This is the first post of a four-part series on making curriculum relevant, meaningful, and adaptable. This article focuses on the testing culture in education, what some of the research says, and how we can move towards performance tasks. A special thanks to Jay McTighe for sharing his insights on this (and much more) in our recent podcast conversation. 

This is a big question many of us have in education: Why are we still giving so many tests?

First, the obvious reason, because the state and other entities require us to give standardized tests each year.

Ok, I think we can all agree this is the most pressing reason, and it has a trickle-down effect that we will get into later (i.e. the only way to get kids ready to take these tests is to give more tests). There is also a lot to unpack with just that statement – why state and other entities require us to give tests which – we will not get into in this article, but many others have broken down the political and financial reasons behind this phenomenon.

Second, we have to hold colleges and universities accountable. If they are still requiring tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP tests for admission, then we will inevitably be giving tests “like this” in our K-12 schools.

Third, there is a combination of things that are all interconnected: Convenience, time, and data.

Testing is the easiest way to assess students. It is the most time-efficient way to assess students. It is also the fastest way to measure students’ “understanding” and to get data on where students are compared to their peers (either locally, nationally, or internationally).

Fourth, tests are written into our curriculum, they are baked into learning “programs” and are typically tied to standards. Why? Well for many of the reasons above and because we’ve done it this way for a long time. I took tests and was measured by tests in school. Weren’t you?

Now, there are many other reasons why we still give so many tests. I’m sure you could list many additional reasons in the comments of this article, and when I’m leading assessment workshops we come up with many additional reasons for our testing culture.

Also, I don’t pretend to think all testing is bad. There are often valid reasons for giving a test or a quiz (especially when we want to formatively see where students are at). Also, many tests are built with questions that are beyond surface-level regurgitation and hold real value.

Still, the research I’ll share below (and many of our own experiences) tells us that testing is 1) not the best or only way to share learning or demonstrate understanding, 2) has a major retention problem with sometimes 90% of knowledge correct on a test being lost in a few months, and 3) testing is not even the best way to prepare students to do well on those high-stakes standardized state tests, AP tests, and SAT/ACT tests.

If tests aren’t the best way to assess, don’t promote learning retention, and don’t even prepare kids for the tests they “have” to take, then why are we still giving so many tests?

The follow-up question as to why are we still giving so many tests is “What can we do differently, and how do we pull it off?”

I got the chance to talk with Understanding By Design author and curriculum/performance task expert Jay McTighe about all of these questions (and more). In this episode of The Backwards Podcast, we dive into driving factors of testing (curriculum, mandates, and more) and how performance tasks can, and should, be a replacement for many tests. We also get into the weeds about how we can replace tests at the local level, and what the future of the curriculum might look like.

Listen to The Backwards Podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or directly on Libsyn.

Is Practicing the Test the Best Way to Prepare for a Test?

As author Jay McTighe states: “The logic of test prep is plausible and rooted in experience from other domains. For example, if you want to improve your performance in dribbling a basketball or piano playing, then you must practice those activities. Shouldn’t the same apply to test taking?”

I was a former athlete and was a football and lacrosse coach during my time as a middle school and high school English/Language Arts teacher.

As a coach, I believed that winning was a byproduct (not just a goal) of the time, work, and focus the team displayed while practicing. Fundamentals, teamwork, strategy, tactics, planning, and execution all had a role in how well the team performed. But, at least we had common goals.

In the classroom, we had varying goals. Each student was different. They all had unique interests, ideas, friends, and views on what success looked like to them in school.

My goals as a teacher were fairly simple.

  1. I wanted students to enjoy my class and find success in learning.
  2. I wanted to challenge students and give them an opportunity to grow.
  3. I wanted to make sure their hard work in my class showed on the learning assessments that were measured.

I say this because, maybe, just like me, you only have one or two (or five) assessments each year that are actually measured beyond your classroom walls.

And guess what?

We care about what we are measured on. We focus on it, and we try to improve it. This is not only teachers, this impacts every person in any field.

In a recent HBR article they talk about how the measures in other fields (CEOs, Medicine, Science etc) have the exact same impact:

It can’t be that simple, you might argue— but psychologists and economists will tell you it is. Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.

This phenomenon plays out time and again in research studies.

There is no way around it, except to change what we measure. Or, to change the game entirely.

