Powerful learning experiences aren’t as common in core subjects as we hope—but they occur in schools more often than we tend to think. 

That’s the conclusion I walked away with after reading Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s new book investigating deeper learning in high schools. The authors define deeper learning as the intersection of mastery (developing knowledge and skills), identity (connecting students’ core selves to what they are learning and doing), and creativity (enacting learning through producing something). Deeper learning advocates claim that these experiences are more effective at producing skills like collaboration and critical thinking; Mehta and Fine argue that deeper learning can bridge the perceived ideological divide between progressive reformers arguing for student-driven exploration and a standards-based movement concerned with rigor.

The bad news is that deeper learning isn’t happening consistently or comprehensively in core high school classes, the authors write. However, in a surprise turn, they found it happening more predictably on the periphery of core academics, such as in extracurriculars. In fact, the authors spend an entire chapter dissecting how deeper learning unfolds in the production of a Shakespeare play. If deeper learning already happens on many high school campuses, albeit on the periphery, what’s preventing it from becoming the norm in core disciplines?

One answer is assessment—and not just for the reason many people assume. It’s true that today’s accountability climate and standardized tests can incentivize coverage over depth, pushing deeper learning down the priority list. But assessment is also a barrier to deeper learning because the field is still early in the process of developing reliable and scalable systems of assessment for it. While some states are laying the groundwork, and important research has been done to map what new systems for assessment could look like, the fact remains that scalable systems to measure deeper learning have not yet materialized.

Given the emerging state of deeper learning assessments, I’m putting forward a proposal that may raise eyebrows: the pathway to deeper learning in subjects like math and English isn’t to remake assessments in those subjects. Instead, we should work on nailing assessments for deeper learning on the periphery, like in theatre programs—here’s why:

New assessments need time and space to mature

Many deeper learning advocates argue that we should shift away from standardized testing to make room for greater depth, creativity, and relevance in the classroom. The problem with this strategy is that it seeks to topple tests in a head-to-head fight. That requires an alternative assessment system to outperform standardized tests on their own turf, where the endgame is to measure outcomes (regardless of context or process) in consistent, absolute ways.

Assessments for deeper learning shouldn’t get trapped in a game of winning over tests—they should be inherently different, and show over time that different is better. And they have a long way to go on that front. These assessments will need to account for environments where students are learning at least in part through experience and inquiry. That means that the process of learning (for example, trying a hard-line diplomatic strategy in Model UN only to see it fail, then working to rebuild relations and reach a compromise) is just as important as the outcome (successfully identifying different diplomatic strategies and their applications). And in more open-ended learning environments, the learning outcomes from experiences are not set from the start—assessments will need to account for the fact that outcomes may not be predictable or universal for each learning experience. 

There’s still plenty of work to be done to develop and improve these sorts of alternative modes of assessment. (I’ll be attending the Assessment for Learning conference in February, where I’m looking forward to learning about progress on that front.) In the meantime, assessment innovators should avoid either seeking to topple standardized tests outright and likely losing, or letting new forms of assessment be coopted by a definition of performance where testing naturally excels. But how?

Incubating assessments on the periphery

The answer is simple, yet potentially powerful: they should work to develop assessment models in low-stakes environments where deeper learning is already happening, like in extracurriculars and after-school programs. 

The idea of assessing learning in theater programs, debate clubs, and athletics may be anathema to some educators, at least if they hear “assessment” as “testing.” But it should be a high priority for educators who want to see deeper learning migrate from the periphery of school into the core. In fact, the education system stands to benefit from this strategy in two major ways. 

First, by initially developing assessments in low-stakes environments, innovators will have a runway for improvement while still optimizing for some of the factors they care about most, such as using assessments to support students’ learning (not just measure it). And they can work to develop technologies that help make new assessments more cost-effective at scale. Over time, reliable and scalable deeper learning assessment strategies could become good enough to satisfy stakeholders that students are learning desired knowledge and skills without resorting to standardized testing. Plus, they could dramatically outperform standardized tests on other attractive features, such as being a positive experience for students. 

Second, in a surprise bonus, new assessments developed on the periphery could make extracurriculars less peripheral by showing how academic knowledge and skills can be developed in many contexts, including outside of traditional classrooms. Coupled with competency-based systems that dispense with seat time as a proxy for learning, we could start to see more schools awarding credit for learning wherever it’s happening. 

So if you know high school theater directors who are willing to try incubating innovative assessments, make sure they know—they may have access to a powerful but under-recognized lever for scaling deeper learning.


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite