The Christian Science Monitor featured a piece on how New Hampshire is leading the country in innovative ways to measure learning and teaching. The state’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) program replaces standardized, multiple-choice style tests with teacher-developed “common tasks” that are given throughout the year.
What does a common task look like? Here’s an example of one:
Just outside Concord High School, a delivery truck has spilled its chemical supplies. The students’ mission: Investigate the properties of the spill and develop a detailed plan to clean it up safely.
Teenagers wearing safety goggles squat down, sucking up samples of the clear liquid with pipettes. The simulated spill has been “contained” in a fish tank. But the students play along, first by developing some “testable questions” with their partners: How acidic is it? How does it compare with the properties of each substance on the truck?
They’ll have four class periods over the course of several days to collect and record data with assigned partners, and to write up, individually, their plans.
According to teachers, students, and administrators, PACE is engaging, authentic, and gives teachers the information they need to give students the kind of help they need and meet them where they are in their learning:
“You really can’t do competency ed as an externally, top-down driven accountability system,” says Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy commissioner of education. “We’re building a system where the assessments are back in the hands of educators and students.”
“Not one student has asked me yet, ‘How much is this going to count in my grade?’ ” Concord Chemistry teacher Lyn Vinskus says. “None of them will just leave it blank or say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” including the boy who groaned when he walked in, and who has done just that on traditional tests. Kids of all ability levels are “engaging in science,” she says, “and that’s a win.”
Student Mackenzie Lyons says she often gets “stressed out” when she thinks about tests. But with a performance assessment, “I just think about it as a normal classroom activity.” She also likes completing it over several days. “If we have a question, we can go home and research it and then come back on Friday with a solution.”
Looking up information isn’t cheating – because it’s not her memory of basic facts that’s being tested.
“Knowledge is at our fingertips…. But we want to see that our students can really pull that together, can think through, can apply their understanding to real-world situations,” says Donna Palley, Concord’s assistant superintendent.
Mackenzie is considering a science career, and she likes how this approach pushes her: “You have to do analytical thinking more … [and] be able to problem-solve.” Her partner, Yianna, doesn’t see chemistry in her future, but she says the real-life scenarios “make it a little more interesting … and easier to think about.”
Read more about PACE here.