I was caught up in a circle of practice that was based on some misconceptions on how to improve the metric I was judged on as a teacher. It is important to note, I was trying to do what was best for my students this entire time. I believe almost all teachers have the best interest of students, and that their practice is predicated on preparing students in any way possible.

McTighe shares the misconceptions that led me down this test prep trap as a young teacher, and what many of us commonly believe as the reasons for preparing students for a test that we don’t believe in.

Misconception #1 – The best (and only) way to improve test scores is to practice the test.

Here McTighe shares an analogy of the yearly physical exam with your doctor. Although the physician examines and measures your health, spending all your time trying to prepare for this physical with practice on the strategies would not make much sense.

It would be thought silly to practice the physical exam as a way to improve one’s health. But this confusion is precisely what we see in schools all over North America. Local educators, fearful of results, focus on the indicators, not their causes. The format of the test misleads us, in other words.

Misconception #2 – Standardized test items involve primarily recall and recognition, and thus drill and practice will be the most effective method to prepare students for them.

Grant Wiggins (2013) points out the flaw in this reasoning: “Even though the test format requires a selected response, it does not mean that the tested knowledge is necessarily simple. The [format] deceives you into thinking that since you are mimicking the format of the test, you are therefore mimicking the rigor of the test. But data show the opposite conclusively: local tests are often less rigorous than state and national tests even when they mimic the format.”

Too often, the information revealed by test prep exercises identifies whether students have chosen the “correct” answer rather than helping teachers determine if they have a conceptual understanding of the underlying concepts and skills and can apply (transfer) those.

It seems that testing students does not make them better test-takers, keep their retention, or improve their ability to achieve high scores on those state, AP, or SAT type assessments.

How I Got Out of The Test Prep Trap

It started small.

First, I started to notice how disengaged my students were in class. Despite my efforts to use technology, create fun learning activities, and challenge my students, I was failing them in many ways.

They cared more about getting a GRADE and playing the GAME of school than they did about learning. When I looked at the research it was clear that it was not just my class (and my students) that were showing signs of apathy.

In a recent article by Scott Mcleod on Dangerously Irrelevant, he shared results available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students (over 920,000 students participated last fall). Here are a couple of key charts that Scott made from the data (remember this was pre-pandemic):

2015 Gallup Student Poll created by @mcleod2015 Gallup Student Poll created by @mcleod

Interestingly enough, it seems that our students know this is happening. They know that they and their peers are often bored in school. We know that as teachers and administrators. What can we do about it?

What Do We Do Instead of Tests?

The simple answer: performance tasks and a project-based approach. Students are engaged more in these approaches, are able to demonstrate deeper levels of understanding, and are connected to real-world experiences and authentic tasks that are relevant and meaningful.

Let’s take a look at some of the research that supports making this shift.

From a recent report on testing: A multi-year study of students taking AP United States Government and Politics (APGOV) and AP Environmental Sciences (APES) showed students did better on AP tests when engaging in project-based learning. APGOV students engaged in PBL in high-achieving schools “had a 30 percent higher pass rate on the APGOV exam than non-PBL students in comparable schools.” The study was conducted from 2008-2013 and was led by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

That same study showed that APES students in poverty-impacted schools “had a 19 percent higher pass rate than non-PBL students in comparable schools matched nationally.”

Another study showed that second-grade students living in poverty increased their literacy and social studies skills through project-based learning, researchers at the University of Michigan found. The study compared students at 20 high-poverty elementary schools. It showed “students whose teachers used the project-based learning curriculum made gains that were 63 percent higher than their peers in the control group in social studies and 23 percent higher in informational reading.”

What about families and parents? What do they want from an educational experience?

The Gallup report Creativity in Learning is based on a survey conducted in 2019 as a “nationally representative study” of teachers, students, and parents of students. The focus was the extent to which “creativity in learning” is being fostered in American classrooms, what respondents think of it, and how technology supports it. Project-Based Learning is cited throughout the report.

Here are some highlights via PBLWorks:

“Teachers who often assign creative, project-based activities are more likely than other teachers to say their students display a range of learning and development goals, including building self-confidence, utilizing their unique strengths, and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

“68% percent of teachers say project-based assignments are a good measure of student learning, far more than the 12% at who say the same about standardized tests.”

