Debate Magazine

The Plan to Improve Test Scores: Give Students the Exam Before They Forget the Material

By Stevemiranda

Last week, I read an opinion column in the Huffington Post trying to rally support for a petition. The authors encourage states to “deploy an assessment system that not only explicitly accommodates emerging models of innovative schooling, but also supports them.”

I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since then. Let me explain.

The authors of the petition claim that “there is an unprecedented opportunity to utilize digital learning to transform our nation’s education system. . . . If done correctly, the shift from pencil-and-paper to online assessments will build upon this opportunity to transform the nation’s education system. . . .”

The future, the authors suggest, belongs to “blended schooling models that combine the best of face-to-face and online learning.”

Sadly, the original signatories on this petition include some of the most influential people in education—CEO’s of corporations and major non-profits, urban school leaders, and even the entire Harvard Graduate School of Education!

Despite the more 12 instances of the words “innovative” and “innovation” in this column, there is little here that suggests anything new. Simply taking academic content out of a textbook and putting it on the Internet hardly constitutes a revolution.

The authors gain momentum, however, in the last paragraph: “New assessment systems should support rather than act as a barrier to competency-based learning—in which time is variable but learning is constant for each student—and systems should shift to focus on measuring and rewarding individual student growth.”

But then the house of cards comes crashing down: “Consequently, next-generation assessments must be made available on demand when a student completes a unit or course and not at a pre-determined time on the school calendar.”

If students are actually learning, why does it matter when the test is? If the student needs to have the assessment immediately after completing unit of study or else she’ll forget the material, what’s the point in learning it in the first place?

* * *

Conversations about education typically start with a very important assumption. One either believes that 1) human beings are hardwired with an intrinsic desire to learn, or 2) that kids need to be coerced though punishments and rewards.

Those who believe in punishments and rewards are not only ignoring the most robust findings in the behavioral sciences of the past 40 years, but their conversations essentially become ineffectual white noise. The answer to how we can get kids to reach the arbitrary standards we’ve established doesn’t matter, because we’re asking the wrong question.

Those who believe that human beings are hardwired for learning, on the other hand, have conversations about how to make sure each individual child is whole. When kids are whole and their innate curiosity is intact, getting them to pass tests is a natural by-product of the more important work of helping them reach their full potential.

(Join the discussion at Get updates at

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog