Did These 2nd Graders Debunk the Myth That Tests Measure Learning?

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New Jersey teacher Michael Dunlea

Photo credit: Michael Dunlea

Mike Dunlea asked his 2nd graders how they would know if the paper airplanes they were building functioned according to their design specifications. “We have to design an intelligent test to make sure we’re measuring the right way to find out who made the best plane, to define what the best plane is,” Dunlea told the 7-year-old architects, many of whom had never made a paper airplane.

Listen to Dunlea’s story on the Hack Learning Podcast

For these precocious problem solvers, the answer was simple: See which plane flies the longest distance.

As you might imagine, soon paper airplanes were zigzagging their way around the classroom. Then, practice ended, and it was time for the “real” test.

They lined up enthusiastically, inhaled deeply, and flung their paper aircrafts toward the ceiling.

Some flew gracefully; some landed softly. Some crashed.

Instead of labeling the experiment and the lesson a failure and plastering a poor grade on his students’ records, Dunlea engaged his young learners in conversation. The planes flew far during practice, he told one confused designer. So what went wrong during the “real” test?

“I choked,” the 7-year-old replied, a powerful observation for a 2nd grader.

Rather than allow the child to submit to frustration, Dunlea reminded him that he had created a good plane, because it flew far during practice.

“That’s right,” the teacher emphasized. “Sometimes you guys might bomb a test, but you have to remember that even though your plane crashed, you know you’ve got a great plane. You have to remember this when you take a test. The test doesn’t decide how smart you are. The test decides how you did that day.”

In arguably one of the most important lessons these 2nd graders will ever learn–a lesson they’re now channeling through their teacher–a one-time, one-off test cannot define who you are as a learner.

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“You could hear a pin drop,” Dunlea says of the experience. “You could tell they were all really thinking about what was going on, and I think it was a really good example of how we can destress (testing) and we can break down the anxiety levels.”

So, 7-year-olds understand that tests can’t measure their learning.

One must wonder, when will the adults catch up to the kids?

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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