“This was the best day ever.” A fourth-grader handed this note to me at the end of the day. I had brought my spinning wheel to her classroom and miraculously had had enough time to let each of the 18 students spin a length of yarn. Their faces glowed with the joy of learning something new and of actually making something. Their thrill filled me with the excitement I entered teaching to experience.
Not so very long ago, I was teaching third grade. I had just taken part in a workshop on project-based learning through Buffalo State. When it came time for my water unit in science, we began by listing what we knew about water and then generated a list of what we wondered about water. The topics ranged from where does water actually come from to what happens to the water we flush. Then the students, either by themselves or with a friend or two, pursued their own particular interest.
Now this class was comprised of students with a wide range of abilities. They were actively engaged in research for their topic. They wrote letters to members of the community who could answer their questions. They read books and searched the Internet. One group found a folk tale about the value of water and chose to act it out. Another student built a model showing the pipes in his house and explaining their use. Some of my struggling students built an amazing diorama of the water cycle.
We worked on these projects in school, and the unit culminated in my students sharing what they learned with other students in the school. There was so much energy and excitement during those weeks. Not only did they learn about water, they practiced reading and writing skills; they worked in groups and cooperated with one another; they spoke clearly and confidently to visitors about their projects.
Could I give a standardized test to assess their learning? No, they went about their learning according to their individual interests and strengths. Could I assign a number to their learning? Not really. But could I assign a value? Priceless.
I believe the skills learned in working on this and other projects are more valuable to our students than learning to take tests. Eventually they will be out of school and in a world where they will have to know where to find information and read it on their own. They will have to work cooperatively with co-workers. They will need to move confidently through their world to be successful.
As teachers prepare their students for state-mandated tests, time for in-depth projects, field trips and other enriching experiences is practically nonexistent. The value of education has been reduced to a score of one to four. Students and teachers are stressed.
Most teachers begin their careers eager to provide those experiences they know will spark curiosity and foster a passion for learning in their students. Preparing for these tests saps teachers of their own passion for their profession. And wouldn’t we rather put the billions of dollars spent on the tests toward more rewarding experiences in school than in the pockets of the test makers?
Is there a place for assessments? Of course. We want to prove progress. But more importantly, we need to see an excitement for learning that will sustain our students throughout their lives.
“This was the best day ever.” Who would write this after taking a standardized test?