Emma Reese
School Without Walls
Washington, D.C.
12th Grade
First Place

My high school experience would be more relevant to my future if more classroom time were spent

understanding information with a goal of providing space and time for student introspection and

application, rather than the current protocol of memorizing information—with the goal of making sure

students are prepared to take various tests.

Since fifth grade, school administrators, teachers, parents, family members, and casual commenters

have emphasized to me the importance of “doing well” in school. Much of this emphasis and

encouragement came in the form of a question, followed by a statement which invariably was

combination of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” followed by, “Well, if you do well now, you

will be able to get into a good college later…” These words, which every young person likely hears

hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the course of their youth, have revealed that many adults are

under the misguided impression that the experiences young people have in school provide: 1) time and

space to understand what makes us “tick” such that, around age thirteen or so we would know what we

want to do professionally with the rest of our lives; and 2) that school is an experience that provides time

to apply the information we are learning in such a way that would reveal whether we understand what

we are doing well enough to apply it to decisions to be made on behalf of our future selves. Neither of

these things happen in school—rather, students spend most of the day toiling away in prep for the next

exam with little thought of how the information learned will impact both personal and professional


The reason students find themselves spending most of their time preparing for the next exam is simple:

SCHOOL BRAGGING RIGHTS. Across the nation, school governing bodies have determined that the best ways to quantify a school’s worth is through an evaluation of how well a school’s students do on

standardized exams. Equating school worth with standardized testing has led to an education system

that rewards the memorization of information rather than rewarding a true understanding of elements of

the world and how those elements interact with one another.

Proof of my hypothesis is borne out in Washington D.C.’s newly implemented STAR rating system of the

local schools. Washington D.C. education officials’ position is that this new system is supposed to share

information about student “success” using different data measurements (Office of State Superintendent

of Education); however, under this new system standardized testing results account for 70 percent of

elementary and middle school rankings and 40 percent of high school rating (Truong). Unfortunately, a

whopping zero percent of the ranking system is dedicated to ascertaining whether students can actually

apply what they have learned in real-life scenarios.

Measuring student success via standardized tests is shortsighted and ultimately disadvantages even the

most adept student because many of the skills gained (e.g., learning test-taking techniques) leave

students with a limited and frequently fleeting skill set. Take for instance my experience with the SAT. I

studied every day for weeks, memorized various methods to figure out the correct answer to multiple

choice questions, and learned how best to annotate written text and identify test patterns. By the end of

my six week study period and two SAT prep classes, I found that I had done so many practice problems

that there was nothing I had not seen before. All of my effort was worth it, because I did well the first

time I took the SAT. However, several months later when I wanted to take the test again, I bombed it. I

found that, without constantly repeating the techniques I had learned, the test-taking skills I garnered

had dried up. I initially felt like all the time I had used in learning those skills was a waste because I had

nearly forgotten all of them; but eventually I consoled myself with the knowledge that the test-taking

skills I’d garnered in preparation for the SAT (and subsequently lost) would not assist me in honing the

critical thinking or soft skills I will need in my chosen professional field—a field that will most assuredly

NOT require that I take standardized test for a living.

In order to mend the disconnect between memorization and application, as a means of making my

education experience more relevant to my future, I believe that the education system needs to be reworked to focus on understanding information rather than focusing on passing standardized tests.

Standardized tests by their nature limit the amount of creativity included in the curriculum and

inappropriately cause students to hone a narrow set of skills that may not be applicable to much of their

lives after their formal education is complete. As an alternative I propose that classroom discussions and

projects replace some of the standardized testing and that a mechanism to assess a student’s

understanding of the content be implemented in its stead. In implementing discussions and projects,

teachers will be able to assess whether a student is able to apply what they have learned in class to

decisions about their future. Additionally, project-based creative mechanisms to display a student’s

knowledge will also help hone other real-world essential skills like public speaking and “on your feet”

critical thinking—things that standardized tests cannot assess. Changing the standards by which success

is measured would better prepare many students for the challenges we face in the future—and will likely

result in removing the stress and improper reliance on memorization associated with standardized


I have experienced the results of my suggested methodology play out in real time. During my freshman

and sophomore year, I took an Advanced Placement world history class and my teacher implemented a

project and discussion based use of classroom time. Each week I found myself engaged in intellectual

debates with other students or working on solo or group projects which required me to intimately engage

the information presented and to analyze connections between different periods in history. At the end of

the course, I not only felt confident in my knowledge of world history but I also gained critical thinking

and advocacy skills that I continue to use and will use during my college career. This class provided a

platform for understanding history and also assisted in shaping my future as an advocate for myself and


In addition to better preparing students for their futures, I believe that implementing my proposal will

result in a reduction of the high rates of stress among teenagers related to standardized test taking and

memorization. Further, I believe this sort of learning environment would better equip students to be more

introspective and allow for a space where we can think critically about the information being taught

because we would have the bandwidth to focus on being the best version of ourselves without the worry

of being defined by how well we do on standardized tests.

Work Cited

“2018 DC School Report Card and STAR Framework Technical Guide.” Osse.dc.gov, 2018, osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/2018%20DC%20School%20Report%20Card%20and%20STAR%20Framework%20Technical%20Guide.pdf.

Truong, Debbie. “Star Ratings Show D.C. Schools That Need the Most Help.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/star-ratings-show-dc-schools-that-need-themost-help/2018/12/07/76f1f6d2-fa43-11e8-863c-9e2f864d47e7_story.htmlnoredirect=on&utm_term=.a8c84cc8eaaf.