American education is becoming more and more dependent on standardized exams. We are testing students in younger and younger grades, in as many subjects as we possibly can. Teaching for the test is often the result, with “proficiency” defined as “acceptable.” “Acceptable” can be defined in one of two ways: (1) as a pass or (2) as a grade permissible to that student and/or his parents. But is this truly the best possible way to educate?

Sal Khan, founder of renowned educational website Khan Academy (which began as a collection of math tutoring videos) thinks not. In math especially, proficiency measured this way sets students up for failure in later grades.

Take, for example, a student who passes algebra with a B (80\%). He is then able to move on into geometry, and manages a B again. By the time he hits precalculus, that 20\% lack of knowledge in algebra, and again in geometry, begins to take its toll. But he is deemed proficient again by just passing precalculus. Is this student prepared to move on into calculus?

To show how ridiculous this method of determining proficiency is, Sal asks us what would happen if we were to build houses this way. Well, the foundation here matches only 80\% of the code, but hey! that’s a B. So – you pass! Let’s start building from here . . .

Furthermore, even if that student were to receive A’s in algebra and geometry, it is still almost guaranteed that there are holes in that student’s knowledge. Take the student who finishes algebra with a 94\% - that’s an A. Great! What about that remaining 6\% you don’t know? Who cares? You passed! Moving on to the next level . . .

This emphasis on exams, on grades, on taking and passing a standardized test, easily sets students up for future failure. It can place students on a shaky foundation from which to build off of. So what can we do about this? Well, for one thing, we can redefine “proficiency.”

Instead of “proficient” meaning “acceptable” or “over a certain grade point average,” “proficient” could mean “mastery.” Instead of having students master 60\% or more of the material, why not gain a total understanding of the topic before piling a whole new level?

According to Sal, this method works. It works in the studies he cited in his TED talk, and he’s seen it work among the students who gush their thanks to him on his website. The main problem is – teaching until students have acquired mastery can be rather inefficient. How is a teacher supposed to juggle teaching thirty students all at different levels of mastery in one math class? While teaching for mastery may be better for the students, it can be tricky to accomplish in a school’s classroom. Need I mention homeschooling sidesteps this difficulty nicely?

In a classroom that doesn’t depend on tests, what can be used instead? How do you determine mastery among the students? Better yet, how do you work to achieve that mastery? For math, one idea is simply to get on Sal’s Khan Academy website, work through the math problems, and move on the next level only when you’ve mastered your current topic.

But there are other subjects, too. Possible ideas for practicing/assessing mastery of any subject could include:

1. Writing about what you learned

2. Telling someone what you learned

3. Making sketches or other artistic representations of what you learned

4. Sculpting what you learned

5. Acting out what you learned

6. Making your own flashcards and quizzing yourself on them

7. Teaching what you learned to someone else

Consider these in different contexts. I can’t tell you, for example, how many times my brother and I used #5 after a history lesson. As children, we loved to play imaginative games. We’d set our adventures in Ancient Egypt, or as peasants slaving over the construction of the Great Wall of China, or as pious pilgrims settling a New World. And guess what? We weren’t trying for it, but it helped lock in whatever we had been reading about. This isn't just for elementary-schoolers; in a recently taken college botany course, the professor actually helped us learn about photosynthesis with “performance art.” After lecturing on the Light-Dependent Reactions, she lined us up to act out the molecule chain of electron transport, and then repeated this method for the Calvin Cycle. While it helped some students more than others (not all students learn best kinesthetically, after all), I found it extremely helpful. It was a tangible way to bring clarity to the subject.

Working with your fingers can bring benefits as well, especially for young students. Depending on age (and inclination), they can make sculptures out of clay, or cookie dough, or legoes. Why not learned about the animal kingdom by sculpting out representatives of each phylum? Or review history by replicating key architectural works from various ancient cultures with legoes?

You can sketch out the carbon cycle, or paint a scene like the defenestration of Prague. You can test yourself with flashcards (and design your own board game to make a personalized Trivial Pursuit). Personally, I have found that the simple act of writing, talking about, or teaching what I just learned is probably the best possible way for me to master (and even understand!) that information.

You can expand beyond this list. Consider end-of-the-year school projects, or experiments shown off at science fairs. Some students may be delighted with lap-books. Others may be more interested in hard-core research and a resulting PowerPoint presentation. The possibilities are endless.

An exam is not the only way to prove you’ve learned what you’ve been studying. However, especially for students who have further academic aspirations (namely, college), tests are (perhaps regrettably) unavoidable. Thus, it is still necessary to teach them. Students should learn tricks for multiple-choice exams, how to handle pre-exam jitters, and figure out how to balance speed and accuracy to develop their own optimal pace.

If we do end up using exams, how can we use them more effectively? Why not keep that ultimate goal in mind? Mastery. Don’t settle for anything less. Whether a student receives a 68\% or a 98\%, he should review everything he missed. If a multiple-choice exam, he should review all the problems he guessed on (even if he guessed right). In this way, students can use tests to their advantage, as a means of identifying weaknesses. Tests can then be used as a mere assessment. From there, students can learn from their mistakes and make sure they understand all of the material before tackling the next challenge.

Sources: See Sal Khan’s 10-minute TED talk at: https://www.khanacademy.org/talks-and-interviews/conversations-with-sal…