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State Testing = Boss Level

I'm part of the first Mario generation. What that means is that I have a different perspective of game play than the younger generation of gamers. Back in my day, there was nothing worse than your parents asking you to do a chore or come to dinner while in the middle of a video game. Back then, there was no pause. Game play was a one-time shot.

Game developers have since responded to this, and games today are often world-based challenges with multiple pathways and levels of completion. Even the linear running games (Temple Run) can be paused with progress saved along the way. Think about Candy Crush Saga. Once you complete one level, it saves your progress and you don't have to replay each level every time you play. You can retry that same level over and over until you get it right. This is part of what makes these games so sensational. The ability to check off, be done, and move on to new challenges. Thinking back to early gaming it's easy to see why video games only appealed to a select population.

Besides saved progress, another component that makes video games so appealing is the boss level. Boss levels are typically found at the end of the world and require skills and resources gained in previous levels. These are appealing because they present a new and distinct, yet familiar challenge.

My first experience with boss levels was, of course, Mario's castles. Not only were they challenging, but they threw in freaky things like fireballs and creepy music. Gone were the playful turtles, mushrooms, and flowers. Do you see what the boss levels do? They take a comfortable and familiar environment and turn it into an anxiety-provoking challenge. Contributing to this anxiety was the lack of saved progress. As a nervous child, I hated boss levels. I hated that hours worth of progress could be lost by a few mistakes, and in just a few seconds. And the higher I advanced, the higher the stakes became, and the higher my nerves rose.

Are you following me? Do you see the correlation to state testing?

Contrary to what I've presented above, I actually do not advocate dismissing boss levels. Though I hated them as a child (and well, let's be honest, as an adult, too), I recognize the value of learning perseverance through challenges and failures. Yes, it was through a video game, but isn't that what gamification is all about? Applying these concepts (and lessons learned) of game design into a real-world setting.

The trick, though, is to transform failure into perseverance, and that is where the difficulty balancing the two.

So, how did my child self find this balance? To understand, first we have to dispel one of gaming's oldest myths: gaming is for loners. Being an unnatural and untalented gamer, I learned to beat boss levels by watching and learning from my friends. In the beginning, I would complete the easier levels myself and then ask/make my more-skilled friends finish the challenges for me. Eventually, though, I grew tired of these false achievements and turned to my friends for guidance. Now I wanted to know how to beat the game. These friends showed me how to gather the necessary resources and taught me the tricks I would need to defeat each dragon-like turtle.

The lesson to be learned here is that I was able to beat the boss, but not intuitively. I needed explicit step-by-step instruction.

State testing is education's boss level. Education needs boss levels to teach perseverance in the face of challenges, and standardized testing, poorly designed though it may by, provides that.

Schools are faced with a very difficult dilemma. Their ratings and funding are linked to test scores, yet "teaching to the test" has become a very negative concept. Schools and teachers are villified for teaching to the test. Understandably so. We want creative and critical thinkers, not bubble-filler-inners and multiple choice guessers.

Some people take an in-between stance. They say, "If you teach what you're supposed to teach (i.e., state standards, Common Core, district curriculum), then there is no need to teach to the test. Everything will fall into place." I say that is not true. Just as I needed to be shown how to beat the boss levels, many students need to be shown how to pass the test. Teaching them just the skills or the concepts is not enough.

So, here is what I suggest:

Let's keep our boss levels in education. We need them, and the students do, too. But, let's also fight and advocate to make them better. Do we need standardized testing? If so, how can we make it more meaningful? If not, what would replace it, so that we still have accountability, consistency, and rigor?

In the meantime, though, we must still play the game. If the boss exists, and it must be defeated, let's arm our students with all the resources and tricks to defeat it.

So, how would this look in the classroom?

Just as nobody wants to play a game filled with nothing but boss levels, students do not want a classroom filled with nothing but test practice. They need the levels to gain the skills, practice, knowledge, and resources to take on greater challenges. But, at the same time, exposing them to boss levels (practice questions) lowers their anxiety by creating a sense of familiarity and preparedness. Balance the two just like a video game. 80% practice, 20% challenge.

So, how does this look in my class?

For starters, I do level all my assignments, which you can read about here. But, specifically I teach my students to prepare for the boss. I show them as much as I can and help guide them through the questions. We talk about the test, what they can expect, what trick answers look like, strategies they can apply. I tell them the EXACT number of questions they need to get right in order to pass, and tell them to look for all the easy ones first. The students decide for themselves that the test is actually not as difficult as they thought.

Here is one trick I did this year to make test practice more fun: I gave them the previous year's test, and allowed them to work on it together in groups, as well as with me. I posted the answer sheet in the classroom and allowed students to check their own answers. For each question they got right, they were able to post a sticky note with their name on it anywhere in the room. And they got really creative! We had sticky notes EVERYWHERE. As the testing dates approached, I moved them all to a piece of butcher paper, as you can see below.

The effect was awesome! They were so excited to have this visual representation, and they began to see that this test could be beat. The students discovered that they COULD do this, and they even believed it, too!


Gamification One of the newest buzzwords of education is GAMIFICATION. Put shortly, gamification means using game principles to engage and motivate students. Gamification is NOT putting a student in front of a computer all day, every day.

Grades vs. Experience Points Last week I had the opportunity to discuss gamification with a team of professors at Texas A&M University. As I presented my understanding of this concept, I came to an important realization on the negative impact of grades.

How (and Why) to Level Assignments One of the most important practices I keep is "leveling assignments." I do this with nearly every concept I teach.

I'm Not Afraid of Test Scores and You Shouldn't Be Either I'm a masochist. No, really. I am. I have a sick, uncontrollable yearning to read the comments underneath news articles. You know the ones - the comments on a NASA article blaming Obamacare for Justin Bieber's arrest