Want to Raise Test Scores? Then Honor Student Passion!

Most schools intuitively know the impact of a student's state of mind on their test performance. However, their efforts at preparing students socially and emotionally for testing is too often limited to a "pep rally" the day before testing begins.
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This article was co-authored by Mark Moran, my co-founder at Choose2Matter.

At the recent What Great Educators Do Differently Conference in Houston, we participated in a breakout on Genius Hour. All of the participants had a keen interest in helping students discover, develop and explore their passion, and the conversation proceeded in a lively manner.

That is, until someone acknowledged the 800 pound gorilla in the room: "How can we make time for genius hour if we are so relentlessly focused on improving student test scores?"

The initial answers were disheartening.

Three different leaders -- superintendents and principals -- had a pat answer to this question: we simply wait until after testing is over, near the end of the school year, to make time for students to discover and explore their passion.

Encouragingly, the rest of the speakers emphatically made the case that if you want to raise test scores, you have to see genius hour as our promise to students that their passions matter.

Research has consistently shown that effective social and emotional programs raise student test scores.

  • A 2008 report by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, discussed three effective SEL programs that increased student test score by 11 to 17 percent.
  • A 2009 PBS New Hour program similarly reported that a focus on SEL raises test scores.
  • Most recently, a report endorsed by a large group of college admissions officers strongly encouraged schools to help students "develop their analytical strength, their empathic and generative selves, and their inner lives of reflection, values and aspirations."

Most schools intuitively know the impact of a student's state of mind on their test performance. However, their efforts at preparing students socially and emotionally for testing is too often limited to a "pep rally" the day before testing begins.

Conversely, Liberating Genius offers 20 foundational lessons because the process of fostering confident, creative, self-aware citizens requires a "building block" process and ample periods of sharing and reflection. It cannot be rushed, and certainly not compressed into a two-hour rally.

We hear almost every day from teachers who used in the lessons in our free e-book, Liberating Genius, or who have embraced our Choose2Matter movement, or a combination of both, to help students become more empathetic, self-aware, creative and courageous.

Initially, these reports focused on the improved social and emotional well-being of students, with anecdotal reports of a surge in hugs, smiles and declarations of genius. But lately we've begun to see a new dimension. We're beginning to see compelling evidence that when students become more self-aware, more confident, passionate and creative, their test scores rise significantly.

Tammy Dunbar, lead learner of "The Room Nine Kids" a fifth grade classroom in Manteca Unified School District in California, was an early adopter of Genius Hour and thus was immediately drawn to Liberating Genius. The impact it had greatly exceeded her expectations.

Tammy wrote a three-part blog series on her work with Liberating Genius. In a section titled "Focusing on character and genius nets unexpected results," she discussed the results of the first standardized district proficiency tests in Math that her students took after experiencing the lessons in Liberating Genius:

I was shocked to see the growth of the average class score. In Math, the class average increased from 12.7 out of 20 to 16.6 out of 20. I'm not ready to entirely attribute these changes to our Liberating Genius lessons, because we have no scientific study to back it up. However, our students now approach standardized district testing with more confidence and more creativity. And that, I feel certain, can be directly traced to liberating their genius.

Next, Jillian Burkhart, a second grade teacher in Texas, sent this tweet:

The photo is of the student's end-of-the-day reflection; he writes,

"I read today. I improved 4 reading levels! I improved because my classmates encouraged me and told me 'I Matter.'"

Grace Miner is a student at East Greenwich High School in Rhode Island. When we hosted a Choose2Matter LIVE event there in February 2014, Grace and a group of friends began to develop a plan to encourage girls to adopt a positive body image. Within weeks, they had merged with other groups of classmates who were working on sympathetic projects. Thus was born Real Girls Matter -- an umbrella organization shaping a cultural change to foster equality and respect. The group mentors and creates opportunities for young women around Rhode Island and around the world. It sponsored the education of a young women in Senegal and purchased bicycles for girls to ride to school in Malawi.

Grace is now a senior. She recently wrote to us:

"My AP Biology teacher says that for the first time he can remember, all the students at the top of his AP classes are girls. Because of Choose2Matter, we were able to accept ourselves as we are, find our true voices, support one another, and create an equitable and safe learning environment in our community. We plan to do that for every girl, everywhere in the world."

In summary:

  • If you want to raise student math scores precipitously, help them approach testing with more confidence and creativity.
  • If you want to raise a struggling student's reading levels, have his classmates encourage him and tell him that he matters.
  • If you want female students to rank at the top of high school science classes, encourage them to accept themselves as they are, find their true voices, and create an equitable and safe learning environment.

Finally, do all of this, for every student, everywhere in the world.

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