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EL Education Says Choosing Between Test Scores and High Quality Work is A False Choice

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    April Hattori

New York - October 5, 2016 - As the new school year gets underway, teachers are implementing lesson plans against the backdrop of annual testing that looms later in the year. Do schools have to make a choice between students doing well on tests and doing brilliant, beautiful work that inspires others?

Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer of EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning), says that’s “a false choice.” He notes that amid the clamor in every state around student testing, a critical goal is missing from the debate: the ability of students to create high-quality work.

“We’re obsessed with test scores, when we should be focused on helping students learn to do the work that helps them for the rest of their lives.” Berger says. “When a student is done with her schooling, she will be judged for the rest of her life not by her scores on a test of basic skills, but by the quality of her work and her character.”

Berger will be conducting a master class — Models of Excellence: Using Exemplary Student Work to Inspire Learning— at EL Education’s 2016 National Conference that will be held October 27-29 in Detroit. For information and to register for the conference that includes more than 100 master classes on the EL Education approach, click here.

In the Q&A below, Berger defines high quality work and explains its importance to students and their impact in their communities, the workplace, and the world:

What is high-quality work?
This kind of work can be a project that helps change our community, or it can be something small – such as a poem or a song or an essay – or it can be an act of courage or kindness. But the point is that this work is inspirational: it inspires other students to act and create and aim for excellence. Students sharing their high-quality work has a butterfly effect on those near and far – both peers in their classroom and students around the country who can witness this work online through the technology tools we have today.

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EL Education’s own open-source online Models of Excellence resource has videos of student work that have been seen by millions of students nationally. Its iconic Austin’s Butterfly video has spread virally among educators, students, and the business community to become a classic example of how peer feedback can improve work in school and the workplace.

What makes high-quality work “contagious” to students? 
Work that has a “real-world” impact is something that particularly grabs kids’ attention. Students at the more than 150 EL Education partner schools, coast to coast, tackle projects ranging from real-world neighborhood to personal artistic creations linked to community initiatives. At the Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts, ninth graders were trained by city engineers to become energy auditors – researching and then presenting a report to the city’s mayor on energy loss at schools. The city adopted the students’ recommendations for retrofits, which saved the city $160,000 in two years. 

Even though Springfield Renaissance is a large, urban public district school with primarily low-income families, this kind of work is inspiring students there to break expectations: about 98% of students graduate on time, and every graduate gets into college. 

We see every day that deeper learning is about the really exciting research people do in real life – not textbook research. This is the kind of learning that gains longstanding traction in kids’ minds, and makes it memorable. All of us have a virtuous side that wants to contribute something of value to the world. And once a kid has done something he is proud of, he is never the same kid again. 

What is the “false choice” between good test scores and high-quality work? 
Many educators view the time constraints posed by test prep as limiting their ability to get creative in the classroom, but schools can have both. You don’t have to make a choice between doing well in standard test scores and having kids doing brilliant, beautiful work that inspires one another. That’s a false choice. 

We hear people say, “we don’t have time to do beautiful work because we have to prepare for tests.” But the fact is that schools like Springfield, where beautiful work is happening, outscore other schools because the kids care more deeply about what they do. We don’t have to sacrifice success in traditional measures in creating high-quality work. 

Test scores do not inspire students and teachers, yet this is what has driven the conversation about education in this country for too many years now. It’s not that we don’t need assessments of basic skills – of course we do. But they provide a shamefully low bar and narrow vision for driving education. Showing students and teachers models of beautiful, sophisticated work, created in schools like their own, creates a ripple effect among those students about what is possible.