05/28/2008 01:13 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Beyond "The Big Test": A Brilliant Idea to Improve Schools

If a brilliant idea slapped us in the face for how to help public school students achieve more, would we recognize it?

Today, schools' everyday functioning is governed largely by political processes. Testing has always been around to measure student achievement, but current legislation has emphasized it more than ever before, turning many schools--especially urban and rural schools in economically struggling neighborhoods--into "testing factories."

Even though the No Child Left Behind Act does not mandate all of the onerous, curriculum-distorting tests administered to kids, it strongly influences a testing culture that pushes districts to test, test, test-- leading up to the climactic Big Test. The result is spirit-breaking boredom for students who receive piles and piles of photocopied test prep packets instead of substantive, dynamic classroom instruction. It's an intellectually discouraging system.

Does the machine-graded Big Test provide an authentic picture of a student's abilities? Is the Big Test really applicable to the "real world"? If the answer to these questions is NO, then why is the Test the only piece of assessment that "counts"?

Fortunately, there are smart people (and smart schools) who are taking action to curb this high-stakes testing culture and replace it with more meaningful, engaging, authentic assessment.

The Coalition for Essential Schools (CES) has something truly exciting in the works: National Exhibition Month, featuring over 100 schools. Throughout May, students have been presenting long-term, standards-based projects to peers, community members, and panels of expert judges.

A recent Boston Globe article describes these exhibitions as similar to doctoral dissertations, complete with a defense: "Students pick a subject, decide on an 'essential question,' perform extensive research, and work with mentors to complete a final project.

"A panel of jurors assesses them on their mastery of the material, applied critical thinking skills, and competency in presented data and research. The grading system: JB (just beginning), A (approaching), M (meets expectations), and E (exceeds expectations)."

Some examples of projects are:
---conceiving, planning, budgeting, and fundraising for a bronze sculpture on patriotism to be placed outside a student's high school;
---exploring how the circus has changed over the years;
---analyzing the role of shamans in rain forest communities.

This can work. These exhibitions represent high expectations, academic rigor, and real-world accountability.

CES founder Ted Sizer addresses critics: "We have heard doubters say that only the most privileged prep-school students are capable of executing these dissertation-like defenses. Our 24 years of experience leading over 300 public schools of all kinds in the U.S. and abroad has shown that when provided with environments of personalized and engaged learning, young people from diverse backgrounds exceed our expectations."

As a high school student, I would have loved doing an exhibition. When my kids (that aren't born yet) are students, I hope they will be engaging in this kind of rigorous, authentic, real world learning and discovering-- not wasting their time on rote preparation for multiple choice tests scored by robots.

Shouldn't every kid in America have this kind of opportunity?

You can click here watch a special webcast showing National Exhibition Month in action on Friday, May 30th, at 11 a.m. PST, 2 p.m. EST.

Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle .