Choosing between testing and true learning

Written By By Jessica Staff Posted: 07/11/2014, 06:36pm

Think about your most significant schooling experience. Chances are it wasn’t taking a test. Because of course, truly important learning can’t be quantified. Nor can we see immediate results. This fact is in direct contrast to the heightened use of standardized testing to monitor schools.

As a sixth-grade reading teacher, I provide rich experiences my students can draw on wherever their future takes them. In the bleak afternoons following state testing in March, I started a historical research project that took two students to the state history fair in Springfield.

Over several months, I witnessed the transformative power of “project-based” learning in my classroom. Let me explain this bit of education jargon by describing our project and its results.

We started with a trip to the Chicago History Museum, where students interacted with exhibits and selected topics for research. History came alive as they felt actual relics from the Chicago fire and gazed upon larger-than-life pictures of Al Capone.

Back in the classroom, as they put together displays, websites and performances to share their learning, I saw a dramatic increase in student engagement. Take Aaliyah, a bright-eyed and social student who usually shrank down in her seat during reading class. She struggled with the texts, did not complete work, and disengaged from the lessons. However, Aaliyah was passionate about her history project. She asked questions and allowed her group to help her with difficult concepts. She took a leadership role in designing visual aspects of her display and ensured her group members participated in after-school and online study sessions.

Beyond strengthening academic skills in research, writing, and technology, students were met with the quintessential challenge of group work. There was more work than one person could do, so they needed to trust each other to complete individual tasks and collaborate on ideas. They learned that as they put egos aside, their overall product improved. These experiences that shape us as people can only happen when we are given more complex and challenging tasks.

Throughout the project, I saw a passion for learning in my classroom I had never seen before. My students were more focused, academic achievement increased, and behavioral infractions dramatically decreased. I saw changes in their ability to work independently, collaborate with their peers and plan their work to meet strict deadlines. This kind of significant learning cannot be measured through standardized testing. However, these skills will serve them in countless ways as they advance in their lives. Children who are taught to think beyond the test will be better prepared for success in a society ever more reliant on independence, creativity and innovation.

As the eyes in my building began turning toward another round of standardized testing, I found myself clamoring for ways to keep the joy of learning alive in my classroom. However, to prepare students for the tests, I am required to structure lessons that leave little room for project-based learning.

Unfortunately, in a climate where countless neighborhood schools are being ‘turned around’ by outside management organizations or simply shut down, Chicago’s schools depend on high test scores for survival. Consequently, administrators and teachers have little choice but to focus on test performance over more powerful and meaningful learning opportunities.

Without the ability to innovate, students will be limited in their contribution to society. Though my students will not receive any formal recognition from the Chicago Public Schools for their achievements on their history projects, I believe in them, and in the power of more active learning. I will continue to find time to teach them in ways that push their thinking to the limits.

Jessica Staff is a sixth grade teacher at CICS-Wrightwood Charter School, a Chicago public school. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the Summer School teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.

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