As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This quote captures the essential problem with putting too much focus on testing.
Not all students are good test takers, and not all careers require the ability to take traditional tests in order to be successful on the job.
As a 22-year veteran teacher, I have met hundreds of students who don’t test well but are good thinkers and talented individuals.
If I had judged them solely on their ability to take pencil/paper exams, I would have done them a great disservice. Furthermore, if I had evaluated them solely on traditional test scores, I would not have realized the extent to which they had internalized and learned from what I taught them.
Take, for example, Andy and Corey, two students I had in a junior/senior level English class that focused on communication in the workplace. Neither was a good test taker, and both were hovering around 60 percent in my class.
Neither lacked intelligence, but both lacked motivation to complete traditional classroom assignments. For their final evaluation, Andy asked if he and Corey could bring their guitars to class and perform an original song they wrote. I told him I would allow it as long as their performance was connected to the content and showed that they mastered all of the core information required on the final.
The day of their presentation, they sat down in front of the class and performed an amazing original composition. After they finished the song, Andy went into his explanation: “You might have noticed that when Corey and I were going to do a key or tempo change, we used non-verbal communication by making eye contact and using facial expressions and gestures to signal to each other what we were doing…And in the music industry, if you want to get gigs booked at good places where you will make money, you have to be sure that the promotional materials you bring to the venue to sell your band are professional and don’t have any errors…”
He continued to go through every point on the study guide and covered each one of them effectively and in a way that showed me that he had truly internalized the information I had taught. He showed me that he would be able to use what he learned in meaningful ways in his chosen profession.
As this was an English class, the students also had a written portion of the final in which they had to summarize their presentation.
Because Andy’s grammar was not the best, he did not receive an A, but the high score on the presentation averaged with his less than stellar written summary worked out to be about a C.
Had I made Andy sit down and take a traditional test on the material, I am confident, based on his prior performance on traditional assignments and tests, that he would have failed. He would not have graduated, and I would never have known that he really did “get” what I had been teaching him all year.
In this video, a younger student tells us what it’s like not to test well. Zion, like Andy and Corey, is bright and artistic, but has a hard time with tests. To make things worse, he feels the pressure from his parents and his school to get good scores.
Traditional tests certainly have their place in education. However, if the current trend of ever-increasing high-stakes tests continues to spiral out of control, countless students will be denied high school diplomas. Their journey to their chosen career will at best be complicated, and at worst come to a screeching halt.