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Assessment Opinion

Student ‘Demonstrations’ Also Test Student Knowledge

By Marc F. Bernstein — March 06, 2002 4 min read
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High-stakes tests cannot and should not be the only measure of a student's ability.

We almost got it right. After years of avoiding some hard truths about our nation’s educational track record, we have finally taken the bold step of choosing to use tests to take an honest look at what we’re doing well and what needs to be improved. That is a great step that will improve accountability and enable us to target our efforts more effectively. But in our zeal, we are about to make enormous and unnecessary sacrifices.

As states begin to implement what the new federal education legislation says they should, there is a danger of overreaction. Individualized test results for each student could be used to deny high school graduation. This is a grave repercussion that states should avoid, because high-stakes tests cannot and should not be the only measure of a student’s ability. There are other ways for students to “show what they know.”

Clearly, not all students are well served by tests. The pressure that these tests put students under will most certainly result in increased high school dropout rates. As a former school superintendent and math teacher, I’ve seen firsthand bright and accomplished students who do not test well, or whose strengths are not easily measured by an examination. Is it fair or even realistic to evaluate a student’s entire educational experience and thus determine his future based on a single assessment? Anyone who has spent time in the classroom should be asking: What is the wisdom in basing major decisions such as grade promotion or graduation solely on one particular test?

This overreliance on testing also has clipped the wings of teachers who wish to offer more to their students than math drills and an exceedingly narrow curriculum. The judicious use of student “demonstrations” to enable students to show their knowledge in ways other than testing could serve both students and teachers well. Teachers base the assignments for these demonstrations on their expanded curriculum. These demonstrations can help restore the proper balance between accountability and learning.

Overreliance on testing has clipped the wings of teachers who wish to offer more to their students than an exceedingly narrow curriculum.

The answer is not to abandon standardized tests, which play a critical role in helping us identify and remediate individual student skill gaps; establish clear, objective standards for all students; and create publicly stated accountability measures. There are reasons for standardized tests. I have witnessed the injustices visited on students when teachers develop and subjectively grade their own tests, without any external corroborations.

The answer is to avoid extremes—the all-or-none approach. A proven way to accomplish this is to require students to prepare and present term papers, oral presentations, technology projects, or other curriculum-related demonstrations. These would reflect students’ mastery of state-prescribed standards. The grade students receive on these projects would be weighted and folded into an overall score used to make high-stakes decisions about grade promotion or graduation.

This concept, called “multiple measures,” has been called into question by some who say the system would be too difficult to validate and too costly to implement. But there is precedent for assigning and grading such tests. Just look at the New York state regents’ foreign-language examination.

Since at least the mid-1980s, students have been required to demonstrate their mastery of foreign-language material, not only with a written test, but also through an oral exam administered and graded by teachers. While the state has defined what skills must be demonstrated on the oral test, the grading of it is still within the teachers’ professional judgment. The teacher is given the freedom to determine upon which curriculum the oral exam will be based. The oral component of the regents’ score accounts for 20 percent of the regents’ exam.

Student demonstrations can help restore the proper balance between accountability and learning.

The same system could be applied to tests in other subjects: Teachers would be given state-prescribed guidelines for both assigning and grading projects. I would suggest that the “demonstration” be weighted at 30 percent and the written portion at 70 percent; thus, all students would still have to show a level of competence as measured by the time-tested, controlled, objectively scored written assessment.

The value of such a system is twofold. Students benefit by being given another chance to prove they’ve learned what they’re supposed to, and student demonstrations would empower teachers to enrich a curriculum necessarily narrowed by the rigors of the test, which not only determines who graduates and who drops out, but also which teachers earn bonuses.

When tests are used as the sole criterion for determining the future of students, teachers and schools are shortchanged. Now is the time to turn “The Testing Era” into “The Learning Era.”

Marc F. Bernstein was for 14 years the superintendent of the Bellmore-Merrick school district in New York. He is now the president of Kaplan K-12 Learning Services in New York City.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Student ‘Demonstrations’ Also Test Student Knowledge

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