Trends, by definition, come and go. While the world of fashion revolves around this premise, the world of education needs a different foundation. For the last several decades, the valid push for accountability in schools has led to an unintentional disaster regarding student learning outcomes. Beginning in the 1990s, some very smart people with very good intentions made two very big mistakes. These mistakes, in the educational realm, rank about where polyester, leg warmers, and shoulder pads do in the fashion industry, but with obviously more serious fallout. What were these mistakes? Mistake number one: thinking a standardized test can measure anything meaningful; and, mistake number two: implementing a lower level, standardized curriculum to solve poor results from mistake number one.
Since their inception, standardized tests have not improved learning outcomes. Award winning educational reporter, Peg Tyre, has researched the the testing trend, noting,
“In addition to the amount of time given over to tests, schools were dumbing down what was taught so more kids would pass. As structured, standardized tests don’t include questions that demand complex analysis, synthesis, or higher order thinking. Instead, the questions are pulled from the bottom third of the curriculum. http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/06/25/standardized-testing-culture-america-how-did-we-get-here.
Since standardized tests aren’t the accountability answer, how else can we measure whether our schools are effective? In order to shift our focus, we need to revisit basic questions about education and its purpose.
Most cultures create educational systems to prepare youth for adult lives. The assumptions therein imply that there are certain things every adult in a society should know, and this remains true. What is unclear, however, in our more complex world, is exactly what our children’s adult lives will look like.
Across the globe and across time, it is undisputed that our children must understand what they read, express thoughts in written and artistic forms, calculate, produce solutions, create, and collaborate. What remains disputed are the specifics regarding what they should read, write, express, calculate, produce and create. Attempts to standardize this process are ludicrous. Measuring mastery of complex skills is best done by demonstration and cannot be done at all in en mass.
Therefore, if we agree that accountability is important, and we also agree that meaningful large-scale standardized assessment isn’t possible, what are we left with?
The call to action is threefold:
- Rethink basic assumptions. Accountability = Good. Standardized testing as the primary tool = Bad.
- Re-imagine accountability. Let’s ask ourselves who and how. Regarding Who: Since most standardized testing was created for political purposes as a data source, let’s examine this practice as related to it’s origin. Who should be evaluating the effectiveness of our schools? National Politicians? Local politicians? Educators? Employers? Parents? Students? All or some of the Above? Regarding How: If standardized tests can’t keep us accountable, what can? In the pre-testing era, accountability measures seemed to be tied to real-world indicators such as employment rates, graduation rates, industry success etc. An alignment between what our society needs and what our kids produce seems more important than disconnected data.
- Reinvent assessment. Learning demonstrations are far more accurate measures than grades or test scores. With the tools available to us today, we can actually record evidence of whether a child can read, express herself, calculate, collaborate, solve problems and create. If the assessment issue revolves around seeking to create a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mass data driven assessment tool, isn’t it time to realize we are barking up the wrong tree? Learning outcomes are as individual as our learners. Thought leaders in education have long since seen this as an essential shift for 21st Century schools. One such leader, Pat Bassett, former President of NAIS, stated in 2009, “It makes one wonder if all the emphasis on standardized testing shouldn’t be moderated significantly with much more emphasis on demonstrations of learning, tangible “output” that can be collected and in each student’s lifelong digital portfolio. It also makes one wonder what assessments for the 21st century might look like in general.” – See more at: http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Demonstrations-of-Learning-for-21st-Century-Schools.aspx#sthash.HVBBWwff.dpuf
As we bravely look toward educational transformation, we need to be prepared to let go of practices that do not serve the end to which they were created. After all, we were willing to let go of shoulder pads and leisure suits in the name of better fashion- why would we force our children to endure the perpetual educational equivalent of polyester? Let’s place those tests in a glass museum, right next to John Travolta’s famous white suit.