Over the last 20 years we’ve seen a growing reliance on multiple choice tests to figure out how well students are learning and how well teachers are teaching. Now, however, public schools in Virginia are moving away from that approach, trying new ways to grade as Sandy Hausman reports.
It’s Thursday morning in Mrs. Agee’s fifth grade class at Crozet Elementary – about 20 miles east of Shenandoah National Park. The kids have read a novel called Grandpa’s Mountain -- about how families living in the future park were forced to leave. Now, students form two lines – facing each other – to debate the pros and cons of eminent domain – allowing the government to force the sale of private property for public good.
“I don’t think people should be forced to leave their house, just because the government wants other people to enjoy it,” says one student.
“I disagree, because only 500 families had to move out, and now over a million people can enjoy it every year,” argues another.
“Sometimes you really loved that house, and you wouldn’t want to get another house, so sometimes you feel really sad when you have to move out,” says a third.
Others points out: “They’ll have better doctors and better education for their kids. + That’s why I think that eminent domain can be a good thing.”
“You’re having more plants and animals, fish and birds, and also you’re having cleaner water.”
“I kind of think that eminent domain is a bad thing because of what my friend Elissa said, if somebody had just finished building a house, they might be very upset that they are taking away a house that they had just finished.”
This is one form of what educators call performance assessment – a chance to see how well students understand what they’ve studied and whether they can apply or explain it.
Betsy Agee, who’s been teaching for 27 years, is convinced this is the best way to evaluate students.
“I could have given those kids a multiple-choice test on eminent domain, and they could have scored well on it and left that process not having a clue what the phrase even meant," she says. " but after hearing others’ perspectives filtered through their own lens and talking to each other, they get it.”
Shannon King agrees. She’s manager of Best Practices for Fairfax Public Schools.
“I actually teach some of our education classes at George Mason University, and I can see a shift in the kids we’re getting over the past 10 years. It’s not necessarily a good shift.”
She says students who came through school in the age of multiple choice tests are less likely to think outside the box – to take intellectual chances. From an early age, King argues, children should be encouraged to think creatively.
“I tell my kindergarten teachers all the time, ‘They need to fail early and fail often, because they’ll need to learn it’s not going to hurt them – that they’ll survive, and they’ll learn, and we’ll keep moving forward.’
And at Burley Middle School in Charlottesville, teacher IdaMae Craddock is convinced that the 21st century requires a different skill set from graduates.
“Instead of memorizing a list of facts, we’re talking about how do they find the facts that they need in the time that they need them. When we do our jobs as adults, we look things up. The list of things that we just have memorized is getting increasingly smaller, because we have so much access to technology.”
Burley’s Principal Jim Asher – a part-time musician and full-time educator -- says you still need to memorize some basic stuff.
“You have to know the notes. You have to know what the key, but if all I got as a musician was a multiple choice tests on my knowledge, that’s certainly not going to reflect my skill as a pianist.”
And at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, Professor Carol Tomlinson cites data showing students learn more when they’re doing and making rather than memorizing.
“You learn when you try to apply something. You learn when you have a real problem you need to solve and try your best skills at solving it, and then either it does or it doesn’t work, and you learn and you move from there.”
Of course this approach to education is harder for teachers.
“There’s a reason that everybody went to multiple choice tests, and that was that they are easier to score.”
But Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Steven Staples, says employers want high school and college graduates who know how to apply what they’ve learned.
“Think of a student who’s interested in studying engineering. There will be a paper and pencil test for engineering, but at some point I want to know – Can you build a bridge?”
UVA’s Carol Tomlinson adds that standardized multiple choice tests were not originally intended to assess the performance of individual kids or teachers.
“A standardized test is really designed to see how a large population is working, and one of the things we’ve done more recently, which is not helpful, is to use them to judge a teacher or a classroom or a school.”
Even so, she says, a whole generation of teachers has been trained and encouraged to teach to the test, so moving to performance-based assessments may not be easy.
“As somebody said once, ‘The only person that likes change is a baby in a wet diaper, and there’s probably something to that.’”
Still, teachers like Betsy Agee and IdaMae Craddock welcome the chance to spread their educational wings, and State Superintendent Staples says there will be special training for teachers. This is year three of a five-year demonstration project for the state. When it’s finished, officials will decide what requirements to put in place for all public schools when it comes to multiple choice tests versus performance-based assessments.