had numerous tests and quizzes back to back. Every day I hear students talk about taking tests. Texas' new A-F Accountability is almost entirely based on STAAR test results, so almost every day, teachers feel a pressure- if not from administrators then from themselves- to address the test.
In the real world, they may not sit you down on a Tuesday and give you a test, but the test is everywhere.
Let's be real for a second- we need assessment. We need to evaluate learning so we can identify strengths and weaknesses and set the course for future learning.
But does it half to be true/false, multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank?
After my test and the discussion about how often students are tested, I took a question to my students- "If you could design your own assessments, what would they look like?"
Their responses were surprising, and at the same time, not. They relied on experiential assessment- activities and verbal communication and presentation. I have shared their ideas below, with some commentary.
Teach a lesson-
The students said that teaching their peers a lesson would demonstrate a greater depth of understanding than any written test could. They say it would allow them to demonstrate their learning, and even allow them to create questions for the class to review learning. I have used this in my US History classes and in Communication Applications. For the History class, the students had to cover content in the TEKS, but for Comm Apps, the standards were the presentation itself. The creativity and depth the students went to were even greater than they expected. If you want to talk about students owning their learning- this has got to be a part of the conversation.
Students said they have had some exams where the teacher questions you directly and in front of the class. Other times, the questioning is done privately. Labs allowed for practical knowledge to be actually applied, and demonstrations were helpful to learners who may struggle with the written word and complex written sentence structure but could eloquently present their understanding in a presentation. Students added that verbal assessments in general go deeper than memorization and also provides for group building. One student shared an experience where the verbal presentation missed something, and a student they had never interacted with offered consolation because "It happened to me, too." On the depth greater than memorization, the students said that presenting the ideas or performing the labs demonstrated a practical, and personal, understanding of the content.
Class discussions/Group Interactions
When students work together in groups, collaboration builds skills beyond the content. Students have to learn to work with differing personalities and bring different views together for cohesive presentation. Real world skills were prized in this view, and students said that class discussions can also lead to increased learning- but the assessment piece may be a little more difficult to pull off as a summative assessment, but as a formative or even a check for understanding, it is a powerful tool.
No paper, use demonstrations and movement. Imagine a test where you move around the room- stations that provide different forms of assessment. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic- one test, multiple modes of assessment. Science seems a natural fit, but most content areas use stations in some form or another, so adjusting stations to work as assessments is possible.
In closing, a few observations.
I asked my debate classes, so I was concerned that the high level of verbal assessment responses was skewed by the sample, but students did not feel this was unique to a debate class or communication minded students as they had heard this request from friends not in the class.
Some students felt that STEM classes needed a written test, or a lab. Others argued that verbal and project presentations were still viable means of assessment because scientists have to present their findings.
This observation hurt me a little. Students said they had had this same conversation about alternative forms of assessment in a bunch of classes- but nothing ever changes.
Ouch. When we say we listen to our students, and they say we aren't- this is why. Sure, we talk with them, but do we try to implement? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, but our students see that nothing ever changes.
You know what- twenty years ago, Mr. Reynolds had a mind to change things, but today, the landscape of assessment looks startlingly similar. Maybe our students are right- assessments will always look like they do now.
But I challenge my fellow educators to evaluate their evaluations of student learning with the same vigor they grade their tests. Can we do better- can we listen and implement changes?
I believe we can!
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.