Is there a way, without using standardized tests, to figure out how well students are being taught? Some folks in Kentucky think so, NPR reports.
About a half-hour’s drive south of Lexington, in “one of the most closely watched efforts in the country to change the way schools assess student learning,” NPR says, Bate Middle School in Danville, Ky., is moving away from standardized tests and toward performance-based assessments.
Forget that Maryland had performance-based assessments 20 years ago, and that bubble-in standardized tests that flourished under No Child Left Behind for the last 12 years are an aberration rather than the best way to measure what kids know. Just forget the history, and focus on Danville, Ky., where Bate Middle School Principal Amy Swann and the district’s superintendent, Carmen Coleman, have completely overhauled the educational philosophy.
Projects about topics that interest students
Students are allowed to design their own projects for the PBA. Students stand up one day after school and give a 20-minute solo presentation with a PowerPoint or video. Separately, they’ve handed in 15-page research papers. They are judged by teachers from other grades or the high school, officials from a neighboring district, education students from the University of Kentucky, and fellow students.
One student did his project on how he was able to lower his doberman’s heart rate by talking to him. Another did hers on the impact of oil spills, presenting the results of a chemical analysis of aquarium water polluted with petroleum.
Let’s get this straight—Who is going to be bubbling in answers at their job? No one. We’re getting skills that we’re actually going to need later on in life. It’s really cool. —a student
Kids see the PBAs as more relevant, and they are more engaged with learning if the subject is interesting to them. For example, there’s no one way, à la standardized test, to teach middle school students about kinetic and potential energy. So, while some students may use roller coasters for their presentations, others may use cars rolling down a ramp, and others still may use baseballs being hit by a bat.
The same learning standards about kinetic and potential energy can be understood in multiple ways, which is what makes PBAs so exciting: the PBAs submitted by students are as diverse as their interests and creativity allow.
It won’t happen under NCLB
You can see from the description of the judging process that the PBAs are labor-intensive and require the cooperation of professional educators from other agencies or schools. Arranging such work on a statewide level, as we found out in Maryland, is a tough nut to crack, especially if we have to test every kid every single year.
But in terms of bang for your buck, multiple-choice tests can’t hold a candle to PBAs. I have never seen more effective professional development for teachers than having them evaluate actual student work from other classrooms, and the teachers who are getting feedback gain as well. The whole assessment process promotes collegiality and professionalism among the teaching ranks, and students might also learn something about the projects from other kids they evaluate. It’s just a lot of work to do it for every student.
Easing back on the NCLB schedule of testing would allow states to pursue PBAs and get much more information about students’ progress from the assessments than we can hope for from multiple-choice tests.