31 Days of Deeper Learning & PBL Blog Series | 3: Standardized Testing

**Disclaimer: In no way am I proving that these thoughts are the end all be all. This post is designed to spark conversation and show the reader where I am coming from to promote deeper learning and project based learning.**

In this third post I would like to go into detail about why Deeper Learning and PBL are both needed in schools around the world, but in particular my lens will be mostly about specific topic instead of bouncing all over the place.

I think it would come as no surprise to anyone that public education could use a bit of a facelift. There have been many attempts to make the necessary change at a federal level such as No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, Common Core, _____(insert any other initiative). I don’t want to get into politics on any of these, but with best intentions, I have not seen changes down the positive path due to any of these. If any, Common Core is forcing educators to rethink their teaching and  move to more high level modes of thought, but I know that many could and would argue the opposite.

If we can leave the federal level beast of education reform alone because in the end we have no power to change these things nor would it do us any good to go off on tangents that don’t move the conversation to a positive light, then let us just agree that overall they are not working as intended(I do believe they are all implemented to create positive change).

I will also state that for the sake of this post I want to focus on one piece that affects all of us. I know there are many other factors that are pushing schools in the wrong direction, but not all of these factors affect everyone. When I thought about this post I wanted to find the key pieces that are overarching for all of us.

This key piece is standardized testing. I promise not to go off on a rant, but look at the concept that standardized testing is leading to standardized teachers who do standardized teaching that create standardized learning. BARF!

Standardized testing is something that has always been around and it is a monster. There are reports of standardized testing eating away school days like Cookie Monster chomping cookies.  The whole standardized testing industry is a $2 billion industry(references below and numbers do fluctuate) where a small group of people are making a lot money. For what? We receive data that only paints a very small picture of what students are capable of achieving and thinking. This very small window unfortunately has very large ramifications for students, schools, teachers, and school districts. We are already feeling the stress of losing arts, music, science, social studies, and more due to a focus on reading and math as those numbers hold the key to school sustainability(nevermind needs of students).

In the book, The Test, Anya Kamenetz makes the references to Goodhart’s Law when it comes to high stakes testing. This law is basically, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

What is happening in many schools is that due to high stakes testing there is a huge focus on reading and math. With this narrow lens on these two things that are heavily tested everything else takes a backseat. We have read accounts of schools cutting art, music, specials, and more to make time for reading and math because that is what the schools are held accountable for and if they don’t make the cut(literally and figuratively) all sorts of bad things can happen.(I leave this generic because each state has different sets of issues and problems).

I can use my family situation as an example. My son loves science and social studies. Well, he did. With so much pressure on reading and math he barely receives any science and what science he receives I am not sure it is really science. It is basically science masked as more reading comprehension. He has lost out on the things that motivated him to learn. This breaks my heart. Social studies has simply become worksheets to show he has read the textbook at home because there is not enough time in the day to squeeze in history(and why not read some more). This is not a knock on the teacher, but on the emphasis of high stakes testing affecting school decisions and curriculum. It is just a spiral effect of students losing excitement for learning. I posted a few weeks back that I know that education is taking a turn for the worse when I watched my daughter play school at home.

I realize that these are not research supported, but they are parent supported as this is what I witness as a parent. I am sure I am not alone.

The need for Deeper Learning and PBL is more today than ever before. What I have found over time is that if we can convince educators to move away from test prep and start engaging students in high level thought, engaging questions to answers, and projects that make them want to learn, then the high stakes testing take care of themselves. We don’t need to teach to the test nor prep for the test. The learners don’t need test prep. Instead of wasting school days preparing for tests, we should be embracing the days we have with the learners to challenge their minds and thinking. If I can reference the book The Test one more time, in the book she shares reports that up to 25% of the school year is consumed with test prep and test taking. That is so much time! If we are so consumed with test results and test prep how are learners ever going to grow and engage in learning if they are not given time to expand their mind? Instead of test prep, test, test prep, test we should present a high level, high interest learning atmosphere where we teach them the skills needed to grapple with a problem or learning moment. By developing these skills, study habits, thinking strategies, and more students will grow and develop. In the end the high stakes testing numbers take care of themselves because those tests are no longer a problem as students are equipped with the skills and tools to think on their own.

Monica Martinez has a wonderful graphic showcasing the six core strategies for Deeper Learning. If you look at these six strategies you can see that if learners developed these six items, then standardized testing would not be overly difficult as these all required high levels of thought. If educators help provide learners the skills and tools to accomplish these items, then they should be prepared for any standardized testing.

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As you can hopefully gain a sense of my sentiments, I am not asking for a revolution where we fight the system, but working within the system and the confines to ensure learners have the best opportunity to walk out of the k-12 system ready to tackle whatever lies ahead for them.

We must work to move away from this one size fits all approach that is slowly creeping into many schools. Due to the pressure of high stakes testing more schools are pressuring teachers to teach the same way, have the same lessons each day, use the same procedures, and this is not good. Teachers are losing what is most important to them – their personality, their passion, and the uniqueness that makes them who they are.

