“You are permitted to bring one 5×7 inch note card to the exam, with any notes on it that you want.” My eleventh grade American History teacher was explaining the rules for the semester exam. “The exam will consist of two essay questions selected from these five.” He gave us the questions.
I went to work. This was going to be easy. I wrote the answers out. Then, I typed them. I don’t know if you’ve ever read my handwriting, but I certainly wasn’t going to rely on it for this. So I knocked them out with one hand on the electric typewriter on the floor of my bedroom. I skipped the paragraph breaks, and used the smallest margins I could. I got all five essays to fit on four pages.
Then, I went to the copier in the library. I reduced the four pages as much as I could (65%). Then, I did it again. I cut the copies out and taped them to the card. Two pages on the front; two pages on the back.
When the exam time came, I smugly walked in with my one note card, which had all of the essays completely written out. All I had to do was copy them into the blue exam book. No problem. It was the easiest exam I ever took. And I got an “A”.
Years later, I told the teacher my strategy. He just smiled. “I got you to write all five essays, and I only had to read two of them.” In gaming the system, I did a lot more work than I needed to.
I was asked this week — for the first time in this school — if we have a secure testing app that will keep students from cheating on tests. This is K-12, so we don’t use horrible, invasive tools like Proctorio to maintain “academic integrity.” But there are apps that can lock down a student device and keep them from opening new browser tabs or switching to another window to look up answers.
It’s an arms race that’s not worth fighting, but we have to at least acknowledge the frustration. For a long time, learning has been measured by how much students remember. In a world where knowledge is power, remembering stuff is super important. If they can trick you into thinking they remember more than they actually do, then you’ll conclude that they’ve learned more than they have.
In a world of information abundance, if you’re measuring information acquisition you have to create an artificial environment of information scarcity. “Put your phones away and all of your materials on the floor under your desk and take out a Number 2 pencil.”
Remembering stuff is important. And it’s useful. Being able to recall facts and details seems to be rare these days, and it makes people think you’re smart. Having a basic set of knowledge makes it easier to draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas. It makes you a better problem solver. It fosters innovation. You can impress your grandparents when you watch Jeopardy together. All of that is fine.
But it’s not everything. Especially as students get older, the number of new things they have to be able to recall diminishes dramatically. There are very few facts that I learned in high school that I need to keep in my brain rather than in my phone.
We like to talk about higher order thinking skills. Sometimes, that’s in the context of rigor: we should be challenging students to analyze, evaluate, and create (Bloom), or critique, connect, synthesize, and design (Webb). Other times, we focus on Elements of Learning, and the need to foster teamwork, communication and creation, critical thinking, real-world engagement, and personalization of learning. We used to call those 21st century skills before we were embarrassingly deep into the 21st century. We emphasize student engagement and project based learning and inquiry and active learning, all of which are designed to help students develop a deeper understanding of the subjects they’re studying. We build those things into our portraits of graduates and bake them into our strategic plans. Remembering is great. But it’s certainly not enough.
How do we measure all of these things that we say are so important? I think it’s pretty hard to cheat on an assessment that asks the student to create something new to demonstrate their learning. That object of learning — that deliverable — shows how the student understands the knowledge and builds on it. It might ask them to summarize, draw conclusions, make connections, and analyze the thing they’re studying. If they’re problem solving, it should show the productive struggle with new questions they haven’t seen before. If they’re collaborating, the product of their learning should reflect the contributions of the group members.
Ideally, students are building a portfolio over time that demonstrates their academic growth and showcases their learning. These don’t necessarily even have to be public. Simply collecting and curating their best work helps students reflect on their own learning and the progress they’ve made. Most of the things in the ideal portfolio probably aren’t bubble sheets or multiplication speed tests or French vocabulary quizzes.
I’ve written a lot about that American History class over the years. That’s the same teacher who passed out the textbooks on the first day of school because he was required to do so. He told us to put them in the bottoms of our lockers and bring them back on the last day of school. Other than the exam, we didn’t take any tests in that class. He never asked us to recall dates or battles or the names of historical leaders. Over the course of the semester, we only covered three topics, entirely skipping huge parts of American History. And yet, I scored high enough on the AP test to get out of six semester hours of Western Civilization in college. So he was doing something right. Maybe by focusing on how America struggled to become America, and how its greatest aspiration may be to “form a more perfect union” despite being neither perfect nor a particularly strong union, he taught us to look at history through a contemporary lens. We learned how the events of the past inform and influence the events of the present.
Or maybe he just didn’t want to grade tests. But either way, there was no way to cheat.