There was a social studies test coming up in seventh grade.

Jimmy is a conscientious student. He works hard, tries to please his parents and his teachers, and is helpful to others. Jimmy is a 21st century kid. He uses his Chromebook in most of his classes. He’s a self-directed learner. He has experience working collaboratively with his peers. He uses his information literacy skills to get factual information from multiple sources. He has learned to articulate and demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

But Jimmy also knows that his social studies teacher pretty much follows the textbook. They’re studying chapter 14, so he looks online for tools to help him study for the chapter 14 test in his social studies book. He finds lots of resources, shared online by lots of teachers for their students. There are Quizlet flash cards, Kahoot quizzes, online study guides, and many other resources to help him prepare for the test.

Jimmy starts collecting these resources into a Google doc that he shares with some of his fellow students as a study guide. They work together to prepare for the test. It is unclear whether Jimmy realized that he had the actual test questions in his study guide, because his teacher’s test and the online study guides are both based on the tests that come with the textbook. Since they’re now 14 chapters into the school year, there’s a pretty good chance that he knew exactly which questions would be on the test.

David and Sarah are high school students taking an AP science class. With a couple weeks to go until the AP test, their teacher gives them a take-home practice test to help them prepare. The practice test comes with a scantron sheet where they bubble in their answers to the multiple choice questions.

Sarah knows that David is one of the smartest students in the class. She texts him and asks him to send her his answers to the practice test, presumably so she could compare them with her own answers. He takes a picture of his scantron sheet and sends it to her. He also sends it to a third student, Michael.

What Sarah didn’t know was that she and David had different tests. So when she blindly changed her answers to match his, she ended up with a score of 22%. Michael, on the other hand, didn’t change his answers and ended up doing better on the practice test than David did. All three students received failing grades and disciplinary action, including possible removal from National Honor Society.

An anonymous student sent a high school government teacher some photos of the final exam that is coming up in a few weeks. The photos of the test were clearly taken in the teacher’s classroom. The student was identified from other evidence in the photos and confessed to copying and sharing the test. But it is unclear how many students now have access to the test, or how many other tests are circulating among students who aren’t emailing them back to their teachers.

All of these are (mostly) real, and they’ve all happened within the last month. I changed some names and minor details. We are clearly seeing some growing pains as we come to terms with next generation learning and its relationship to traditional assessments.

Education used to be about knowledge and skills. We went to school to learn content and processes. And those things are still important. Our students need to know how Ohio’s state government compares with the federal government. It’s helpful for them to have some context of West African culture. There’s still a place in our society for legible handwriting and spelling and even multiplication facts, if we don’t go overboard with it.

But the reality is that our students are carrying around devices with them that have all of the answers, and those devices are not going away. So if our assessment of learning is limited to recall, we are really only testing their ability to Google and memorize.

So maybe it’s time to assess differently. We can use these recall types of tests as formative assessments. They give the teacher an idea of where the student is academically. They’re a progress report. They might provide information about how instruction needs to be adjusted to meet the student’s needs. But they’re not the final product of learning.

What is it that the student can DO with the knowledge and skills? Can they solve a unique problem? Can they combine information from different contexts in innovative ways? Can they recognize patterns and provide analysis and draw conclusions? What can they produce that demonstrates their learning?

Do we even have to have exams? One of the biggest criticisms of the current trends in education is that we over-test our students. This spring, we have 52 state-mandated test sessions, which average 90 minutes each. On average, every student will spend six hours testing (and there are several grade levels that don’t have any testing). That’s not counting testing for special education, gifted, English language learners, college entrance exams, or AP tests. It also doesn’t include the diagnostic tests that are used to help students prepare for the state tests. When we add to that the idea that our students should take summative final exams, and that we have large unit tests in many classes every few weeks, we have strengthened the argument that the most important thing we teach students is how to take a test.

These middle schoolers are different. The current sixth and seventh graders are not playing the school game the same way that the sophomores and juniors do. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the school adapts to the students or the students conform to the more traditional approaches of the older grades. In the meantime, we’re going to see a lot more friction as next generation learning comes into conflict with traditional teaching practices.

Photo credit: Hariadhi on Wikimedia Commons.