When asked what they believe are the most important learning outcomes, the top three choices were:

  1. “learning to think critically” (chosen by 64% of parents and teachers)
  2. “problem-solving skills” (chosen by 51% of teachers; not asked of parents)
  3. “developing students’ curiosity to learn beyond the classroom” (chosen by 36% of parents and 41% of teachers)

Parents want their children to have learning experiences like what happens in performance tasks and project-based learning.

Take a look at this chart from the report, showing how the learning experiences were ranked, with the percentage of parents who say it’s ”very important.”

chart showing percentage of parent who say "very important"

Students want the kind of learning experiences that PBL delivers.

According to Gallup,

“Most students say they would like to spend more time on activities that give them input on their educational path, such as choosing what they learn in class and learning more about topics that most interest them. 

“Two other activities a majority of students would like to spend more time on to help them see how what they are learning relates to real-life problems outside the classroom are 1) working on projects that can be used in the real world, and 2) publishing or sharing projects with people outside their class or school.”

When Edutopia came out with this overview of the research around PBL I nodded my head at the results:

Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009Walker & Leary, 2009). PBL can also provide an effective model for whole-school reform (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2004Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).

A 2016 MDRC/Lucas Education Research literature review found that the design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills (Condliffe et al., 2016).

No longer could the argument be about how well (or poorly) students would do on standardized assessments. The research was clear. When performance tasks and PBL were implemented well, students thrived in traditional tests and in a wide variety of soft-skills that are crucial to development and success beyond school.

A Final Thought

This is hard work. Most of us are just trying to stay afloat right now in education. We’ve seen many of these issues that have been present for a very long time bubble to the surface even more during the pandemic.

It takes time to develop an adaptable curriculum. It takes take to develop meaningful performance tasks. It can’t be solved by buying a program or singular resource. As ASCD points out, the most notable successes occur in schools and districts whose teachers build their own admittedly imperfect curriculum.

Also, not all tests are created equal. Some tests are valid, getting rid of all tests doesn’t make that much sense, and is most likely not possible in our current circumstances and environment. But, if we are giving tests as assessments 90% of the time currently, how can we shift that percentage down and provide more performance tasks as assessment options.

This series is on my mind right now as I work with many schools struggling with these issues and how they are impacting SEL and engagement with our students. It is also on my mind as a father of five who notices when they are excited about learning, and wonders how we can do more of that across education.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for all you do!

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  • Kerri Lorigan says:

    I suppose what so many of us need is some advice or coaching on how to do meaningful performance based assessments. I teach ancient history to 7th graders. I want my students connecting to the powerful themes that exist as through lines from ancient to modern times.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Kerri, yes I think we all need that. I know the majority of my teacher training and schooling was not focused on developing performance-based assessments. It is a major shift and one that will take time to prepare and develop.

      • Agree, AJ, but it’s not like this is new. I think the most important thing to recognize in your post is this paragraph:

        “It takes time to develop an adaptable curriculum. It takes take to develop meaningful performance tasks. It can’t be solved by buying a program or singular resource. As ASCD points out, the most notable successes occur in schools and districts whose teachers build their own admittedly imperfect curriculum.”

        And I’d add to it this, if you don’t start, if you think you’ll wait until you get it figured out so it’s not uncomfortable, messy, or so that it doesn’t fail to some extent…well, then, you’re missing the entire point.

        When I ask my writers whey they aren’t writing and they tell me they are thinking, I reply with a quip attributed to E.M. Forster, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say” which is simply another way of saying what I think we all need to adhere to in terms of this post, and that is, “In order to start, you must start.”

        I’ve created an inNOVAtion Lab at my HS and to a one, our first year students replied to a survey that they wished they had just started their projects sooner.

        The literature and the push to PBL or Design Thinking or Expeditionary Learning or High Tech High models or what have you…its’ over a decade old now. Just start.

        I wrote a plea to my students last March 15th about what we could take away that might be positive from what the future seemed to be holding for us. I noted that the moment was frightening, but we could jump in and finally make some meaningful change. We just had to do it together and support each other. AJ’s posts and all the work he has done to build out the community here is one way we can do that.

        And I agree the assessment piece is a sticking point, but let’s not worry so much about that that we never start. I’d point to the Buck Institute as a gold standard for assessment of PBL but more and more I’m drawn to the work being done at One Stone in Boise, Idaho. If you’ve never read about them and never seen the growth transcript they’ve been evolving towards (That’s right! They didn’t have it figured out 100% at first. They just “launched the birds” and built on the results and reflections), you need to check it out. http://www.onestone.org/growth-transcript Here’s a part of the text from that page:

        “Assessment at One Stone is rigorous and formative and includes data taken from performance-based evaluations, peer-to-peer reviews, self-evaluations, coach observations and written feedback. Assessment practices measure competencies and growth over time in traditional disciplinary areas (Knowledge), as well as social-emotional development (Mindset), real-world problem solving using human centered design (Creativity), and professional habits of work (Skills).”

