Testing, Ethics, and 21st Century Learning

30 Sep 2010

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?