Testing, Ethics, and 21st Century Learning

I have a problem, and I have created this problem myself.

My big instructional goal this year is to have a paperless classroom. We are a 1:1 school. I teach seventh grade social studies. I am also the middle school technology integration specialist. Even though there have been a few wrinkles to iron out, up to this point going paperless has been pretty easy, just like paperless guru Shelly Blake-Plock says.

I am not the type of teacher who feels that memorization is important. My goal is to get my students to think like historians, to understand that history is an interpretation of facts, and to come up with their own interpretation of the history we study. We always have one or two essential questions for the unit. Some examples are, “What was the most important cause of the fall of Rome?” or “Was the ‘American Revolution’ a revolution or a rebellion?” When we study the history we are preparing to answer the essential question with an informed opinion that can be defended.

The essential question is the one and only test question at the end of the unit. In the past, the tests in my class have been open book and open notes. The students did not have computers to use in class.  

So, my problem: I would like to test my students by having them answer the essential question, but I don’t want them to be able to copy and paste a previously prepared essay. I want them to have access to all of their work and their textbook, which is online, but I don’t want them chatting or sharing information in other ways.

I asked my colleagues and PLN for suggestions and they came up with various options, some of which I’ve included below. My possible solutions seem to go against the way I do things every day in my class.

  • Hand write the essay – not paperless, and they still need access to the information on their computers.
  • Restrict their access to the Internet – Is there a better way to say, “I don’t trust you?” Not to mention, that restricts access to their textbook and Google Docs.
  • Lock down the computers so they can only use one piece of software – This isn’t really practical, and on the next test they could have a prepared essay ready in this software, or already on the clipboard.

I asked my students for advice and they came up with pretty much the same solutions as the adults I asked. They did have one other suggestion that they all seemed to think was very practical. They suggested I have five or six teachers in the classroom, all monitoring the test. I said that sounds more like prison than school.

Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong angle. Should I care if the students prepare their essay ahead of time? If they can answer the question, they can answer the question. Is there a point of having them answer a question “on demand?” Then the even bigger question, should I even test them at all?

No comments yet to Testing, Ethics, and 21st Century Learning

  • Steve,

    I have two thoughts and neither are going to make you happy… First, yes, you have asked the right question — why test them? What is the goal of the exam? How does an exam show they have learned anything about the essential question? Is there another way to assess their learning? Second, you do have to worry about them having a tutor help them write the essay, so an in class option is the best… But how? I honestly don’t think you are going to miss a student fully copying & pasting on an essay exam, if you are roaming the classroom; especially, if you use Remote Desktop to project the student computers from the LCD projector. When they students see their screens on the big screen, I don’t think anyone will dare try the copy & paste.

  • I’m not sure I see this as being any different from a “paperful” classroom issue. To me the issue is one of assessment. What, exactly, is it that you are assessing? If you are assessing their ability to synthesize facts, opinions, and other resources to come up with their own solid historical argument, then whether they have access to the internet or software doesn’t matter.

    Having said that — a few other things come to mind. Firstly, you cannot fairly ask your students to do this (and assess them) if they have never done it before. They need practice. They need scaffolding. They need you to teach them how to do do this properly. They also need models.

    Secondly, if you’ve done all of that — scaffolded, provided models, given them a safe environment in which to get your feedback and “fail”, then by the time they are ready to do the real thing — with paper, or without; with internet/software access or without — you, their teacher, will know their work and their writing well enough to determine whether they are cheating or not, because you will have done enough formative assessment (and made notes) that anything prepared or copied would stand out like a sore thumb.

    Thirdly, as I mentioned on Twitter, you need a *very* tight rubric. I’d suggest developing this with the students. What do THEY think will make a good essay response? Have them come up with the criteria, then work with them to put this into a format that makes sense for how your school system deals with assessment (whether that’s letter grades, percentages, or something more holistic).

    Related to the issue of the rubric is that of the essay question. If you don’t want them to prepare essays ahead of time, it’s difficult to justify giving them a question they already know in advance. Considering you’re teaching 7th-graders, I wouldn’t recommend giving them a question they’ve never seen before — again, part of that whole scaffolding thing. Chances are they’ve never done an essay test before (they’re only 12!). It might be worthwhile to give them a choice of 3 different questions to respond to (they could easily all be off-shoots of your unit essential question). If it were me in your shoes, I’d have them all prep their essay OUTLINES at home, or maybe in class over the course of a few days, with feedback from me and from peers, and then simply come to class ready to write the actual essay in the space of the class time. Incidentally — in my experience, students *rarely* have problems with ideas and development of content in a timed essay test; easily 80% of my students struggle with the issue of how to manage their time writing an in-class essay. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve marked papers with super-excellent developed opening paragraphs, with detail slowly petering out with each passing paragraph, as the student was obviously watching the clock, only to turn in a paper with no conclusion. Again, a reason to give them many chances to practice this skill.

    Lastly, if you are really concerned about original work, I’d suggest you have your school subscribe to Turnitin.com. You could have all your students submit their essays online to Turnitin.com in the last 5 minutes of class, and within minutes you’d know if any of them had plagiarized.

    Phew.. that was a long comment! 🙂 This is really what I wanted to say on Twitter but didn’t have the time/space for! haha 🙂

  • I think this posts raises some great questions about the purpose of assessment more than anything to do with access or use of technology. The first place I always start is what is being assessed. Are you trying to see if they understood content, or are their skills being assessed? What are the standards you assessing?

    Secondly…I read what Adrienne wrote and now, just want to say ditto. Great response.

  • Harry Grzelewski

    Great advice from others. I would only reiterate a few of the points I heard: what are you assessing? If you give them a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the material and a variety of opportunities to practice their writing, what is left? Perhaps you want to assess their ability to write under pressure and see what they can do with the material they have mastered. If you are teaching critical thinking skills along the way then the final assessment is one that enables them to stretch beyond what they have learned. The essential question has been approached and answered from a variety of viewpoints, so now it is time to see if they can take it one step further. Giving them the essential question is asking them to regurgitate everything you have been doing. However, giving them an open-ended challenge that derives from the essential question pushes them to the next level. This is an assessment that helps you adjust your teaching to continue raising the bar rather than an assessment that puts a final grade on their learning.

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