Last year, we had four children in college. As is typical in the college world, the time before final exams is a stressful one, and we began hearing the breakdown of final exams early in December. What was not typical in these discussions was the assessments themselves. Our business major was tasked with coming up with a new business presentation with a group of five other students. The “assessment” would be their pitch to a famous athlete who was looking to start a business in downtown Boston.

Our medical student found out that on the day of her exam, she would be presented with a choice of the final exam’s focus by pulling a random index card from her professor’s hand. The card would contain a medical condition of a fictitious patient for whom she would have to develop a treatment plan.

There is a place in education for these types of assessments. To complete the more rigorous, “hands-on” assignments and assessments, the student has to draw from their existing content knowledge. However, particularly at the high school level, traditional exams that focus on recall are still more prevalent than application assessments for final exams, but that does seem to be changing.

According to Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit that focuses on preK–12 assessments, there will be some significant paradigm shifts in education that will move away from traditional final assessments to more innovative approaches, such as performance-based assessments.

Yet in many high schools across the country at final exam time, you’ll still hear the whirl of the Scantron machine scoring dozens of tests per minute. What do these types of assessments really tell educators other than whether or not the student memorized enough information to pass the exam?

Absent from these exams is a meaningful overview of the student’s ability to apply and synthesize the facts they learned into something useful and relevant. Students can memorize the parts of a cell, but does labeling an illustration of the cell on a piece of paper address the true purpose of learning this topic, which is how a cell really works? Why is learning this information important? Furthermore, with just a click of a button in the right search engine, students have access to more facts and figures than ever before. In the workplace, when they run into a situation in which they don’t know something, they will most likely Google it.

Delving Into Deeper Learning

The quest for deeper learning is as old as ancient Greece and is often seen formalized and referred to in educational circles through Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. ​The taxonomy was developed in 1956 by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, whose focus was to promote higher forms of learning in education. His scaffolded description of cognitive skills that were present in classrooms was based on six categories: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The base of his hierarchy of learning began with the acquisition of knowledge, which he deemed the lowest form of true learning. At the top of his hierarchy of learning was the skill of evaluation, which he considered the most difficult skill to effectively master from a cognitive perspective.

In the mid-1990s, a former student of Bloom slightly revised his taxonomy chart, but the idea was the same. In order to maximize a deep process of learning, students had to be challenged to do more analysis and more development of original thoughts and ideas based on the knowledge they obtained through the learning process. In the world of Bloom, recall and memorization had its place, but true learning required educators to help their students apply content material.

In his article “We Learn by Doing: What Educators Get Wrong About Bloom’s Taxonomy,” Ron Berger, chief academic officer for EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning), a nonprofit school improvement network, explains the impact of memorization of content versus the application of content. “Many American adults are not proficient with any mathematics beyond elementary​ schoolwork, as almost everything they learned in high school has disappeared,” Berger notes. Students memorized procedures to pass tests but never applied that mathematics to real life—never fully understood or used it—and it never really “took.”

Many educators understand the importance of this form of learning and assessing. For one, students are much more engaged in their learning when they have to demonstrate, collaborate, create, analyze, and critique. One could argue that giving students the opportunity to exercise the highest level of learning on Bloom’s pyramid is the ultimate example of how social-emotional elements are present in the classroom. If a student feels their learning is meaningful and relevant, they are more likely to feel good about themselves and the overall experience. They will also develop social-emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision making.

So, why do we continue to see an abundance of lower-level learning experiences such as worksheets, lectures, and multiple-choice tests in today’s classroom? For one, developing a higher-level thinking classroom requires much more time, effort, creativity, and resources for the classroom teacher than is provided in our current educational system. Second, when we look at how state-mandated assessments are developed, most would fall under Bloom’s lowest level of cognitive thinking—a regurgitation of content knowledge. Many teachers will tell you that their assessments are developed to model these high-stakes assessments in order to ensure that students are well prepared in the art of taking these tests. The only way classrooms will move more in the direction of higher-level learning is if those who manage education make it a priority focus and give teachers the resources, time, and permission to explore this. At the high school level, traditional exams that focus on recall are still more prevalent than application assessments for final exams, but that does seem to be changing.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is prioritizing deeper learning in schools throughout the commonwealth outlined in their “Our Way Forward” report. Commissioner Jeff C. Riley believes that this approach is essential to developing students who are ready for the world beyond high school, and he has made the topic of deep learning a priority in his report to the Board of Education.

“In today’s world, the jobs that will earn enough to support a family are those that require students to synthesize knowledge, be motivated to continue learning throughout their lives, demonstrate creativity, and collaborate with others,” Riley states. “Deeper learning asks students to make connections between subjects, see the relevance of their studies in the real world, engage with their classmates, and essentially practice being the professionals they hope to become.”

While we keep hearing reports that the U.S. workforce is looking for employees who can think on their feet and work collaboratively to solve problems, our school systems do not model this type of environment as much as they should. Allowing school districts to develop their own common assessments that follow a set criteria for student progress on high-level thinking skills could be a start.

In San Diego County, California, educational leaders are taking bold steps to transform the focus on rote memory and high-stakes testing toward assessments that allow students to apply their learning in meaningful ways.

“In the past, a lot of our assessment work centered around multiple-choice testing and a lot of worksheets and rote memorization,” says Melissa Spadin, the San Diego County Office of Education’s coordinator of assessment, accountability, and evaluation. “That’s not what we’re trying to accomplish anymore with standards that ask students to apply their thinking.” In San Diego, educational leaders are soliciting all stakeholders to develop a vision of more authentic, meaningful assessments that incorporate academic, behavioral, and social-emotional goals. “For us, it’s understanding that assessment does not have to look the way it always has and that there are many different ways for students to demonstrate what they know,” Spadin says.

Yet in order to provide students with more relevant, application-based assessments, there is much work that needs to be done at the state and district levels. Educational leaders first need to collaborate with teachers to develop a strategic plan of what these assessments should look like and hope to accomplish. District leaders should then provide teachers the professional development needed to design these meaningful, standards-based assessments for students.

Teachers also need the resources and time to explore and develop new, more challenging learning experiences for their students. Groups of teachers either at the grade level or the same content area could collaborate to develop model lessons that address the higher-level thinking skills that are outlined by Bloom’s taxonomy and 21st-century learning standards.

This type of focus would hit all elements of the important roles and responsibilities that are being outlined for school today—social-​emotional learning, differentiation, 21st-century learning, cultural responsiveness, and providing our students with the knowledge and skills to take what they learn and turn it into something useful. At the end of the day, if a student can Google all the questions on their assessments, what have they really learned? Translate that into the real world—if an employee, doctor, or scientist can only find information but not apply it, synthesize it, use it to solve problems, or create an original thought, where does that leave civilization?

Gina Flanagan, EdD, is the principal at East Longmeadow High School in East Longmeadow, MA.