It came as no surprise then when I saw this screaming headline on the front page of the Tribune this Thursday: “11th-Grade Scores at New Low.” Whether the drop in scores means anything is debatable, but let’s take the scores at face value for a minute. Here are a few possible explanations. (1) Practice ACT tests in the middle of the week! In October! Months before the actual test. Which translates into less classroom time for students. (2) Test fatigue. From too many [street slang] tests. Remember the term shell shock? You should see students lined up row after row in the gym, pencils in hand, in battle positions. An Orwellian fog permeates the room. That’s how it felt this week walking the halls too. (3) Test apathy. Hard to get excited about filling in bubbles on the proper use of conjunctions.
I ended the week by giving my students a test on the brain. Ironic, I know. But, at the risk of sounding defensive, my tests are different than all of the above. (Did the phrase “all of the above” cause a brief ripple of panic from your old testing days?) Here’s the difference. My students and I have immersed ourselves in the material. We’ve read, played games, asked questions, applied the material to our lives. We’re all working together toward a goal of understanding and mastery. There’s certainly a bit of fatigue that sets in before the test on all this, but it seems to me an earned fatigue. Mass tests, on the other hand, are disembodied and lifeless. One can prepare for these tests (rather than studying), but the preparation involves concentration not on any particular subject matter but on the tests themselves, or on testing. On strategies to “beat” the tests. On tips. On probabilities. It’s like preparing to increase one’s odds at a casino. Some of this preparation is dedicated to subject matter, of course, but it’s still a craps game rather than a devotion to learning. (For the record, my students aren’t quite “devoted” to learning; it’s not a calling; it’s not religious zeal; their lives don’t revolve around knowing the difference between the amygdala and the hippocampus. But I bet they can tell you the difference, now and in a month from now, and they’ll have fun doing so.)
To give you an idea of the contrast between mass testing and my own, here’s how we reviewed for the brain test. I divided my class into eight teams and randomly seeded each team into a bracket. Throughout the room, one team competed against another by presenting mini-lessons to freshmen whom we’d invited to class. The team that did a better job—clearer explanations, more creative props, better preparation—advanced into the championship brackets. The real learning took place the day before while “lesson planning.” I was proud of their hard work and insights, and I think they were a little proud of themselves too. They discovered what all teachers know: the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Finally, this week students heard a bit of good news: the ban on Halloween costumes was lifted. A few dumb costume choices five years ago—use your imagination—led to that ban. We’ll see what happens this year. I can’t wait.