There is perhaps no hotter topic in education right now than student assessment, “opting out,” and the role that standardized tests play in the education of our students. As more and more state governments continue to push for mandated testing, the debate about whether state exams are indeed a valid indicator of what students know and are able to do is now at its peak among teachers, administrators, parents, and of course government officials. The challenge for school leaders, of course, is to maintain some sanity among the madness and to not allow top-down mandates to singularly drive decisions around curriculum and instruction.
As a Principal, it would be irresponsible of me to dismiss the importance of student performance on standardized (NYS Regents) exams at the high school level. There is too much at stake for students and, quite frankly, college admissions depend in part on student performance on Regents exams. Despite this, I am always on the lookout for “authentic intellectual experiences” that provide students with opportunities to demonstrate and apply their skills and knowledge to “real world” problems. I wrote a piece last year on our senior internship program and have also referred to programs such as the IB Diploma Program (@MegHalberg) and Science Research (@DobbsSciRes) as ideal for furthering the development of the types of 21st century “survival” skills that Wagner refers to in The Global Achievement Gap.
I was recently interviewed by a community member who is writing a piece about the Destination Imagination (DI) program at DFHS and also had the pleasure of watching my first grade daughter compete in her first DI competition in MA just last weekend. These two experiences got me thinking more about DI and, more specifically, the types of 21st century skills that are so easily assessed through the performance-based tasks that students engage in through the program. If you are unfamiliar with DI, the mission is to “encourage teams of learners to have fun, take risks, focus and frame challenges while incorporating STEM, the arts and service learning. Participants learn patience, flexibility, persistence, ethics, respect for others and their ideas, and the collaborative problem solving process.” To accomplish this, teams participate in challenges in the areas of structure, technology, science, improvisation, fine arts, or community service. The challenges not only require teamwork, but also the application of critical 21st century skills, including collaboration, communication, curiosity, imagination, self-direction, and initiative. In this sense, it is an ideal “performance-based” task that allows for the assessment of “real world” skills that could never be measured on a standardized written exam. It also provides a more comprehensive view of what students know and, perhaps more importantly, are able to do.
Drew Coburn, Dobbs Ferry parent and current Chair of Destination Imagination in New York, puts it best when he says that “DI is a model for the kind of authentic educational experiences that we need to spread like wildfire through New York schools and elsewhere. Not just because educators say so, but because CEOs say so, and government leaders, and successful entrepreneurs and scientists.” Drew is spot-on in his assessment and schools throughout the state are joining him in this viewpoint as programs such as Destination Imagination continue to grow. In Dobbs Ferry, we believe that we must have “something for everyone” so that we can maximize the potential of all students. DI is one program that helps us to do just that while providing us with an “authentic” vehicle for assessing our students outside of formal standardized assessments. My hope is that more schools across NYS (and nationally) will join in this mission and make it part of the instructional program for all students.