What About High Stakes Testing?

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There is no denying that high stakes testing is a large part of the education spectrum these days. With so many educator’s jobs riding on the scores of these tests, it seems natural to want to focus on content to make sure the students are doing the best they possibly can on these examinations. I often hear, “I can’t do anything fancy in the classroom because we need to prepare for the test.” While that mentality is understandable, it might not actually be the most effective.

What does high stakes testing actually prove?

When a student is being assessed on his or her ability to demonstrate understanding on a topic (especially when it comes to high stakes testing), what is it that we as educators should really be hoping for? Sure, we want them to pass; that is the most basic level of goals for all stakeholders involved in this scenario. However, what do we REALLY want them to be able to do?

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Say a class goes over a topic in depth. The students know all the pieces to the puzzle (no matter what the subject matter or the grade level). The test comes. What do we actually want from them?

Regurgitation or Application?

In a different blog post, I used the scenario of riding a bike. A student can know everything there is to know about how to ride a bike from learning about it, but does that mean they can actually ride a bike? No, it doesn’t. We can give as much content as there is in the universe, and our students can take it all in, but do they actually understand it? Can they apply it? Or can they simply spit it back and then move on with their lives, ultimately forgetting how that concept works?

This is where Student-Centered Learning shines the brightest. By taking the content and making it hands-on, students have to think about the content on a deeper level and therefore understand it better.

I once had a math teacher come to me and mention that her students were really struggling with the concept of percentages. No matter what method she tried, they just didn’t understand it. Together, we sat down and took a different approach. We came up with the idea of turning her classroom into a used car lot. Each student entered the room and was given a specific amount of money. They then needed to figure out what car they wanted to buy. Then, they needed to calculate interest, payments, the life of the loan, etc. versus how much they actually had.

It took a lot of prep work, but in one class period, the students applied the concepts and finally understood how it worked.

transaction taking place with paperwork being signed and keys being handed over with caption that reads, "the most effective learning opportunities recreate real life scenarios"

Trust me….Google your next lesson topic. Search Pinterest. Check out Teachers Pay Teachers. Add in “project-based” or “student-centered” to your search. There is SO MUCH on the internet to help you as you start out with this method. You will find something that you can tweak for your students and run with.

They will love this, especially if they are still used to a teacher-led environment.

It will help them with those soft skills that will, in turn, allow them to become better test-takers. They will learn how to think as opposed to learn how to regurgitate, and this alone will help them when they are put to more difficult tasks. They become problem solvers and, in great cases, go-getters who want to learn and won’t stop until they get the answer they are looking for.

It creates more confidence and will, in turn, allow them to increase their performance metrics with higher-level thinking applications.

search engine screen with caption, "Don’t be afraid to Search for lessons that will teach your students to think"

I have had students come back to me and give their stereotypical teenage snark of, “I don’t remember anything from this class other than always working on projects.”

I usually smile and start asking them content-based questions. 9 out of 10 times, they can ramble off the answers without batting an eye. I enjoy my favorite part of teaching at that moment, the “ah-ha!” moment.

We all know the “ah-ha!” moment. It’s when you see in the face of a student that they finally get it. It is in this moment they realize that my class wasn’t just “laid back” or “full of projects”, but that they were applying the content and actually learning it better than if I had had them sit and take notes and expect them to regurgitate the information back to me.

It isn’t a matter of cramming knowledge into their heads in order to do well with high-stakes testing…it’s a matter of them understanding it and being able to apply it to any question they are given.

students sitting with teacher, many raising their hands, with the caption, "Critical thinkingallows students to excel in high stakes testing"

While preparing for this type of lesson is time-consuming on the back end, not only will you see much better results in the classroom, but once you create an activity, you only need to tweak it to amend to your students for years to come.

Your high-stakes testing results will most likely shine as well. Students will remember what they have learned because they are active in the activities. They will have fewer instances of information being on the tip of their tongue because they will remember what it was they did with that information as opposed to just remembering the monotonous information that was given to them.

They have a vested interest and this in and of itself allows the students to excel to a level of learning and education that they may have never reached before. It instills a love of learning and a natural knack for problem-solving. They will naturally absorb more information than if they obtained it in any other way. At the end of the day, isn’t this what we want our students to achieve from the information we teach them?

In all, always consider the following Chinese proverb and how much truth comes from it in the classroom:

You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “What About High Stakes Testing?

  1. Thank you for sharing this post. I think you have brought up some excellent points about how an SCL environment can make learning more meaningful for students while also promoting more retention of knowledge.

    I find that SCL and high-stakes testing are innately conflicting areas of education. High-stakes testing most often occurs in the classic disciplines of Mathematics, Sciences, English Language Arts, and Social Studies and isolating these distinct areas of study points to a subject-centered curriculum design. As a very popular and widely used curriculum design, in subject-centered classrooms the “curriculum is organized according to how essential knowledge has developed in various subject areas” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013, p. 161). Teachers often use standardized materials, textbooks, and resources to drive teaching in a single subject area (Sowell, 2005, p. 55). As students are preparing for a standardized exam, one might argue that it would be best to study the standardized resources that have been provided by the governing educational body to ensure that students are “taught to the test” and can score highly on these exams.

    But does this teach students how to problem-solve, think critically and creatively, inquire and seek answers, and apply knowledge to new contexts? Or rather, does it promote memorization of facts to regurgitate in similar questions in the future?

    A change in the traditional teaching model brought student-centered learning, where “the emphasis on the child displaced the emphasis on subject matter” (Ornstein & Hunkins, p. 9). Student-centered learning advocates argue that this approach to teaching and learning means learning should not be separated from students’ lives, which starkly differs from the subject-centered design (Ornstein & Hunkins, p. 9). In a student-centered classroom, teachers and students work together to plan the progression of learning, with students gaining empowerment through these negotiations (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013). Alternatively, in a subject-centered classroom the teacher holds the agency over learning, and “takes an active role in lecturing, direct instruction, recitation, and large group discussion” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013, p. 160).

    So herein lies the paradox…

    We have a subject-centered classroom preparing students for high-stakes exams, yet we want a student-centered approach to teaching and learning so that we can help students internalize and retain information better.

    So, what is the solution to this problem? Is there a “grey area” between subject-centered and student-centered that we should try to find? Can we blend these two approaches? Is it even possible for them to coexist?

    I look forward to your responses,


    Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2013). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Read Chapter 6, pp. 149-173.

    Sowell, E. J. (2005). Curriculum: An integrative introduction (3rd ed., pp. 52-54, 55-61, 81-85,103-106). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    1. Hi Tara! Thanks for your comment. I think you’re on the right track. If student-centered learning is done properly, there are no gaps in content knowledge. Rather, the students have the opportunity to discover and unearth an even deeper level of learning than teacher-centered instruction allows for. For instance, I had a class of students come to me at the end of a very rigorous semester of honors history and tell me that for the first time in their lives, they weren’t nervous about exams at all because when they looked at the review sheet, they were already confident that they understood the information. This is the beauty of student-centered learning and it is the same response in any subject area. It is 100% up to the teacher to make sure that the outlines they create for their students in terms of class expectations and activities cover the basics of content, but then those activities lend themselves for students to ask questions and indulge in the subject manner even deeper. We have another article that discusses the role of the student-centered teacher here: https://www.studentcenteredworld.com/what-is-the-teachers-role-in-the-student-centered-classroom/

      1. Thank you so much for your response and for sharing another article. I will be sharing this site with my colleagues as they attempt to make the transition on the continuum from TCL to SCL!

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