The Importance of Play in Standardized Testing

Matt Levinson is the Head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School and is the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.

Standardized tests can be a wonderful teaching tool to enrich and deepen classroom learning.

What?! The prevailing wisdom states that standardized testing drains the life out of a classroom and saps students of interest and engagement, brings on unnecessary and at times crippling stress, and limits the view of what students are really learning in school.

Teaching to the test is a problem, for sure. But using the format of a standardized test as a teaching tool can be a boon to student learning. The question is how to do this successfully and in a way that captivates student interest.

Here are a few ways to use the format of standardized tests as a strategy to promote student engagement:

Play with Question Stems
Have students create the answer responses to a question stem, thinking carefully about “wrong” answers and finding the right language to construct the “correct” response. This is a highly analytical exercise and challenges students to really know and understand the concept being addressed in the question.

Flip the Question
Have students construct the question based on the answer responses. This forces students to identify the patterns and themes evident in the answer responses and thus arrive at the big idea in the question.

A “No-Stakes” Review
At the end of a class in a particular subject area, have students answer one multiple-choice, standardized test type of question to see if they grasped an idea covered in class. This is a good dipstick exercise to garner immediate feedback. Time columnist Annie Murphy Paul shares the example of Columbia Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri, where teachers have students take a quick, “no-stakes” quiz at the end of each class to see what they learned.

The Quiz Show Format
Play “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” with multiple-choice questions. The popular ’90s TV show invited participants to answer a series of questions, sometimes enlisting the help of peers through the “Call a Friend” option, in which the participant could call a friendly source of information. The show also employed the “50/50″ option, where two incorrect responses were eliminated from the answer list so that the participant could choose between the last two options. Teachers can break the class into teams to play this game. In a more modern version, the “Call a Friend” option could give students one minute to Google the answer, forcing them to use intelligent search language to find the “right” answer. Students could also text a friend to get extra help.

The Build Your Own Test
Give the class a mixed up practice test, with the questions scrambled and in no apparent order of difficulty. Have teams of students re-order the questions, moving from easiest to hardest, being prepared to explain and defend why a certain question was easy or difficult. This also invites the important conversation to consider that, when taking a standardized test, all questions are actually equal, with no single question having more value. Many students get hung up on the “hard” question and spend too much time on that one instead of moving through the test to answer the most questions correctly.

Dispute the Question
Have students debate the merits of the wording of a particular question to find flaws, bias or shortcomings and then rewrite the question with more careful wording.

Building experiences for students to “play” with a test can help to defuse anxiety, create familiarity and comfort, offer concrete strategies for success, promote collaboration and problem solving, and open up important conversations around taking standardized tests.

Article by Matt Levinson posted on Edutopia at

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Help the Story Preservation Initiative Build the Uncommon School

“Building the Uncommon School” means creating a virtual schoolhouse that will house Story Preservation’s primary source audio recordings and lesson plans for powerful, first person learning.

Story Preservation creates and online publishes primary source audio recordings of remarkable people with extraordinary stories and makes them available as an educational resource.

Find out more about the Story Preservation Initiative on Kickstarter at


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Webinar: Understanding Grading in Competency-based Schools

Understanding Grading in Competency-based Schools

Thursday, April 24, 2014
2:00pm – 3:00pm ET

On Thursday, April 24, 2014, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and CompetencyWorks will present a special webinar to help educators and administrators throughout the field of K-12 learning better understand grading in competency-based schools. The webinar is scheduled from 2:00pm to 3:00pm ET and registration can be accessed through

Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL, said, “As districts and schools move to competency-based learning, they quickly find the focus on student advancement by demonstrating mastery and performance means they need to address other practices in their schools around personalized, deeper learning. This webinar will help them explore redesigning grading for competency-based pathways.”

During the webinar, Chris Sturgis, Principal at MetisNet and author of Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, will provide an overview of competency education and the elements of grading in competency-based environments.

