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Smart video games can assess kids better than standardized tests, a new book says

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A new book is being released on Tuesday titled “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.” If you doubt the title, read this post — and then the book.

It was written by Greg Toppo, USA Today’s national K-12 education writer, who spent eight years as a teacher in public and private schools before becoming a journalist. He worked for the Associated Press as its national K-12 education writer, moving to USA Today in 2002. In 2010, Toppo was a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the next year, he co-led a team of USA Today  reporters that investigated educators cheating on standardized tests, prompting the inspector general in Washington D.C. to launch a probe into high erasure rates on test forms.

Now Toppo has taken his  special interest in technology and how video games help students learn and put it in his new book — and in the following post.

By Greg Toppo

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -– Samuel Beckett

This spring marks an important milestone in U.S. public schools: For the first time, millions of students are taking new Common Core exams in math and reading. The test results serve as a kind of audit of our kids’ education and, the theory goes, will push schools to improve their basic product. Supporters and detractors of the Common Core have spent years debating the new standards’ merits, but one fact is inescapable: by the time the tests roll around each spring, students nationwide have spent weeks preparing for them.

In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers found that most students in one Midwestern school district spent the equivalent of 16 school days preparing for tests. Throw in the actual testing and it expanded to 19 days – nearly a full month of school on test prep and testing. In another district, AFT found, students in middle school and high school spent six weeks on prep and testing.

Understandably, resistance is growing. Thousands of students now simply refuse to sit for the tests, part of a defiant “opt-out movement” that last month included student walkouts across New Mexico. Meanwhile, districts across the country are having second thoughts about the tests’ costs and effectiveness – and educators are concerned that the tests are narrowing schools’ once broad curricula.

Into this fray has entered a small group of educators and researchers who are pushing for a new approach, one that doesn’t back away from testing but embeds it into everything students do. Long ago, these folks realized that millions of kids – the same kids, in fact, who sit for tests each spring – already enjoy access to a powerful tool that tests them constantly without actual tests or test prep. They are thinking, of course, about video games.

The idea is simple: the game is the test. It lays out the content and tests the player on the spot. It invites the player to celebrate a job well done or, more likely, to redo a job not so well done. Every level of every game asks a player to assess what went wrong and come back next time with a better plan. In other words, try again.

Linguist and games researcher James Paul Gee has written that games actually make players think like scientists. Game play is built on a cycle of “hypothesize, probe the world, get a reaction, reflect on the results, reprobe to get better results.” Game studios have created assessment systems that can tell players exactly how well they’ve done on thousands of variables, how their performance has improved and, if played online, how they stack up against millions of players – all without subjecting anyone to a multiple-choice test.

“Think about it,” Gee once said. “If I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

In the process, a good game naturally invites a kind of complexity that schools can only imagine. It was only a matter of time before game designers began hacking standardized testing, but it has happened in an unexpected way: In 2012, the Educational Testing Service, the folks who bring you the SAT, formed a partnership with, among others, the video game giant Electronic Arts, the folks who bring you Madden NFL, Mass Effect, and Battlefield 3. The result is an experimental nonprofit dubbed the Games, Learning and Assessment Lab, or GlassLab.

Based at Electronic Arts’ Silicon Valley headquarters, GlassLab is bristling with PhD-level learning scientists and assessment experts who are experimenting with ways to combine game mechanics with academic content. The effort’s ultimate aim is essentially to do away with standardized testing as we know it.

The project is part of a larger effort across academia looking for alternatives to standardized testing. Researcher Daniel Schwartz at Stanford University, for instance, is leading an effort to find “new ways to capture compelling forms of learning” that existing tests can’t measure. Florida State University researcher Valerie Shute has pushed for what she calls “stealth assessment” in educational games, saying such assessments could get at-risk students interested in school again.

The idea for GlassLab came in 2011, during an informal get-together of game designers and testing experts at the University of Southern California. “Everyone at that convening discovered that good digital games are already capturing data,” educator Jessica Lindl told me. The group soon realized that “a great digital game could start transforming what’s happening in schools today.” Lindl eventually became GlassLab’s general manager.

The effort has already created a software tool that translates data from gameplay into instant reports that teachers, parents, and administrators can download to see how well students are doing against established learning standards. GlassLab has mined textbooks to develop a tool that teachers can use to replace chapter assignments and tests with games that cover the same content.

It also created a series of new learning games, including a classroom version of SimCity that teaches about city management and pollution, among other topics. One middle school teacher in Chicago told me that after her students played the game for just a few hours, they began asking pointed questions about their own real-life city: Why had an incinerator plant been built next to their apartment building? Why did they have to take so many city buses to get to school each day?

What folks like Schwartz, Shute and Lindl long ago realized is that schools, for all of their obsession with testing, have an inability to do something with the results. The tests happen at the end of the school year, when there’s little time to change course. What else is there to do in the face of failure but fire the educators who brought you all those terrible scores?

If games do nothing else, they lower the cost of failure, making it happen early enough and often enough so that players can regroup, recover and come back with a better plan. That’s where real learning takes place. Why can’t school work that way?

Contrary to our deepest fears, giving our kids ample opportunity to fail will turn them not into abject failures but into gritty, impassioned, self-reliant learners. Veteran game designer Michael John, who is GlassLab’s lead designer, said children instinctively understand this “It’s O.K. to say, ‘Mission failed,’” he told me. “They’re not offended by that word.”