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Why “Teaching to Test” Fails our Students

By Adam Hellebuyck
Dean of Curriculum and Assessment

My friend and colleague Therese Chouinard showed me the documentary “A Touch of Greatness” on YouTube a few years ago. The documentary highlights the career of Albert Cullum, an elementary school teacher who – in the 1960s – showed that children learn through robust experiences, through projects, and through play. The key, as Cullum says in the documentary, is that teaching involves pushing students toward opportunities, rather than holding them back. The teacher is not the gatekeeper to knowledge, but rather the guide that students can use when necessary on their journey toward infinite possibilities. Therese and I marveled at how similar the Liggett Approach and Curriculum for Understanding are to Cullum’s work in the 1960s.

How do we know where students are on their educational journey? How can we measure it to best give them the support they need and deserve to continue on the path to success? These questions regarding assessment have been discussed endlessly for decades in the national dialogue, particularly since A Nation at Risk was published in 1984. The A Nation at Risk report was particularly significant, as it called for an increase of standardized testing to ensure students were prepared for the next phases of their lives, particularly the transition from high schools to colleges or careers. This emphasis on standardized testing has had significant consequences for assessment practices in the United States. The country moved more toward a “one size fits all” model of assessment to measure students against a centralized standard and away from individualized, formative assessments designed to ascertain how to best serve students in their further growth.

Over the past fifty years, University Liggett School has not been removed from these conversations with regard to assessment. As an institution that prides itself on academic excellence and innovation, it has capably balanced its dedication to open-ended, student-driven learning, as espoused by Cullum and others, and the need to assess students in order to provide them with the best support and encouragement possible. This is only possible due to the talented, dedicated professionals who have taught, debated, planned, visioned, and otherwise maneuvered the school ever closer to its mission statement over the past half-century.

The Liggett School was founded in 1878 to help prepare students for the challenges of the twentieth century. University Liggett School remains committed to that forward-thinking approach well into the twenty-first. In this information age, where content is literally available in the palms of our hands, the development of skills to help students process and evaluate that content is paramount to help them on their respective life journeys. Our assessment approaches have had to evolve to meet these new challenges. While they may look different than they have in the past, they retain the rigor and commitment to academic excellence that has been a hallmark of University Liggett School and its predecessor schools for decades.

In the fourteen years, I have taught at University Liggett School, I have seen this process in action. In the PreK of our Lower School, the Reggio Emilia approach allows students to learn through experiences, play, and discovery, with unlimited ways to express themselves. If you had a chance to visit the hallways of the PreK before the COVID-19 pandemic, you saw how students were able to demonstrate their own learning: through pictures, charts, diagrams, words and phrases, and a plethora of other means. Even in assessment, the students are in control of their learning and how they present what they know to others.

Throughout the Lower School, teachers have embraced the Project Approach, in which teachers guide students through real-world topics. Often these student-driven projects are assessed in creative and authentic ways. For example, a first-grade project on the research process and a fourth-grade project examining poetry culminate in public, student-directed presentations in the auditorium. The fifth-grade examination of Native American cultures and economics culminates in a trade day, where students must use their collected understanding to make mutually beneficial trades of goods they have carefully crafted. These are but a few of the ways in which we ascertain what our students are able to do, which allows us to build future lessons and projects that help them continue to grow and flourish on their journeys.

In the Middle School, assessment has become more focused upon authenticity: how do experts in the field use their knowledge and skills to demonstrate their understanding of ideas? We have collaborated with each other to design experiences that appropriately mirror the work of the discipline. For example, sixth grade mathematicians were exploring ratios, percentages, and how to use Microsoft Excel (and Google Sheets) spreadsheets to both compute formulas and display charts and graphs. For their assessment, the sixth graders went on a virtual shopping spree at Target; they had to use the set funds they were given to purchase the most goods within a specific set of parameters. During the activity, the teacher (Erin Montagne) announced percentage discounts on certain items, which the students would have to apply in real time to their work. In the end, they not only had to use their critical thinking skills to determine what to buy, but also apply percentage discounts on their purchases, as well as sales tax. I think of activities like this one whenever I hear about Albert Cullem’s assertion that students learn best when they can work and play through interesting projects and problems.

Assessment in the Upper School has also evolved greatly over the past decade. In 2012, the school transitioned away from the Advanced Placement (AP) program, in which students enrolled in courses designed specifically to prepare them for a standardized test in May. University Liggett School, exercising its continued commitment to excellence and innovation, decided that our teachers could design better experiences to help our students learn and prepare for their next phase of life than a national, standardized organization like the College Board. The results have been remarkable: our students are able to pursue robust course offerings like Forensic Science, Shakespeare, and the Electoral Process where they can dig deeply into both content and skill development, without worrying if they are missing something that will be “on the test.” Teachers have designed equally robust assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding in these classes, from public museum exhibits to video documentaries (which win national awards) and much more.

The authenticity that characterizes many of our current assessment practices across all our divisions truly helps us meet the mission that University Liggett School, and our predecessor schools, have strived for: to help students succeed on their respective journeys and meet the challenges of the future. Having students perform collaborative tasks relevant to the disciplines they study, providing frequent, critical, and detailed feedback, and allowing for an iterative process that allows students to make revisions and build upon that feedback simulates the work they will do on their future journey. Students remain challenged by their teachers to perform their best work, to challenge their assumptions, and strive to become the best version of themselves they can be through hard work, critical feedback, and revision.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, our dedicated teachers are continuing to transform their assessment practices to help push students more toward the limitless opportunities that await them, away from recitations of discrete knowledge. Just as this was true for Albert Cullem in the 1960s (and others in previous and subsequent decades), it remains true for us at University Liggett School today.