Abbie Forbus and Brett Grimm from Lindsay Unified School District in California, will share Lindsay’s grading practices. Lindsay Unified, a Race to the Top winner, has a strong personalized, performance-based system and well-developed grading system that emphasizes providing feedback to learners. Forbus and Grimm will provide an overview of the values and educational philosophy that guides Lindsay’s grading policy. Going into more depth, they will present the structure, practices, and reporting mechanisms. During this webinar, attendees will learn how their information management system enables teachers, students and families to monitor student learning and progress along their learning progressions. The final segment of the webinar will offer a discussion on implementation challenges and emerging issues.

This special webinar is free to attend. Please register through to receive final details and a link to the presentation.

For a copy of Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, please visit

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Free Toolkit for Blended Learning

The Blended Learning Toolkit is a free, open repository of information, resources, models, and research related to blended learning.  This is an open resource for educational institutions interested in developing or expanding their blended learning initiatives.

Funded by a Next Generation Learning Challenge Wave 1 grant, the Toolkit is a collaboration between the University of Central Florida and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The Toolkit consists of the following components:

  • Best practices, strategies, models, and course design principles.
  • Two prototype blended course templates in key core general education disciplines: Composition and Algebra.
  • Directions and suggestions for applying the Toolkit resources to create original blended courses other than Composition and Algebra.
  • Train-the-trainer materials for faculty development.
  • Assessment and data collection protocols, including survey instruments and standards.
  • Research and literature references related to blended learning.

The Blended Learning Toolkit features Morning Blend, for updates, news, and information about blended learning.

Visit the Blended Learning Toolkit at


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10 Principles of Proficiency-based Learning

Great Schools Partnership continues to produce great resources to support states and districts converting to competency education. They have drawn from what districts are doing in New England and have created Proficiency-based Learning Simplified resources. They are a good resource for states, districts and schools to start the conversation about the new policies and practices that need to be put in place. We know that we are on a journey, and its a creative one, so don’t be surprised if you find that you want to take these ideas further or that you come up with other ways to address the policy and practice elements. No matter what, these resources will save you time in getting started and structuring the conversations needed to build clarity and consensus.

from: Great Schools Partnership

Here’s GSP’s 10 principles of proficiency-based learning:

In practice, proficiency-based learning can take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school—there is no universal approach. To help schools establish a philosophical and pedagogical foundation for their work, the Great Schools Partnership created the following “Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning,” which describe the common features found in the most effective proficiency-based systems:

  1. All learning expectations are clearly and consistently communicated to students and families, including long-term expectations (such as graduation requirements and graduation standards), short-term expectations (such as the learning objectives for a specific lesson), and general expectations (such as the performance levels used in the school’s grading and reporting system).
  2. Student achievement is evaluated against common learning standards and performance expectations that are consistently applied to all students, regardless of whether they are enrolled in traditional courses, pursuing alternative learning pathways or receiving academic support.
  3. All forms of assessment are standards-based and criterion-referenced, and success is defined by the achievement of expected standards, not relative measures of performance or student-to-student comparisons.
  4. Formative assessments evaluate learning progress during the instructional process and are not graded; formative-assessment information is used to inform instructional adjustments, practices, and support.
  5. Summative assessments evaluate learning achievement and are graded; summative-assessment scores record a student’s level of proficiency at a specific point in time.
  6. Grades are used to communicate learning progress and achievement to students and families; grades are not used as forms of punishment or control.
  7. Academic progress and achievement is monitored and reported separately from work habits, character traits, and behaviors such as attendance and class participation.
  8. Students are given multiple opportunities to retake assessments or improve their work when they fail to meet expected standards.
  9. Students can demonstrate learning progress and achievement in multiple ways through differentiated assessments, personalized-learning options, or alternative learning pathways.
  10. Students are given opportunities to make important decisions about their learning, which includes contributing to the design of learning experiences and personalized learning pathways.

Read the article posted by Chris Sturgis on CompetencyWorks at

Read all about the model on Great Schools Partnership at

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Tell the FCC How Important Broadband is to Our Schools

Take One Minute…

Tell the FCC how important adequate broadband connectivity is to the future success of America’s schools.

Digital learning’s potential to improve learning will not be realized without robust and reliable internet connection in schools and classrooms. We have an opportunity to tell policymakers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) how important broadband access is to realizing this potential for all students. Please sign our petition TODAY and ask your friends and colleagues to do the same!  The more people who show their support, the stronger our message will be.