For this very reason, Deeper Learning as a framework to rethink how we teach and what our classrooms look like, feel like, smell like is essential to moving away from the robot, industrialized trend of education.  Furthermore, using project based learning as a tool to achieve Deeper Learning is essential to making it happen.

The days of Horace Mann and common school no longer hold any validity in a society where we don’t need to have everyone look the same mold nor do we need the idea of normal school for teachers.

If we believe that all students can achieve at high levels, then we must provide opportunities in schools beyond the standardized  approaches to allow the diversity of greatness to flourish in a variety of ways.

“Utilizing test scores to measure teaching is like using only a thermometer to determine if you have the flu.”  The Teaching Brain

Standardized testing provides one micro lens into the learning of learners, but we cannot make it the central focus as it has evolved into being. More importantly we cannot place so much emphasis and punishment on these tests. These tests were never designed for this type of punishment.

We have a mismatch on our hands when the one dimensional tests of reading and math are closing opportunities to bring more focus to what everyone is begging for which are the 21st century skills, soft skills, or whatever words you want to use. People want learners who have learning ability, emergent leadership, and collaboration with a dose of empathy. We must expand our ways of assessing to move to key ingredients to move society forward. Until we begin to measure 21st century skills they don’t have much meaning on the surface. These skills can no longer be lip service of people in power stating they matter while only looking at standardized test scores. This is why the rest of the series will focus on the need for deeper learning and project based learning.

In closing, I want to hear from you. What are other issues plaguing your schools that are showcasing a need to focus and bring back deeper learning and project based learning into our schools?

In the next post I will be moving away from this topic to discuss how PBL is not new, but it is good to look at the elements of quality PBL and begin the reflection process for your own teaching and things happening in your schools. We will take specific look at project based learning and begin to wrap our mind around this type of teaching to engage learners.

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5 thoughts on “31 Days of Deeper Learning & PBL Blog Series | 3: Standardized Testing

  1. I appreciate that you publicly question the structure of where education may (is?) be heading. You are clearly passionate about deeper learning and PBL.

    Why do you support deeper learning concepts and PBL versus, say, online schools, personalized learning, and any of the other hundred charters/startups/ideas that are inundating the education field (mainly through charter schools)? What makes PBL and Deeper learning speak to you compared to the other menu items available to ‘save’ our children and education? Love the post and the bravery to post!


    • Thanks Jeremy. I think that I need to think on your questions in more depth before giving a pure answer. For the sake of time I will answer now that I believe that deeper learning and pbl can be done and should be done in charters/startups/ and any other method to deliver quality education. I believe that the tenets of deeper learning are really what everyone is going after whether they call it deeper learning or use different terms. PBL is somewhat the same where projects or quests or problems or whatever word you use is one pathway to achieve deeper learning.

      I will continue to think on your questions and weave my answer into future posts as I uncover more to my own thinking.

  2. What I have seen the most is that test, or the need for data becomes the justification for poor leadership and “instruction” (hate that word). I have heard both principals and teachers say they wish they could do more of “x” or “y”, but their hands are tied. How do you explain that deeper learning takes care of itself when educators are often so afraid of consequences of test? As my best baseball coach used to say – the only way you can succeed at high levels is if you are ready to fail. Failure is not acceptable.

    On a slightly different note, data is an easy way out. That is why those in power love it. If you concentrate solely on data to measure achievement, you don’t have to concentrate on the whole child. You concentrate only on that which is easily measured (regardless of whether that measurement is valid)

    • Tim, you raise some key points that I hope to address in future posts in this series. First, I know and realize that the pressure to perform well on tests are at different levels across the nation. While, I know that test scores are very important in my area and school I rarely ever think about the results. When educators and admin use the idea that their hands are tied I really struggle with this mindset. There are parameters that do hinder everything that we wish we could do, but I find that to be a mindset that keeps us in the “safety” zone where if we just move along as we have always done, then I won’t get in trouble. I won’t risk making a mistake, but I won’t take the risk to push to new levels of teaching and learning either. I don’t see it as a fixed mindset, but safety mindset where we don’t want to do anything that might risk our job.

      I do believe that deeper learning will take care of itself in terms of providing the skills and thinking to pass basic tests. With that being said, we must look to who we hire, how we prepare educators in college, and how we continue to develop our educators to work on their thinking. If the leader in the classroom or school are always in “afraid” mode, then nothing will change. To make the necessary changes, we must start going with our gut instinct. Do we want someone who passed a paper test on how to help people jump out of planes or someone who has had to demonstrate the process and actually prove they know how by doing it? I often have these conversations and try to move to the thinking of our own children. What do we want them to learn in school?

      Last, if the idea that failure is acceptable, then the district and schools need to begin to develop a plan to change culture. This is something that one teacher alone can fix, but starting to make small strides within the classroom is a starting point where you have to begin the process for change.

      Not sure if this makes much sense, but I hope to dive deeper into your questions soon.