George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Borobudur Temple is a ninth century temple built in the architectural style of the Gupta Empire which flourished in India from approximately 320 to 550 CE.

With few exceptions, all the things our children are using to connect and learn outside the classroom -- social media, cell phones, Internet connections -- are banned inside classrooms. In my kids' case (and they have more access than many), school is the only place in their lives where they can't use the technology they carry around in their pockets and backpacks to answer questions.

The only place. Why is that?

Those of us who have shifted our learning lives to online networks and communities know the potential power that resides there. Education author Jay Cross says, "Knowledge is moving from the individual to the individual and his contacts." That couldn't be truer in this abundantly networked world. It's not what I know, it's what we know. And my reality is that I would suddenly become much dumber if you told me I had to disconnect when seeking answers or solving problems.

This Will Be on the Test

Remaking assessment starts with this: stop asking questions on tests that can be answered by a Google search. Or, if you have to ask them, let kids use their technology to answer them. More often than not, we ask questions that can be easily answered by technology. That is unfortunate.

Take a quick look at any of the state standardized tests for graduation, and you'll see more of those than you can imagine.

For instance, from the New York State Regents global history and geography test:

"Which geographic feature impacted the development of the Gupta Empire?"

No lie, this was a question every potential graduate in New York State was supposed to answer in 2011. I'm not sure about you, but I'd never even heard of the Gupta Empire.

The answer choices were: a) island location; b) volcanoes; c) monsoons; and d) permafrost.

Let's be serious for a second. Can you think of any reason why this little tidbit would be important for your son or daughter to have stored away in his or her brain, aside from needing it for the test? And if I announced that I had a free iPad for the first person who emailed me the correct answer, what would you do right now?

I don't even have to answer that. 
These are the questions we ask when we're operating as if information were scarce. Our tests are loaded with questions whose answers almost everyone is guaranteed to forget as soon as the test is over. I'm not saying there might not be some profound learning we can take away from the story of the Gupta Empire (which was, according to Wikipedia, an Indian dynasty that was the model for classical civilization). But I am saying that we don't take anything away from answering a question like that, except for wondering whether we got it right or wrong. (The correct answer for the question above, by the way, is c) monsoons.)

The effects of assessments like these have implications far beyond their impact on our students. The problems with standardized tests are summed up quite well by Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon:

By imposing upon schools and teachers unrealistic, meaningless, and arbitrary goals, high-stakes testing has corrupted the spirit of American education, intoxicated the education environment, and demoralized educators. By forcing schools and teachers to teach to the test, it has narrowed the educational experiences of millions of children and thus deprived our children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, of a real education. It has wasted valuable, precious, and dwindling public funds that could have been put into educating rather than testing our children. It has generated unnecessary fear, anxiety, and loss of confidence in our children. It has distracted us from addressing the real challenges facing education today: poverty, globalization, and technological changes. It has taken away the opportunities and resources for exploring innovations that may lead to true improvements in education. But most importantly, it has eroded the traditional strengths of American education that have made America the world's center of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and democracy.

Performance-Based Assessments

Instead, let's make sure that at least some of the questions we ask our students on assessments require them to tap into the vast storehouses of information that reside online as well as the networks of people who can help them sort out the answers. For instance, what if we asked (and only if it were worth asking), "In what ways have the inventions and works of the Gupta Empire had an influence on our modern culture?" That's a bit different from making a choice from a list. It would require an ability to think critically about the world. And it would be most complete if it also tested for a student's ability to access the resources and experts now available online.

In other words, let's scrap open-book tests, zoom past open-phone tests asking Googleable questions, and advance to open-network tests that measure not just how well kids answer a question, but also how literate they are at discerning good information from bad and tapping into the experts and networks that can inform those answers. This is how they'll take the real-life information and knowledge tests that come their way, and it would tell us much more about our children's preparedness for a world of data abundance.

Let’s also shift our assessments of students' mastery to ones that examine mastery in action. Performance-based assessments, where students actually have to do something with what they know, tell us volumes more about their readiness for life than bubble sheets or contrived essays.