All submissions received by noon on Friday, April 18th will be included. It only takes a minute to add your support.

It will make a very big difference!

Sara Hall
Alliance for Excellent Education

In 2014, there will not be enough funding for E-rate to support internet connections into classrooms — no wifi, routers, or even hard connections through Ethernet cables. Tell the FCC that these Internet connections are important, and why.

Please sign our petition TODAY

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Wheeler FCC Driving Toward Controversial E-Rate Overhaul

Tom Wheeler photo credit: LA Times

Under new Chairman Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communications Commission has intensified and accelerated its initiative to complete a massive transformation of its E-Rate universal service fund program to bring advanced high-speed broadband capabilities to America’s K-12 schools and libraries in the next few months–perhaps as early as this summer.

If Wheeler and the Democratic members of the FCC succeed, they will likely do so over strenuous objections of their Republican colleagues and Republican congressional leaders.

The drive to transform the program–formally known as the Schools and Libraries Program–into a high-speed broadband fund to enhance digital learning for students and library users across America has been underway since last summer, but it has picked up tremendous momentum since President Obama singled it out in his January 28 State of the Union address and then doubled down by hawking it during his post-SOTU “tour.” The president first outlined his vision for reform last June when he called on the FCC to overhaul the E-Rate program to connect 99 percent of America’s students to broadband at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) by 2015, with a target of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) by 2020. In the SOTU, Obama made clear that he intends the expansion of the E-Rate fund to be one of the signature accomplishments of his second term, and on Feb. 4 he advanced the ball by announcing $750 million in commitments of services and equipment by the likes of Apple Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Microsoft Inc., Sprint Corp. and other leading telecom companies.

Momentum Building, But So Is Opposition

Wheeler’s March 17 speech framed the key elements of E-Rate transformation: “While the details of E-Rate modernization remain in flux, the goals are clear. For E-Rate modernization to be successful, the updated program must be: (1) focused on delivering faster-speeds to schools and libraries and Wi-Fi throughout; (2) funded and future-proofed; (3) fiscally responsible and fact-based; and (4) friendly to use.”

In a bow to his more fiscally conservative colleagues, he emphasized that “simply sending more money to the E-Rate program to keep doing business as it has been for the last 18 years is not a sustainable strategy…My colleagues and I can’t just pour more money into the program as it presently stands.” But he also stated for the first time that he will recommend raising the universal service “contribution factor”–the fees assessed to telecom service providers to fund the federal universal service programs, which are invariably passed through to consumers as a line-item fee in their telephone bills–“should it be warranted.”

Wheeler Avoids Full-Commission Vote–For Now

But Wheeler chose to issue the recent public notice as a bureau-level document, thus avoiding putting it to a vote of the commissioners. In doing so, he exposed anew the growing frictions between the Democrats and Republicans on the agency. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai immediately issued a statement complaining that Wheeler’s end-around “depriv[ed] comissioners of an opportunity to weigh in” and that “even if the right questions were posed, this is the wrong way to pose them.” In recent weeks, both Pai and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly have affirmed their opposition to increasing the universal service program budget, declaring instead that any increase in E-Rate funding “must be offset by reductions elsewhere within the federal universal service budget.” Given that the educational community, the administration and other E-Rate champions believe that a doubling or tripling of the program’s funding will be necessary to realize the proposal’s high-speed broadband goals–and that most Democrats do not want to raid other components of the overall universal service fund–these pronouncements are widely perceived as a poison pill that would defeat the administration’s objectives. Moreover, Republican congressional leaders, as well as the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, have called upon the FCC to refer E-Rate reform to a federal-state joint board, which surely would slow momentum toward final action to expand the program.

Time to Act Is Now

Clearly, Wheeler and the Democrats are willing to weather a divisive, partisan, 3-2 vote if necessary. In any event, it is abundantly clear that Wheeler and the Obama administration believe that time is of the essence, and they need to act fast–by this summer– lest another signature administration initiative run aground on the shoals of political deadlock.

Read the entire article by James M. Smith on Bloomberg BNA at

For more information, read SETDA on E-Rate Modernization and The Broadband Imperative from SETDA at

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