Going beyond the multiple-choice test

Locally and nationally, a variety of experiments are underway to come up with alternative ways to rate schools.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

While high-stakes testing continues unabated, educators skeptical of the annual assessments are not just experimenting, but making headway in finding better ways to evaluate – and improve – student learning and whole-school performance.

For instance, about 30 schools in Philadelphia and its suburbs are participating in a $2.4 million research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that gives students multiple chances to learn math content and resubmit assignments. It also helps them persist in scoring better on math tests, take more difficult courses, and stay in school.

Other examples include work at Science Leadership Academy, where educators call their testing regimen “standards-based assessment” with instruction, student projects, and testing aligned with state academic standards.

At the Sustainability Workshop School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the focus is on project-based learning. And a cluster of schools in and around New York City have devised what they believe is a roadmap for “authentic accountability” in assessing both student and school performance.

Sure, testing in those schools still exists, but many school leaders have shifted their focus away from testing days to creating learning environments that fine-tune instruction and address school climate and individual student achievement.

This approach to measuring school quality has come none too soon, says Monty Neill, longtime critic of standardized tests and a founder of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Boston, a clearinghouse for research and information on testing trends in the country.

There’s an upsurge in protests over testing, including a nationwide petition drive, Neill said.

“It’s more than frustration. There’s a lot of anger being expressed,” he said.

“You hear about kids crying and vomiting, corruption of the curriculum, damage to school climate and of course cheating. And for what?”

Neill added that average student scores on the national NAEP test have “not moved much if at all, and they have been doing this stuff for a decade or more.”

Helping students become proficient in math is the centerpiece of the Philadelphia-area NSF-funded research project, conducted by the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, a research group in Conshohocken headed by F. Joseph Merlino. Thirty high schools in the region, including a dozen public, charter and Catholic schools in the city, are participating.

“We think this is a game changer for kids and for teachers … a better way to go than just standardized test scores. This is much richer and friendlier to the learning process,” Merlino said.

The approach has three main components.

First, teachers agree to a dozen main learning objectives and what students would have to show to meet those objectives.

“We don’t want 100 items, we want the big-ticket ideas,” Merlino said.

Second, students are assessed not with letter grades but rather on whether they are high-performing, proficient or not yet proficient. Students not yet proficient receive more instruction, then another shot at the test.

Third, the schools use a software program that helps manage the learning outcomes and determine whether students are proficient. The data are available to teachers, school leaders, students – and parents.

“The way assessment is done now, it’s really about grading and kids passing or failing, and it discourages them from being persistent,” Merlino said. “You need a system that encourages learning. With this approach, when a kid is not yet proficient, the conversation with the teacher changes from, ‘Will you give me a D so I can pass?’ to ‘What can I do to show you what I know?’”

Merlino calls it “assessment for learning and not judgment.” In the early 1990s, the approach was called mastery learning and drew some attention in Pennsylvania as part of the “outcomes-based education” initiative that was thwarted by conservative factions across the state and overtaken by the standards movement later that decade.

Some schools, including the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, tout its success. To graduate, students in the Chicago school must show proficiency in 85 percent of 600 learning objectives.

Here in Philadelphia, Science Leadership Academy also puts the focus on proficiency over test-taking. Students who fall short on a test re-study the material and re-take whatever part of the test they failed.

Public and charter schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania have no choice but to administer the PSSAs. And the Keystone exams being introduced in January 2013 at the secondary level (and replacing the 11th grade PSSAs) are mandatory–no opting out–making it tough for schools to fully embrace alternative assessments.

In New York, however, the New York Performance Standards Consortium – a group of 26 public schools, most in New York City – won waivers from the state’s traditional Regents exams to try a different approach. To graduate, students must complete four performance-based assessment tasks, typically in grades 11 or 12: an analytic essay, a social studies research paper, a science experiment, and an applied mathematics problem. They also must take the state English/language arts test.

The results show dramatic decreases in dropouts, higher graduation rates, especially for English language learners and students with disabilities, increased teacher stability, fewer suspensions, and more students still in college after two years, according to the consortium, citing city Board of Education data. “These kids are not only college-ready, they are succeeding in college,” Neill said.

“What we say is a combination of looking at kids’ work, limited standardized testing, like every other year, and some kind of school quality review represents a better way to evaluate schools.”

Lawrence Feinberg, Haverford school board member and a founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, an advocacy coalition, praised a Boston program called City Connects, which identifies the needs of every child K-8 and then creates interventions and enrichments both in school and in the community at a cost of about $500 per child.

“That’s what’s going to make a difference with these kids who have these needs. But to test the hell out of them, it’s a crime,” Feinberg said.

Haverford’s superintendent, William Keilbaugh, was among 14 Delaware County superintendents who petitioned state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in August, seeking relief from testing mandates. By Keilbaugh’s calculation, training, testing, and retesting will affect 106 instructional/work days, almost 60 percent of the school year.

“As we constantly test, retest and, yes, practice test because of its importance to graduation, there will be no time for other subjects,” the superintendents wrote.

Feinberg said, “Testing is like a blunt instrument they are using to pummel public schools. … Instead, we should be looking at test practices – things, like City Connects, that are actually helping kids in high-poverty districts.”

At the Sustainability Workshop School, students pursue large and small civic and environmental projects with workshops and some lectures rather than semester-long coursework.

There are quizzes, but the emphasis is on learning by doing.

Co-founder and teacher Simon Hauger, in a recent blog, restated a central tenet of the school, citing a raft of longitudinal studies: “Accountability through standardized testing doesn’t produce long-term success for students – surprise. Kids are not widgets and education should not be an assembly line.”

Update: Paragraph 22, about the PSSA, has been revised to clarify that while taking the Keystone exams is mandatory for high school students in 2013, passing the tests is not yet a requirement for high school graduation.