Nothing lights up public education arguments quite like tests. They’re the heroes and/or villains of so many narratives about public schools, unavoidable variables in our arguments about everything from pre-K to early literacy, charter schools, federal accountability, teacher evaluations, and more. They determine how we define quality, success, effectiveness, efficiency, academic growth, and proficiency in public education. Everyone—whether they love or hate tests—uses data from assessments to decide what works in schools.

The heated debates about standardized testing might, however, obscure the real issue. In Chicago, one elementary school is complicating these conversations. Through its testing practices, it’s suggesting that the real question isn’t one of whether schools should test or not, but of how the schools prepare their students.

Split Down the Middle

One of the central testing debates revolves around “student achievement mandates”—assessments that states and/or the federal government require students to take during their time in public schools. Specifically, under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all states administer annual literacy and math assessments to all students in third through eighth grade, and at least once during their high school years. States must also administer a science assessment once in late elementary grades, once in middle school, and once in high school. These are the most controversial assessments in use in the United States today, largely because they form the backbone of the systems that track how schools are doing at advancing student achievement in these subjects. To varying degrees, depending on the state (and other factors), schools where students persistently struggle on these assessments can face pressure and accountability consequences if they do not.

This system aims to provide a public mechanism for pressuring schools to prioritize academic achievement for all students. Unsurprisingly, most civil rights groups have championed these standardized tests as a critical safeguard against educational inequity, in light of the country’s long, embarrassing history of marginalizing and/or ignoring many groups of students—particularly students of color—and their educational needs. They argue that these tests shine a light on inequities that would otherwise go unnoticed.

But that hasn’t prevented intense arguments since the current form of the federal testing mandate launched almost twenty years ago. Above all, critics have complained that school quality shouldn’t be reduced to academic achievement in just two subjects. They warn that these tests unduly punish students growing up in low-income households and students from other historically underserved racial or ethnic groups. They claim that federal pressure has forced schools to shift their models to focus on literacy and math—to “narrow the curriculum” and teach to these tests. They fret that federal support of states’ standardized tests is reducing public education to a rote, bloodless, boring experience. Above all, they argue that this narrowing trend is especially common in schools with high percentages of low-income students, who have historically performed poorly on these assessments.

But what if these arguments miss the point? What if the tests aren’t the problem…but, rather, how schools have responded to them?

An Alternative, “Whole Child” Approach to Education

Earlier this fall, I visited John C. Haines Elementary, one of the highest-performing campuses in Chicago Public Schools. According to the state’s standardized tests, Haines students are doing extremely well—they score in the top 10 percent of Illinois schools for academic performance in math and reading, and fully 51 percent of Haines’s students from low-income families scored proficient or better in literacy, compared with just 23 percent of Illinois’ low-income students. Similarly, 61 percent of Haines’s low-income students scored proficient or better in math, compared with just 17 percent of Illinois’ low-income students. Incidentally, nearly 90 percent of Haines students come from low-income families, and almost 30 percent are currently classified as English learners.

How does a school get these kinds of results? Does Haines drill students each day on sample test questions? Does it impose draconian disciplinary regimes to maximize order and student attentiveness?

No. As I wrote in an article for Edutopia last month, the answer at Haines may surprise educators who feel pressured to teach to state academic tests. Instead of intensive test prep,

Haines offers an effective, alternative path, one in which learning isn’t reduced to rote drills and test prep worksheets. By engaging students’ identities and giving them a voice in shaping their classrooms, Haines prepares students to succeed academically and to think about how their actions can shape their broader community.

At every turn, Haines treats students as individuals who have their own interests and their own ideas about how they learn best. It recognizes that their social and emotional development is a foundation for academic growth—and understands that math and reading skills develop best when they’re part of bigger projects.

In essence, Haines educators do the opposite of the just-so curricula-narrowing story about what happens to schools that are forced to regularly administer standardized tests: instead, Haines offers a broader, “whole child” approach to learning that treats academic achievement as one part of healthy, successful development. “The vision and the mission of the school really kind of break down to giving our students all the experiences in their education,” says eighth-grade social studies and language arts teacher Cristina Sicora.

In essence, Haines educators do the opposite of the just-so curricula-narrowing story about what happens to schools that are forced to regularly administer standardized tests: instead, Haines offers a broader, “whole child” approach to learning that treats academic achievement as one part of healthy, successful development.

