We have known about harmful effects of high-stakes state testing on students, teachers, and the curriculum for decades, yet we continue to perpetuate the belief that they test what students know and can do. Daniel Koretz (2017) demonstrates that they have become ends in themselves and take valuable time away from instruction designed to grow students’ intelligence rather than their test-taking abilities. Teachers, caught in the punishment and rewards systems anchored to these tests, feel pressure to teach to the test by drilling students with exercises that mirror those on the tests. Schools spend months every year on this kind of test prep. Students learn that the tests are used to categorize them as remedial, basic, general, and advanced. They learn that once they test into remedial or basic, the odds of their escaping into classes that offer intellectually challenging learning are very low.
Rich Milner (2010) argues that the high-stake tests produce opportunity gaps for students of color. The “achievement gap” that segregates students by their test scores creates gaps in opportunities for students of color to engage in intellectually challenging work because they become stuck in classes designed to prepare them for tests. The tests and the test prep instruction create chains that are nearly unbreakable for large numbers of students of color. The test prep bores them, turns them against school, and forces them into the same skill drills every year. There are good alternatives (Meier & Knoester, 2017) to assess students’ achievements, including assessments of their work collected over time in portfolios and student self-assessments, but as a nation, we remain caught in the arguments that tie accountability to high-stakes standardized state tests rather than to teachers’ assessments of students’ actual work.
An alternative to instruction designed as test preparation—cognitively challenging academic work, intellectual projects and tasks that push students to collaborate, to struggle, to explain their thinking in talk and writing—has always been available to advanced students. Students caught in the cycles of low performance on tests have become subject to such low expectations that it is common to hear teachers and administrators express low expectations for any but their advanced students. “My basic students couldn’t do this,” they say. “That’s great for my advanced students, but my general students couldn’t do it.” I heard a group of English teachers at a national conference say those sentences over and over during a session designed to teach them how to develop cognitively challenging text-based sequences of tasks.
Lindsay Clare Matsumura’s research (2005) helps us to understand the relationship of cognitively challenging tasks to texts and teaching approaches. Imagine a triangle with tasks, texts, and teaching approaches in each corner. Weakness in any of the three corners can unravel challenging work for students. Weak texts can’t carry challenging work. Strong texts with weak tasks squander opportunities for cognitive struggle. Didactic teaching approaches where teachers do most of the talking and few students answer questions undermines strong texts and tasks. Students, not teachers, benefit from doing the work, from collaborating in their intellectual struggles, from talking with each other about their work, and from writing about it.
Good cognitively challenging tasks invite students to combine skills such as identification of significant moments in texts with analyses and interpretations of those moments through perspectives framed by thoughtful questions and others’ views. Once we know what to look for in texts and tasks, we can use a simple tool (shown at right) to help us distinguish the lower versus higher-level cognitive demands of tasks.
Before we take a look at that tool, let’s focus for a minute on two tasks for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This first question—What, according to King, couldn’t Blacks do in 1963 in Mississippi?—mimics a multiple- choice question that would rely on memory or, if the text were available, mining the speech for the right answer. Now consider this alternative task:
As you reread “I Have a Dream,” mark those moments that seem important to King’s argument. When you’re finished reading, look across your marked moments. Then compose a quick write to capture your thinking right now on what you understand King’s argument to be. This task asks students to work across the text, identifying and analyzing what seems to them to be key moments. Once they’ve done that, students are invited to compose a quick write to get their thinking down about King’s argument.
The higher-level task focuses students on constructing meaning across the whole speech. It asks them to track and identify what they see as key moments and to then use those moments to formulate their thinking in a quick, informal piece of writing on their understandings of King’s argument.
Try your hand at using this tool to identify tasks, perhaps in a textbook, as either lower level or higher level in their cognitive demands. If it seems a bit daunting to use the complete chart, begin with the comprehension tasks. See if they ask students to read or reread carefully to construct meaning from the whole text or if they anchor comprehension in identifying, recognizing, or remembering specific bits of information.
Koretz, D. (2017). The testing charade: Pretending to make schools better. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
Matsumura, L. C. (2005). Creating high-quality classroom assignments. Lanham: Scarecrow Education.
Meier, D. & Knoester, M. (2017). Beyond testing: Seven assessments of students and schools more effective than standardized tests. New York: Teachers College Press.
Mihalakis, V. & Petrosky, A. (2015). Collaborative professional development to create cognitively demanding tasks… In Supovitz, J. & Spillane, J. (Eds.), Challenging standards: Navigating conflict and building capacity in the area of the common core. New
York, NY & London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Milner, R. (2010). Start where you are, but don’t stay there. Harvard Education Press.