School & District Management Opinion

End of Year Projects Show Mastery Levels Better Than State Mandated Tests

By Starr Sackstein — June 09, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s three school days until Regent exams begin and high school students and some middle schoolers get to show what they know in all content areas terminating in these state tests.

Mandatory for graduation, these cumulative exams are supposed to afford students the opportunity to show their level of mastery in a variety of content areas at the end of the year. Ranging from English to biology to trigonometry or Spanish; each child has to review a full year’s worth of learning and in one three hour test, show it all.

Aside from this being an antiquated idea about how students learn and can show what they know, these tests are flawed in how they are created. Although some situations in life require memorization and timed thought, most do not and often don’t give any person the best opportunity to show what they know.

In addition to this, the professionals creating the exams are not teachers who work with these students and so teachers are expected to cover a wide variety of topics and still don’t know exactly what will show up on the exam, but can only guess based on earlier years. (And that doesn’t include the exams that have been changing in format and content every other year.)

It’s because of this that I abandoned testing a long time ago, in exchange for long term projects that require students to show many different skills at once. Because the completion of the assignments take about a month, each child can show proficiency or mastery of many different skills over the course of the process. In this way, students have the best opportunity to give their all and show what they learned over the course of the year.

Some may say this may be great for English has the skills don’t change and can be applied to different areas of content, but this isn’t so for math or science. However, given the fact that students have access to the internet now, why not allow them to select a topic they want to explore in any of these disciplines and allow them to generate a project on their own that shows what they have learned, while providing them with a choice in both content and product?

In AP English, my twelfth graders undergo the arduous research process and their submission of a 12-15 page sourced paper is the culmination of their skills and our work. They have the opportunity to go to the college library, use college resources and synthesize what they find to argue a thesis about literature they develop. They pick the texts, the research, the critical theory through which they will focus their ideas and then reflect on the process.

While I read these papers I’m always amazed at how much they have grown. Have all of them mastered every skill, no, but that doesn’t mean real progress hasn’t been made. Those who started approaching standards are not meeting them and since they are working on the assignment both in and out of school, I have the opportunity to provide feedback along the way. Additionally, their peers serve as sounding boards sharing their feedback and advice as well.

The classroom for the last month of school looks more like a workshop. Each child working on what he or she needs when he or she needs it while I confer with students about their progress. Quick questions are easy to answer while “can you read this and tell me if it’s good?” is no longer allowed. Students have learned to be precise in their search for help and are able to really articulate what they want feedback on. A skill that doesn’t get quantified in an exam.

As the conversation about communicating learning continues to evolve, it’s not just grades we need to reconsider but the means in which we assess students that determine that level of mastery.

How do you know how well your students have learned what you’ve taught? In what ways have you communicated it to them and to their parents? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.