How Schools Can Succeed Without Tests


The Danville Independent School District in the small city of Danville in central Kentucky has just 1800 students. But they are currently experimenting with a transformational model for public education that’s being watched closely across the state and may spread further still. The district has applied for an exemption from this spring’s state tests, in favor of “performance assessment”– multidisciplinary, semester-long research projects that students present to panels of teachers plus outside observers, in the manner of a PHD defense, to satisfy the requirements of the Common Core curriculum.

A historic marker at Bate High School in Danville.

A historic marker at Bate High School in Danville.

“I feel like on a standardized test you’re really showing what kids don’t know,” says Dr. Amy Swann, principal of Bate Middle School and one of the leaders in the transition to performance assessment.  “In the performance you can show what they do know. You can honestly scaffold it for special needs.” Danville’s schools have made the move to eliminate all multiple-choice tests with the exception of ACT and ACT practice tests. Instead, students will complete projects like having sixth-graders design their ideal country. “It’s 21st century skills; not just paper and pencil but speaking, listening, teamwork,” says Swann. It’s about applying what you learned, not just recalling content. It seems to go so much deeper and mean so much more.”

 What makes this experiment especially notable is that Kentucky was out ahead of the nation in adopting the Common Core and has administered Common Core aligned state tests for the last two years–tests created with Pearson, not the two Common Core assessment consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, which are not expected to be fully ready until the 2014-2015 school year. The federal Department of Education is touting the Common Core tests as a major improvement over current tests, but this district is saying (and experts agree) that in practice the current tests really are the same-old multiple choice and they’re just not meaningful enough to spur deeper learning.
Swann says her problem is not with the Common Core itself. “It does ask for a lot more applied knowledge, and speaking and listening and so much more than will ever be on that [multiple choice] test. It kind of makes me sad that even though these great things are in those standards, if they’re not assessed, than teachers won’t necessarily cover them or they’ll brush past them.”Project-based learning is backed by research. The feedback that comes from performance assessment is designed to be more detailed, actionable, and personalized for students. But what about accountability? If students don’t take standardized tests, how will we know how well they’re doing?

Simple: use real-world metrics that actually matter.

The Kentucky school leaders decided to adopt this model after meeting with the Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 small public high schools in New York that have been exempted from Regents exams and other high-stakes tests since 1998.

Performance Assessment schools in New York City have more poor kids and more English language learners than the average for the city as a whole. Yet their dropout rate is half the city average: 9.9% vs. 19.3%. Their college acceptance rates are 91% vs. 62.6% for the city. And the students are also more likely to persist in college, because, says Ann Cook, director of the consortium, they are truly prepared for independent work. For a task like writing a paper, Cook says, “Our criteria are taken from working backwards: What are college freshmen expected to do in terms of writing?”

The Danville school district requires permission from the Kentucky legislature and a waiver from federal officials to skip the state tests, and a decision won’t be forthcoming for months. But the model is already being demonstrated to education leaders around the state, and is winning converts. Swann says that after the first round of performance assessments took place in December, ” Everyone in fact who came in from universities, the state, and other places left inspired & excited.”


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON January 14, 2014

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[…] manner of a PHD defense, to satisfy the requirements of the Common Core curriculum,” according to The idea is to hold students to real-world metrics that actually matter, much like the intention […]

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