Teachers turn page on rote tests

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

While their peers were in the middle of their final exams, students in Betsy Sidor's American Studies class were arguing over the United States' Afghanistan policy.

For two weeks, the sophomores had studied military strategies from wars in the past century. Based on their research, two groups of students had to make their case as to why the U.S. should keep troops in the war-torn country or pull them out.

The Upper Arlington High School students might not realize it, but their debates in December revealed more about what they learned than a paper-pencil test.

The students were engaged, using evidence from their research to make sound arguments and rebuttals, said Sidor, who instructs the class with language-arts teacher Sean Martin. "If you've got their heart and soul involved, then they are going to learn," she said. "What I was hoping to see and didn't expect to see was passion, and we got it."

As Ohio educators push for a "21st-century" education in their schools, some teachers are turning to projects, presentations, demonstrations and other activities to measure learning beyond rote knowledge. "There's been a trend in education to get away from simple recall tests such as true-false or multiple choice," Upper Arlington Principal Kip Greenhill said. "Just because you can answer a multiple-choice test doesn't mean you can answer the concept." Greenhill has supported his staff's use of more alternative assessments and has devoted time each week to let teachers collaborate.

Experts say teachers want a deeper, richer evaluation of what students know. But it's a difficult feat when they have to prepare students for standardized exams, especially in high school where students face the SAT and/or ACT; Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams; and the Ohio Graduation Test.

"There's a lot of pressure on schools to perform well on paper-pencil tests, which means there is less time for them to give these alternative assessments," said Eric Anderman, a professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University. "The bottom line: They have to do well on tests in April."

And yet, the quality of alternative assessments has vastly improved, said Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center of Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. "You have two competing trends here," he said. "You've got this belief that accountability via assessment is critical for the success or reform of American schools. But then you also have this competing zeitgeist of people becoming wary of large-scale standards. And the use of alternative assessments has developed rapidly."

Plucker said alternative assessments need to be part of a broader policy framework, such as making senior projects a requirement for graduation. For now, individual teachers are bringing alternative assessments to their classrooms, he said.

Todd Deisher, a multimedia teacher at Worthington Kilbourne High School, was tired of the question-answer final exams he had given for years. Two years ago, he started assigning a project that students had to finish in the two-hour testing period. Students in last semester's class, for example, had to produce a promotional piece using at least two of the computer applications they learned. "I started looking at what was the most important thing they should have gotten out of the class," said Deisher, who has taught for 26 years.

At Upper Arlington, Sidor still gives tests. But that is not a good way to learn, she said. "It's a good way to do a 'gotcha,' " she said. "I would much rather have them tell me what they know."