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Connect Learning to Life, NOT Tests

The third through eighth grade students of New York survived another round of annual state testing in ELA and Math (if they didn't opt-out) and now the "normal" learning resumes.

As a parent and a teacher of predominantly upper-aged high school students, I know all to well the stress of the testing season on students and their teachers.

Too much is tied to the outcomes of these tests and not enough time is spent really focusing on what is important. Sadly, many teachers are "encouraged" to spend large quantities of their learning time prepping for these tests which is antithetical to actual learning.

If we can all agree that learning should be about the mastery of transferrable skills and knowledge, then this testing culture misses the mark completely. Accountability is important, but if we can't we all agree that testing doesn't accurately show what kids know and can do?

How can it?

Tests are a mere snapshot of a day, designed to try to trick students into not doing well. The students who succeed don't necessarily do so because they are the brightest or know the most.

Plus, testing isn't a part of everyday life once schooling has ended.

Honestly speaking, how many times have any of us adults had to endure standardized testing in our post-graduate lives?

Aside from National Board Certification (which was my choice) and my professional certification testing at the beginning of my career (13 years ago), I have not had the stress of sitting in a room with a clock and a proctor, letting someone else's judgment determine my fate. In addition to that, my results didn't negatively impact anyone else.

My successes or failures were my own and no educator was at the peril or helm of what I could create for myself.

As educators, we need to shift the focus back to what is important NOT the tests. What is important is teaching students that learning is connected to their lives and their futures. It's connected to future learning and potential careers and interests. This is our task as teachers.

Here are ways to ensure learning isn't about a test in your classroom:

  • Avoid telling students that the reason they are learning something a certain way or at all, to help them do better on a test. Instead, teach them what needs to be taught and connect it to some real-world application. For example, "you will need to read for meaning in a newspaper to understand the world's news and how it impacts, the markets or global economy to better support your livelihood."

  • Spend time in class allowing students to practice skills at their own pace for as long as it takes until mastery or at least proficiency is achieved.

  • Give students alternative forms of assessment where they control "the how" of what the product looks like. Skills don't have to look the same in life. As a matter of fact, there are many ways to accomplish almost every task, and the more creative the person, the more innovative the solutions. Project-based learning is a great way to do this.

  • Avoid using rote learning or memorization in classes as this doesn't transfer if students only know how to do something in one context, in one way -

  • Always help students connect the skills they are learning to something they can relate to outside of school wherever possible.

  • If testing MUST be done, de-emphasize its importance, helping students understand that they aren't stupid if they don't do well. The test is just one way of gathering data and often a necessary evil in school. Make sure students know that.

The testing culture has eroded the joy of learning in many school cultures, replacing that excitement with earlier onset of heavy levels of stress. Education should be about curiosity and discovery, not about bubbling and multiple choice.

In what ways have you counter-acted the testing environment? Have your students thrived? Please share

This post originally ran on my Ed Week Teacher blog in April 2015

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