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Some Tests Are Really Great for Students

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Tests are easy to vilify in the USA today because there are too many bad ones and there are too many bogus high stakes attached to them. But this school year I’ve seen an extremely difficult test have a profoundly positive effect on its takers.

First, my AP World History kids. Prior to this year, I hadn’t taught an advanced course of any kind (though I’ve always sought to wrangle advanced work into general- or remedial-level courses). My APWH course, as I’ve written about before, is only open to ninth graders and has no pre-reqs, so you may need to set aside your impression of what an AP course is when you picture mine. Instead of a tiny circle of desks arranged for discussion each day, picture me teaching fourteen-year-old boys how to control their impulses, brand new high school kids how to study, and a few kids who’ve always done well how to deal with failure. Picture some student writers who put their teacher’s writing skills to shame, and some student writers who can’t explain what a sentence is. Picture a few students who read history books for fun, but mostly students whose choice reading lives are those of typical idiosyncratic teenagers.

Yet the AP test had a profound effect on this precious mishmash of kids. For the first time in my career, my students had a beautifully fair, exceptionally challenging assessment with meaningful stakes at the end of my course.

  • The APWH test is fair because it’s drawn from a 133-page course description, and fifty percent of its score is based on essay questions that can be answered using a wide variety of world history knowledge. Every APWH teacher has access to the course description, and every APWH teacher’s goal is to craft their course according to it. So even though it’s true that it’s a test on everything that’s ever happened anywhere, a careful student of the course description and released tests can come to a sense of the most important concepts students need to master. I also love that it’s the same exact test for all the test-takers in the world, given on the same date at the same time.
  • Yet it’s also very challenging, especially when one’s aim is to achieve the highest score of a 5. (All of my students were expected to aim this high.) You learn thousands of pieces of information during the school year, and you have to figure out how to make many of them retrievable. That retrievability needs to be organized geographically, chronologically, and thematically, too. You should be able to pull up the Ottomans when I mention Turkey, or the 1400s, or politics in the Islamic world during the Early Modern era. And finally, all this data, understood from various angles, together needs to produce deeper conceptual understandings of world history. It’s not an impossible test, but it’s one that requires more out of my students than many of them believed they could give at the start of the school year.
  • And indeed, the challenge wouldn’t be enticing if it weren’t for meaningful stakes — and no, I don’t just mean the college credit. Sure, to some of my kids the college credit was why they cared. But to others, the stakes were simply that they wanted to see what they were capable of. Others wanted to make their family members proud; some desired to “make history” by being the ever-so-rare student who scores a 5 as a ninth grader. But none of my students did well because they didn’t want their teacher to get a bad evaluation. Refreshing, right?

Sometimes I wish I could teleport you, dear reader, into my room so that my students could do justice to what my words cannot. After reading the above, you may be picturing some poor, beleaguered group, slavishly devoted to extrinsic assessment thanks in part to their well-meaning but misguided teacher. You feel sorry for kids whom I’ve trained to live lives beholden to external scorecards. But if you could just come and meet them you’d see very normal kids — in all of the often perplexing ways that your students are normal — who are extremely content in having done beyond their best at such a hard thing. Every one of those kids knew on May 12 that they could contend for a passing score. That, to me and to them, is really something.

Footnote:

  1. I only teach world history this year, hence the focus on this particular portion of my state’s tests.

Thank you to the inaugural group of APWH kids for showing me a thing or two this year. Thank you for believing in me as your teacher.

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