I Have Found A New “High Stakes” Test

As the controversy over the increase in standardized testing appears to hit its zenith with parents “opting out“, governors pledging to reduce testing time in Minnesota, Florida, and Connecticut , and even noted conservative educational pundit Diane Ravitch piling on, it is worth noting that there is, in fact, a good “high stakes” educational approach out there– it’s called experiential education.

In experiential pedagogy, the focus is on student learning, not on instruction. Students are asked to demonstrate their learning in myriad ways including presentations of learning with authentic audiences. It turns out, when the results of the learning matter to someone besides the student and the teacher, good things happen. Students are more engaged, they work harder, and they care about the final product. Teachers, rather than “sage-ing on the stage,” learn alongside their students– acting as coaches, facilitators, and project directors.

Learning orchestrated in this way is indeed “high stakes.” But, the “stake” here is in relationships– between the student and teacher and between the classroom and the wider community. The idea of “authentic audience” is central to experiential education– the Expeditionary Learning School model is a great example of how this can play out in the k-12 context.

Our current high stakes testing culture in the US is the opposite of this– it misses the connections between learning and civic responsibility.

As noted educator and founder of Outward Bound Kurt Hahn once said, “let the responsible boys and girls shoulder burdens, if negligently performed, to wreck the State.”  Now that is high stakes!

When students “prepare” in the abstract, when the “stakes” are only a punched ticket in to the next grade level, and when the pressure comes not from relationships but from some narrow sense of utilitarianism, we don’t have authentic “high stakes” at all– we have artificial performance.

So please, bring on the high stakes tests– the real ones. The ones where students connect their learning to relevant issues in their local communities, where the stakeholders are real people (and not state testing bureaus), and where the consequences serve broader educational aims and purposes.

That’s my kind of high stakes testing.

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