Many teachers feel they can’t take the time to do formative assessments because there is too much curricular pressure.  They may feel driven to prepare themselves for a standardized test at the end of the semester or year that assesses so much material that they feel there is no time for anything but marching through the curriculum as fast as possible.

This raises numerous questions.  Is mastery of what is being tested a realistic goal for every student?  Given the people in the room, the time constraints, and the wide range of readiness and motivation to learn, can all students be successful at meeting the prescribed standards?  In my experience, working with many teachers in many disciplines, the answer is invariably no.

If we are expecting students to meet standards that we know are not realistic goals for every student, then they aren’t standards.  By definition, standards comprise what we expect every student to know and be able to do.  At best, the current “standards” are aspirational — they are what we would like students to accomplish.  Unfortunately, they also serve as filters, sorting children into more or less successful students. This sorting satisfies a larger purpose in the educational system, of course.  But, as described above, such sorting also does enormous damage. Pushing through the curriculum to cover everything for the standardized test requires abandoning self-directed learning.  It means that we cease to respond to the needs of struggling learners — there simply isn’t enough time. Teachers are forced to leave the wreckage behind.

Since standardized tests are a reality that teachers have little or no control over, the task at hand is to optimize a student’s chances of doing well on these assessments while not abandoning the central purpose of self-directed learning.  Fortunately, there is a way to do this.

Unit tests should be based on learning goals that are realistic for all your students.  Through differentiation techniques like learning contracts, faster, more successful students can do enrichment activities which cover everything expected on the exam.  Since they are working at an appropriate level of challenge, they will be well prepared for the standardized test.

At the same time, because the learning goals are realistic, slower students will have a solid base of learning, even if it is on a smaller scope than will be seen on the standardized test.  As a result, they will do much better under this system than they would have under the old approach of marching through the curriculum so quickly that they would learn very little. They will also have more self-confidence, too, and will be better prepared to take advantage of systematic reviewing (i.e. cramming) that will occur before the exam.  Now that review will be much more useful for them.

Raising standardized test scores does not require abandoning self-directed learning as the central purpose of your class, nor abandoning the students who struggle most.