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I’ve got 99 problems, but a test ain’t one

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As the semester draws to a close, I look back at my grade book and I see all of the assignments, essays and projects I have given and a smile appears on my face. I have not given a test the entire first semester. Not a single quiz or unit exam shows up in a column. My students smile just as wide when they look at their grades as well. It’s been an amazing year so far, why ruin it with an ugly bubble test?

A few years ago, I wanted to see what it would be like if I spent one marking period not giving my traditional multiple choice exams at the end of units and see what would happen if I gave my students options to demonstrate their knowledge. At the end of those ten weeks I saw higher engagement and a much stronger demonstration of skill and knowledge than any multiple choice exam had ever shown me. I think there are a couple of reasons for that that I want to share.

I am pretty sure that my tests were terrible. I think most multiple choice tests are not well-written. I think the primary reason for that is that most teachers do not have the training or experience to write a really good multiple choice test. There are so many things to consider when writing these types of exams, and I know I was not thinking about all of them. I was focused on creating questions that were possible to answer that would show me whether or not they knew the information. It was basically a reading check. When I moved to a project-based system, I needed to evaluate what was important to me. Remembering the character’s hometown was nice, but demonstrating the importance the hometown played in the story is far more important. A multiple choice test cannot do that, at least not the tests that I was capable of writing.

Students are yearning to show their teachers their talent and knowledge. They are bursting at the seams to show the world what they can do. The traditional classroom of lecture and test does not allow them to do that though. The minute I started to let my students choose their projects and express their knowledge in different ways, engagement and the overall energy of the students went through the room. They felt part of the process and that investment is critical for engagement and learning. They no longer felt like just another body in a seat being told what was important, they were active participants in their learning. High-school students are eager to participate. They are looking for chances to show off their talents. By moving to a project-based system in my classroom, students have chances every unit to show off what they have learned to me and the rest of the class.

I have been watching my students prepare for a mock trial of Mark Twain this past week. They have been furiously searching the Internet for primary sources to see if there is any evidence that Mark Twain was for or against slavery and if he wrote a racist book in Huck Finn. This delicate topic and very difficult book to read for sophomores has been firmly embraced and has generated amazing discussions that are not possible with the standard multiple choice test or traditional class lecture format.

Watching students explore and learn on their own is an amazing thing. Somewhere along the way, education lost its way and started to focus heavily on memorization of facts and not the actual act of learning. To me, MC tests, fill in the blank exams, etc. as the only means of assessment are a symptom of that larger problem. I was part of that problem but chose to take a leap of faith and trust that my students could show me more. Three years later I can look back at my decision and feel like I have done a great job in reaching more of my students. I can say that I’ve got 99 problems, but a test ain’t one.

Nicholas Provenzano is a high-school English teacher and a technology-curriculum specialist for the Grosse Pointe Public School System in Michigan. He has a master’s degree in educational technology from Central Michigan University and is a regular presenter for the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning and ISTE. When he is not writing on his blog or tweeting @TheNerdyTeacher, he is working on an educational e-zine and a free “unconference,” Edcamp Detroit. He also blogs for Edutopia on the value of technology in education.