No question, these types of assessments are more inefficient, subjective and time-consuming than the traditional variety. But they're worth it.

This is an excerpt from Will Richardson's new TED e-book, Why School?

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Alyson's picture

We need to change the current system of testing students. It is important to test students to monitor their progress and to hold teachers accountable. However, we need to change the testing process. I think performance assessments should be used. Performance assessments help us to evaluate the process and the products. If we fail to change our testing system, I think that students will not grow to become life long learners because they will only focus on mastering material to pass the test.

Sejarah's picture
middle school history teacher

I agree that assessments should reflect the new availability of information. And perhaps evaluating sources will help to keep students from confusing the juxtaposition of images on the web with the reality of place and time. For example, a student might go to the Wikipedia page on the Gupta Empire and find a picture of Borobudur to illustrate their essay without noting that Borobudur, built some 300 years after the end of the Gupta Empire, is located in Java, Indonesia. Islands, volcanoes, and monsoons, but no permafrost.

Srdjan Verbić's picture
Srdjan Verbić
sci edu advisor, researcher and writer

This Google argument is excellent! It is in my toolbox already.

Amanda's picture
High school social studies teacher

I like the idea of the using more performance based assessment. It lets the student direct their learning more, keeping them more motivated. The biggest issue for me is that the school I teach in shares two computer labs. How do I move forward with this more investigative style of learning with such limited access?

Lucas VL's picture
Lucas VL
High School English Teacher

This blog post offers an excellent reminder of how the goal of education has changed: there is not a static body of knowledge to simply transfer today; instead, we need to encourage critical thinking skills. If students can just "Google" the answer and find it quickly, it is too literal and not likely to be remembered beyond the test. Students need to work with it and dig into real questions and skills by researching, analyzing, and synthesizing information from several places. Students should use technology to help solve questions and higher-level thinking. This provides real-life applications regardless of the discipline or job students will have later in life.

Justin Banitt's picture
Justin Banitt
High School Math Teacher from Minneapolis, MN

I was immediately hooked by your post when you spoke of the use (or lack of) technology in the classroom, specifically assessments. I admit that I am one of those teachers that cringe when a student wants to use their cell phone or iPod to help them on an assignment. I think it stems from the administrative stance on technology. I think we need to just become more educated about what technology can do and how we, as educators, can enhance a students experience by using it. One way around the dilemma of students using technology would be to ask more higher order questions that require critical thinking. These are answers that students are not going to be able to just find online. My main concern with using technology during an assessment is to ensure that students are not leaking information about the test to others. Any ideas?

Sonja's picture

I agree that students need to do more ciritical thinking in the classroom. Performance-based tests seem to be a good alternative to asking basic questions that students just learn for the moment. If the students can collaborate on a project and use other critical thinking skills it will help them retain the information better. I also agree with the quote from Yong Zhao. I do feel that creativity is not used as much in the classroom as it could be. The world is always changing and our students need to be challenged.

Rudy Rodriguez's picture
Rudy Rodriguez
High school math teacher

American education is currently undergoing a great change. The techniques we have been using for the past ten years are going to have to change if we wish to survive in the teaching profession. With so many technological advances, we are going to have to let go of the methods of teaching that we experienced when we were in school and embrace the use of technology. However, I doubt teachers will stop teaching towards the test, especially with the possibility of teachers being assessed based on student performance on standardized tests.

Monica's picture
7th and 8th Grade Family and Consumer Science Teacher Bedford, NH

Students need the tools to begin to think critically and to problem solve. Common Core is a necessary foundation in providing those tools. How students use their tools is up to us. We, as educators, need to coach, give feedback, model, set expectations, and design assessments that will allow students to move beyond basic recall.

As Wiggins quotes in Educative Assessment, "Assessment is authentic when we anchor testing in the kind of work real people do, rather than merely eliciting easy-to-score responses to simple questions." Students can identify sifters, spatulas,and pastry cutters but if they do not know what to do with them, why would they need to identify them? Authentic assessment is true performance.

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