Ineffective assessments, part V: More critical thinking needed

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

Everyone can agree that applied knowledge is crucial to the learning process,, so standardized tests need to do better when measuring it. Every child needs to be able to articulate what he or she knows, not just repeat it. While it may not be as efficient to grade answers that go beyond filling in a bubble, these are the questions students need to answer to apply their knowledge in real-world applications. Instead of simply finding the answer, students need to explain their answers.

So what exactly is critical thinking and how does it play into our K-12 classrooms? Do educators understand the concept? According to Richard Paul in a piece for, most educators do not understand what critical thinking entails and are therefore unable to teach it to their students. He says that the best definition lies in his book Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life and includes these points:

  • analyzing and assessing reasoning
  • identifying strengths and weaknesses in thinking
  • identifying obstacles to rational thought
  • dealing with egocentrism and sociocentrism
  • developing strategies that enable one to apply critical thinking to everyday life (I’d argue this is the most vital of all)
  • understanding the stages of one’s development as a thinker
  • understanding the foundations of ethical reasoning
  • detecting bias and propaganda in the national and international news
  • conceptualizing the human mind as an instrument of intellectual work
  • active and cooperative learning
  • the art of asking essential questions
  • scientific thinking
  • close reading and substantive writing
  • and grasping the logic of a discipline.

“Critical thinking is the art of thinking about thinking with a view to improving it. Critical thinkers seek to improve thinking, in three interrelated phases. They analyze thinking. They assess thinking. And they upgrade thinking (as a result),” he writes.

Paul speaks specifically to the lack of critical thinking in college classrooms and how faculty there are often unable to teach it adequately (and sometimes to even identify that there is a problem) – but as we all know, the students who show up in college classrooms are products of our K-12 ones. Young adulthood is too late to teach the basic tenets of critical thinking. For one thing, students by then have already figured out all of their academic shortcuts. Many have figured out the academic system and how to rig it in their favor. It makes sense, really, particularly in an assessment culture that relies on final answers as truths without much concern for how the student arrived at the answer. By college age, students have mastered the K-12 structure that earned them a high school diploma and are eager to apply those habits in higher education. So asking college faculty to not just use critical thinking activities, but to teach many of their students to use critical thinking principles for the first time, is a stretch. Asking those college graduates to apply those critical thinking points in their careers is even more laughable. The skills need to be taught and properly assessed long before that first college course and well before college graduates are in the workforce.

An bonus of more inclusion of critical thinking options is that it improves writing and communication skills in the process. Remember those companies I mentioned earlier in the chapter that say they can’t seem to find employees with proficient writing skills? By ensuring that more critical thinking and explanation standards are written into assessments, teachers are guaranteeing that students can explain what they know both in the classroom and out in real life too.

One of the most difficult tasks toward really changing our K-12 classrooms into critical thinking hubs is the traditional teacher-student model. Historically, classroom learning has been a one-way conversation where students were talked “at” and not “with.” Students have always been expected to sit politely, behave and do the work asked of them – without much in the way of questions in return. A student who questions the presented material can be viewed as disruptive or even mean-spirited. While there are certainly students who act out in class simply to garner attention or avoid their schoolwork, this traditional set-up has caused students to be less active participants in their educations. It has taken learning empowerment away from students who are conditioned to simply believe what they are told, complete the work and keep their heads down.

There are certainly pushes in education to break free of this mold and the classrooms of today are much more interactive than they were even a decade ago. Still, the “teacher knows best” mentality lingers and gets in the way of students taking an active role in what they are learning and how they are learning it. When you factor in high-stakes testing and its implications for the careers of teachers, funneling vast amounts of information in that one-way conversation style often seems like the only viable approach for teachers – and I get it. I was a public school teacher for many years in a state that suffers from low test scores year after year. For many teachers, the way that they want to teach and the way that they are forced to teach vary greatly, and much of that is due to unreasonable accountability standards that include student performance on standardized tests.

Which is why the assessments need to change to include more room for critical thinking. As the testing changes, so too will the classrooms. We should reach a point where teachers are no longer afraid to stop and take questions on a certain topic or to entertain a counter view on a topic from a student for the sake of classroom discussion because there won’t be a fear of losing time on the test-related material. A student who not only masters material but has evaluated it for himself and come to his conclusions on it and how it will impact his life is one that should pass any assessment with flying colors. We just need to decide as an educational community that critical thinking components are vital to the learning process and taking the time to include them in our testing process does the world more of good to our students than simply filling in a multiple choice bubble. Teaching our students that it is okay to question, and doubt, and take the time to agree with the answers will go a long way towards future generations of critical thinkers and it’s something that needs a higher priority ranking in our assessments.

So what should critical thinking options look like in assessments? The Common Core Standards adopted by more than 40 states already emphasize more of a hands-on approach to classroom learning and those values are then reflected in accompanying tests. A good example of a critical thinking exercise for a third grader, for example, would be to not just simply rehash the plot of a story but to draft an email that one character would likely to write to another.  In this example, the student is taking the knowledge presented and then extending it to include his thoughts on the story. In the reading portion of assessments, activities like this should be asked of the test-takers. Comprehension is still important, of course, but alongside the basics of what is read should be proof that the student truly did understand the material and can not only regurgitate it but can interpret it beyond what is on the page.

In areas like math, critical thinking is also important. Numbers on a page tend to feel somewhat removed from the human experience. Critical thinking exercises should breathe new life into those numbers and find a way to incorporate them into daily life. A student will not just show her work but should be able to explain why a certain solution was reached and what math concept it demonstrates. There also needs to be more cohesion between different areas of math to show that it is not as cut and dry as it seems and that all of the concepts are interrelated. Our math assessments need to reflect more of the process of reaching math goals and have less emphasis on the final answer.

Language arts and math are just two areas of assessment, of course, and the critical thinking element needs to spill over into all other subjects too. Traditionally the assessment process has been heavy on answers and light on the processes to get there. That is starting to change toward a fuller grasp of critical thinking processes, and that change is necessary to the improvement of K-12 classrooms and the next generation of adults.



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