All teachers know the drill. It’s test time. Like the Dunkin Donuts baker from the ’80s commercials, it’s “time to make the grades.”

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 Although I agree with Seth Godin that “the things we desperately need aren’t the same things that are easy to test,” the reality is that most teachers in schools face enormous resistance to wholesale change.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. ~ Vincent Van Gogh

All too often, our schools simply evaluate the student’s ability to take a test. So we get really good test-takers who can’t function in the real-world. They pass the multiple choice tests but fail the real-world critique. So here is one small method I designed a few years ago to give my students more real-world tests.

My unique approach to real-world tests began in the history classroom when I rethought the testing process. I had always done my share of multiple-choice, short answer, and matching — with an occasional essay thrown in when I had time to grade it. I used these methods mostly because that’s what I had done in school.  And I turned out OK. Right?

But training a world full of OK kids is not what parents should want. And few truly do. So what are some of the real-world principles that should form the base of any evaluation for teachers?

Real-World Tests

  • It takes a team. The real-world teaches us that anything worth accomplishing in life is always bigger than ourselves. Thus a real-world evaluation of students by teachers should include some measurement of ability to work in a group.
  • You choose your team. For the most part in life, we get to choose who will be on our team. We can change workplaces if we don’t like the team we’re dealt. More importantly, the people we choose for our team will go a long way in determining the success of our dreams.
  • Play to your strengths. Marcus Buckingham has done pioneering work here, but each of us knows we are better at some things than others. Each of us knows we should ideally find a role in life that allows us to spend most of our time in our strengths zone, then find others to join the team who complement us with their own unique strengths. In the real world, we know ourselves and we know those around us. See my post on 5 Key Resources to Help You Discover Your Life Strengths.
  • Time is the finite resource — not information. We live in what Hugh Hewitt calls the Information Reformation. The shift is that startling. Teachers should no longer be the primary source of information. Although students do need to know some core information, they mostly need to know how to find information and use it — with the clock ticking. That’s the real-world test.
  • You are often evaluated by your team’s performance.  Like it or not, you may be a highly productive person, but if your team fails, so do you.

Here’s how I applied these principles to create real-world tests for a history class at the high-school level although the principles apply for teachers elsewhere just as well.

I crafted the following rules for the tests:

  • Students would form small groups of three on their own. They would need to seek out and secure the help of others in the class. Hint: If they hadn’t been paying attention in class until that day, they shouldn’t expect others to want to be in their group. On the other hand, if they had been focused, they could hold out for the group they most wanted. It’s called leverage. They earned it. They should use it wisely.
  • They could freely talk to each other throughout the real-world test — but they could not talk to the other groups Once the groups had formed. They could also use textbooks and any notes they had taken in the course. No Internet in this exercise.
  • The group could then choose 2 of 3 broad essay prompts over course content. Each group would be graded on the thoroughness of the two essays. Who in the group actually wrote the essays was up to them. Or they could divide and conquer with one student writing one and two others writing the second.  Or one writing both while the other two researched and fed her information. How they did it was entirely left to their creativity and their own assessment of their team’s strengths.
  • Finally, their time was restricted to about 60 minutes total. Thus the goal was pressing but doable if they worked smarter and harder — kind of like the pressures that face us each day in the real-world.

Here is what I discovered.

  1. The students loved it. It made sense to them. They could see how the skills being tested applied to the real-world.
  2. The test itself became the more valuable learning exercise as it played out real-world lessons with real-world consequences. 
  3. Students who had paid attention in class did very well. Students who had not paid attention did not do well. The former group tended to finish some pretty impressive essays. The latter group often didn’t finish at all.

Everyone in the group received the same grade regardless of their whining — or complaints about others’ efforts. Why? Because they chose their own team. They chose how to use their own time and leadership influence. Their previous effort in class decided how familiar they were with accessing the relevant information.

Curiously enough, the students who struggled most with embracing this concept were those who had figured out how to take tests for good grades without actually learning the course content. It happens more often than we educators would like to think. Maybe it’s time we rethink how we are evaluating our students. Maybe it’s time to create some other real-world tests. Starting today.

Don’t just sit there. Pass this along to a teacher, homeschooling parent, or school administrator you know. Ask them for their thoughts on the method. Come up with better ones of your own. Start a conversation. You don’t have to be famous to be a catalyst for growth.

Try something new. Take a risk. You know, just like in the real-world.

What do you think about this approach? Share your thoughts on this process or other tips you have discovered to help us all grow. 


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