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Three Creative Testing Solutions

Ryan Kinser

"This push on tests ... is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human."
—Dominic Randolph, quoted in Paul Tough's
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

I recently finished reading How Children Succeed in a book club with my fellow Roundtabler Sarah Henchey. Now, on the eve of my state's writing assessment, I worry about my students' collective stress and individual grit. I have no doubt these kids will shine on the essay. But how will tests like the FCAT Writes affect the type of success Randolph describes? How can we turn around this testing madness?

As I read the posts of my fellow bloggers, I pause at Elizabeth Duffey's discussion of the Seattle MAP boycott. She mentioned the test as "the hill [teachers] chose to die on" and that folks tend to "cluster around two poles" with regard to assessment. I know there exists a middle ground, a place more hopeful than that unfortunate hill.

Perhaps there are also multiple paths to that compromise. Here are three positive changes worth considering:

1) Engage parents before policymakers. My colleague Lindsey Durant, teaching in the middle of Seattle's sudden firestorm, modeled exactly the type of communication that leads to solutions. She crafted a thoughtful email to the parents of her students inviting them to consider the purpose of their children's assessments and then to take action.

Here's a snippet of that email which appeared in GOOD Magazine:

I urge you to become informed about the various assessments our district uses. I would also ask that you begin to share your thinking by engaging in discussion with your friends and neighbors about the current testing climate. Does it truly serve the best interest of our children, or do we need to take another look at the way we use testing and data?

She received several responses, at least one of which mentioned a parent's intention to contact a local lawmaker. Who else will follow Durant's lead?

2) The potential of gaming. There are pockets of innovators answering Durant's question by "gamifying" assessment. Arizona State University professor James Gee is a long-time proponent. Florida State University professor Valerie Shute won a grant in 2011 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement "stealth assessment," a research project designing games so that students don't even know they're being assessed. Results will be published this spring. Other organizations like The Institute of Play and Pixelearning are working to redesign assessment through gaming. Perhaps the future of these games will provide teachers with real-time data while students work tirelessly to accomplish relevant objectives, completely undaunted by failure.

3) Reflect on real data using classroom video. The best data may just be what happens in our classrooms each day, not in front of multiple-choice exams on a computer. We are seeing the development of video learning communities in which teachers film lesson clips and reflect on student performance together, dissecting conversations to find out what children are learning and analyzing these moments with a scientist's eye. Think about how video artifacts might show us what standardized tests cannot.

Heading into tomorrow's exam, I'm resolved to find the relevance in it. I'm resolved to continue these conversations. How might we build on them?

Ryan Kinser, a teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality, teaches English at Walker Middle Magnet School for International Studies in Tampa, Fla.

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