Monday, January 21, 2013

But what about the test?

Would it be right to take the position that creating inquiry-based, authentic learning environments for students is not mutually exclusive to preparing them for standardized tests?

I recently asked this question of Phil Schlechty, author of Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work and founder of the Schlechty Center, a nonprofit organization focused on school transformation. Schlechty's answer was a resounding yes. He said he knows of no place where students are participating in engaging work and not performing better on standardized tests. While Schlechty asserts that standardization in general is an inhibiting factor in education and should be reconsidered, the risk for schools, he said, is not in designing authentic learning environments for students... it's in NOT doing so! He explained that the type of instructional environment that is adequate to ensure students perform on standardized tests is not the same type of environment that will inspire the development of the skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that are required for the 21st century workforce. Furthermore, learning environments dominated by direct instructional approaches and rote memorization are only partially successful in preparing students for standardized tests since these models don't engage many students in school work at all. While traditional instructional methods can be valuable within a larger, student-centered instructional design, they simply aren't enough.

In Engaging Students, Schlechty cites project-based learning (PBL) as an example of an instructional model in which there is potential to design work for students that is more intrinsically motivating and honors the abilities of students not accounted for in designs that rely solely on traditional instructional approaches. Furthermore, research indicates there is great potential for PBL in helping students realize greater long-term retention, comprehension, application, and skill development than traditional approaches.

But what about the test?

In one diverse, rural Texas school district in which the scores on the state's standardized social studies assessment of students in a PBL learning environment were compared to those of students in a traditional environment, students working in a PBL setting performed significantly better than students working in a traditional setting. A higher percentage of PBL students scored at the pass and commended levels for all three years studied than their counterparts in traditional settings. Furthermore, the PBL setting had more positive achievement growth on the state assessment for all sub-populations of students as categorized by the state, including those coded as socioeconomically disadvantaged. Finally, the authors found that students working in PBL settings had higher rates of grade promotion and that PBL better facilitated the realization of College and Career Readiness Standards as measured by the state's accountability system (Summers & Dickinson, 2012).

While the best reasons for creating authentic learning environments for students have nothing to do with standardized testing, standardized testing should not be used as a reason to avoid it.
  • Schlechty, P. (2011). Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.
  • Summers, E., & Dickinson, G. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of project-based instruction and student achievement in high school social studies, Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 6(1), 82-103.

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