        The word “tests” seems conspicuously absent, though I don’t know that is evidence of absence.

        Could also check out assessment measures at http://www.teachersgoinggradeless.com. Aaron Blackwelder’s work is seriously good to this end.

  • Marie says:

    Thanks, AJ!
    One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time!
    This is something I have been fighting since starting my career as a teacher.
    Testing – it all comes down to money & the pockets we are lining; it never has anything to do with students & what is important.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks Marie – there is an awful lot to unpack – some that I don’t have the experience to dive into (in terms of the money behind much of the testing culture). I keep coming back to the question of what I would want for my own kids, and what works best for kids!

  • Deb says:

    How long until PBL burnout and it isn’t increasing achievement levels? If that is what we do all of the time, it won’t be as interesting and game changing. I’m curious to see what the long term gains will be in a Pre-School through 12 school system where it is continually practiced. I’m certainly open to the possibilities that kind of learning could bring, but it is so difficult to bring about change in the education system – I know a lot of teachers in my building that would be resistant to “another curriculum change.” They have seen so many movements come and go and it is hard to get folks excited about it. I hope you are going to cover those aspects in your future posts. Thanks for the article!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Deb, I completely agree. I think the big question is why we are still giving so many tests, not that all tests are bad (as mentioned in the article). A mix of various types of performance tasks – some project-based, others inquiry-based, others tests etc – seems to be the approach that seems sustainable and already used by a number of teachers and schools. Will be diving deeper into these issues and really appreciate the comment!

    • Agree here. I’m not sure this is a full district shift, or if it is, if it is 100% of the time. However, there are schools to look at as models. Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, High Tech High (of course), Big Picture schools, and One Stone in Boise (see http://www.onestone.org/growth-transcript , or my reply to Kerri Logan above. )

      And totally agree with the difficulties to bring about systemic change. Just read a great article from Getting Smart ( https://www.gettingsmart.com/2019/09/why-schools-need-signature-learning-experiences/ ). that, right off the top, addresses the institutional inertia present in large school systems that would work against change, and that starting a new school with a culture built from the ground up is far easier. Perhaps the best way to bring this kind of assessment to more students is through “signature learning experiences” as in the article.

      And it is a Culture issue, really. We can’t just come in and say, “we’re doing this” without working at building a culture that is receptive to and fertile ground for this kind of learning shift.

  • IRENE says:

    Thanks for the very interesting article.I partly agree with Kerri when she writes about big educational “concerns” make money out of tests and exams.,and I agree with you in what concerns some tests being useful.
    In my experience as teacher for 41 years(I got my
    retirement last month) students like and perform much better when we let them have a say in what they are going ro learn. I was able to witness that when my students produced a project deviswd and performed by them last year.I saw all of them motivated,even those who normally did not respond so well in Class.
    I’m looking forward to read your next articles on this subject.Keep up the good work!.
    I’ m v

  • Irene Pinheiro says:

    Thanks for the interesting article and for bring brave enough to tackle a subject that needs being looked upon.
    On reading the Comments,I agree with Kerri when she mentions the organizations that get a lot of profit by somtimes persuading people(in the case teachers of English as a Foreign Language) that they need to
    recommend that their students get those exams arguing that doing that is crucial for the students progress.
    As you said,Mr Juliani,tests are important but not crucial to the development of students skills.
    I have used PBL with my students in my Last teaching year(I got my retirement last month after 41 years teaching) and that was a very rewarding experience both for me and for them.
    Oe person here commented that maybe PBL is a kind of trens that may become outdated in the future but because it is working well now lets keep on using it because it is helping students,making them develop their sometimes hidden caoacities,making them believe in themselves and that is very important.

  • Marie Fanshaw says:

    This is the endless debate. Often our discussions are “we know this is not good for our kids but we dont know how to shift to something else, or we have to get them ready for university.?” Such a powerful article. I think especially this year with Corona, teachers are more exhausted than ever. Looking forward to the rest of your series of posts.

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