In recent years, there has been significant debate over the role that exams should play in education. While some believe that test scores provide a useful metric to compare students from different backgrounds, critics have pointed out issues with an overreliance on exams, from the ineffectiveness of standardized tests at measuring student performance① to the mental health impact exams have on students②. Authentic assessment is a proposed alternative or complement to standardized exams. Rather than testing skills in isolation, authentic assessment evaluates students based on their performance of a task or the completion of a high-quality final product. At Pioneer Academics, research provides an excellent opportunity for high school students to demonstrate their creativity and hard work. The nature of research is such that students can follow their passion and sharpen their academic curiosity, growing both as scholars and as people. Pioneer has developed a unique system that allows students to write creative research papers while being evaluated on a rubric to demonstrate competence.
Authentic assessment is defined as “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively.”③ Pioneer scholars develop an original research topic based on their own interests and curiosity. They may pursue a question inspired by reviewing the literature on a given topic, or seek to solve a problem they observe in their community or the world at large. The ultimate goal of research is to create new knowledge. Without the pressure of memorizing information for an exam, Pioneer scholars engage in academic exploration based on genuine interest. At the same time, Pioneer’s evaluation system allows students to demonstrate their capabilities in a way that is just as tangible as a test score.
Jahin (political science, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, appreciated the freedom he had to follow his academic curiosity at Pioneer. “When you really feel like you’re studying because you have to pass the next test, or because you want to get a 5 on your AP test at the end of the year, or you want your transcript to be perfect, you’re really set on memorizing facts… You have a set criteria which is done for somebody else, your transcript or your future college,” he explains. At Pioneer, Jahin says that he was free to explore whatever interested him most in his reading, rather than simply gleaning the text for the information most likely to be on an exam. “When the grade is the greatest aspect of your education, you prioritize that grade, and the material you study might not be what you’re really interested in… When a grade is imposed on you you’re just not as free, you’re restricted. And that definitely does not happen at Pioneer,” he says.
Thalia (neuroscience, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from China who attended high school in Canada, echoes the idea that Pioneer’s research program provides academic freedom, as well as opportunities for personal growth that aren’t as readily available in a traditional high school curriculum. “I agree with Pioneer that the purpose of education is not just a single score; it’s really about educating a holistic person and self-development,” she says. “I think this freedom really enables us to think on our own instead of just doing what we are instructed to do, because at this age in high school we already have the ability to follow instructions, on homework, on assignments, and things like that. But Pioneer allows us to really investigate a topic that’s relevant to the real world and that interests us, so we develop our own unique topics instead of learning what everybody else is learning. It makes students unique in that they find their unique interest and their unique strength.”
Research provides opportunities for self-development and academic exploration that are not present in exam-based curriculums. With its combination of academic freedom and standardized evaluation, Pioneer is able to offer students the best of both worlds. As a complement to traditional assessments, authentic assessments like Pioneer’s research paper can help to create well-rounded young scholars with a passion for knowledge.
① Popham, W. (1999). Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality. Educational Leadership, 56(6).
② Maddox, L. (2020, August 21). I’m a clinical psychologist—here’s how exams are damaging young people’s mental health. Prospect Magazine.
③ Wiggins, G. P. (1993). Assessing student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.