For instance, the walls and staircases are covered with images from diverse cultures’ mythological stories, as well as with multilingual messages about persistence and hard work. Given that many Haines students are children of immigrants—and/or immigrants themselves—many teachers select books (and build units) with the U.S. immigrant experience in mind. They pay special attention to texts that relate to students’ languages and cultures. “I make it personal, about them, and then their interest is piqued because then they’re always doing that comparison with their lives,” says seventh-grade English language arts (ELA) teacher Rebecca Grober. “These kids…they have it, they’re deep.”

This rich, whole-child approach shows up in other ways, as well. School leaders incorporate project-based learning into their curricula. In past years, students have identified a range of neighborhood concerns—such as homelessness and cigarette smoking near the school—and used these as prompts for interdisciplinary academic units with real-world activism as their goal.

The student-empowering element of Haines’s model extends to its disciplinary model. Classes run according to their “social contracts,” which are systems of rules that each class develops through discussions at the beginning of the school year. In Danielle Scaletta-Bruno’s third-grade class, the contract has a list of imperatives: “Be polite. Be respectful. Be here and present. Be helpful.” It also asks signatories to “apologize and forgive,” and “Always try your best.”

Its impact on the class’s culture is apparent. One September afternoon, she calls her students to the class rug. “Pretzel feet,” she calls out, and her students respond in an echo. “Chocolate cake hands. This is how we understand.” Scaletta-Bruno then describes what’s next. It sounds more like a community update than a direction. First, she explains her initial lesson plans for this part of the day, but then explains that there have been a few hitches—there are a few students who still need to finish work from their last project, for instance. The class is studying plural nouns, so she asks them to show, using their fingers, their confidence levels with the latest material on a scale of one (still feeling uncertain) to three (could teach someone else). Finally, in just fifteen to twenty more seconds, she sorts the class into groups and sends them off to work on differentiated projects around the room.

The entire process is informal, efficient, and calm. When Scaletta-Bruno speaks, students are attentive and engaged. When they’re working independently, most are focused on their tasks. When they finish, students seamlessly transition onto Chromebooks where they work on personalized activities targeted to their needs. “It’s a great school,” says student Serenity Jones. “We do a lot of learning.”

The social contracts make Scaletta-Bruno’s efficient, light-touch disciplinary approach possible. Children in this class—and across Haines’s campus—are focused, curious, and collaborative partly because they are working in a learning environment of their own construction. Instead of being disciplined into learning by pressure from above, they are engaged in learning as part of a group shaped by rules that they had a hand in drafting. “When students have their own ownership of creating rules, it creates a community in the classroom,” says principal Catherine Amy Moy Davis, “And it also fosters a different type of learning for our students, because it came from them.”

Embedding Learning, Raising Achievement

Refreshing as it may seem, Haines’s approach is hardly a novel one. Research suggests that schools that narrow their curricula to focus on test prep do not generally improve students’ test performance. That is, too many American schools are actually misreading their situation: the best way to help students do better on standardized math and reading assessments might well be to spend less time teaching these subjects in artificial isolation. Students learn important academic (literacy, math, science, critical thinking, and more) skills by engaging with rigorous content and complex problems that they actually care about. They develop a more comprehensive understanding of academic content when they can link it to their own cultural identities and communities through intentional engagement with these resources.

Many American schools are actually misreading their situation: the best way to help students do better on standardized math and reading assessments might well be to spend less time teaching these subjects in artificial isolation.

In other words, Haines does well on academic tests by resisting the temptation to organize their school around those tests. And parents are starting to notice. While Haines is a neighborhood school, its performance on academic assessments is drawing interest from families who live all over the city. “When I checked them out online, you know, I looked at the test scores,” says Serenity’s mother, Tiffany Jones. “And I thought that Haines did pretty well, considering that they’re not taking the cream of the crop kids, that they’re taking everybody and working with what they’re given.”

Try to imagine, then, if this approach to the academic assessments took hold on more campuses around the country. What if schools across the country spent more time and resources expanding their curricula and less energy narrowing their schools into test prep factories? What if they gave students more room to explore, meditate, collaborate, and participate in rigorous academic inquiry with their peers? Haines’s example suggests a paradoxical answer: by focusing on students instead of tests, schools might do better with both.