High Stakes Testing and Critical Thinking: Is Balance Possible?

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Note: This post was part of a larger conversation between nine educators on C.M. Rubin’s Global Search For Education Blog on The Huffington Post.

 Can teachers balance high stakes test prep with critical thinking?

Let me first say that I don’t have a magical answer; anyone who says he does is trying to sell something. Let me also say that, for this post, I’m going to set aside the (utterly imperative) question of whether or not schools should engage in high stakes testing, and instead focus on how teachers—within our current reality—can balance test prep alongside deep, critical learning.

Like many, I’ve struggled with this balance, particularly while teaching in South Korea where “high stakes” takes on a whole new meaning: Though Korea boasts some of the world’s highest test scores, this comes at the expense of untenable student stress, staggering rates of teen suicide, and an education system largely geared toward cramming for tests. Fortunately, my employer understood that critical thinking can actually boost test scores, and we engaged students in collaborative learning, tackling real world issues through interactive “critical thinking projects.” Students worked hard, improved their English, and actually had some fun in the process.

And oh yeah: They passed exams, often with flying colors.

As a high school English teacher in the U.S., I’ve seen a school-as-test-prep mentality increasingly similar to Korea’s, but devoid of the critical thinking component that made my particular academy successful. More and more, we seem to think that raising test scores means “teaching to the test” and other forms of targeted, but cognitively shallow, exam prep.

Is this really the only way to raise scores? Supervising student teachers around my city, I notice many struggling schools feel pressured to “teach to the test,” while this approach is rarely, if ever, emphasized in higher performing schools—where such tests are seldom even discussed.

It appears that, rather than teaching to the test, the most successful schools teach through the test. They aim for pedagogical goals so far beyond the bar set by exams that they knock it over along the way. As one Department Head told me, “If we read great books, discuss them deeply—really discuss them—and push our kids to become amazing writers… if we’ve done this well, they’ll pass the test no problem.” Like my aberrant academy in Korea, these schools believe that when students critically engage with material and have rich, profound educational experiences, the test scores will come.

Will this work for every student in every context? Of course not. But it’s clear that there are approaches to raising test scores that don’t marginalize deep, critical learning—and many of our best schools use them.

So it’s unclear why, in some of our most vulnerable schools, we endorse techniques that successful schools wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Must high stakes testing inherently result in a system where the educationally rich get richer while the poor get test prep? As great teachers and schools in countless districts, cities, and nations have demonstrated, there is indeed another way.

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