The Trouble with Testing

Also posted at DML Central:

It’s obviously summer because my news alerts are no longer steadily reporting concerns about education, our children’s future, the problems with teachers, etc. Perhaps now, then, is the perfect time to address the issue of testing and its troubles, while a little distance might provide perspective. So, why do we test? What do we hope the tests will achieve? Last summer, Thomas Friedman suggested that parents and teachers view classroom performance as CEOs do economic performance to keep us competitive and to overcome our “education challenge.” In this light, testing helps us know where we stand in relation to other countries. Presumably, this knowledge will improve local performance because teachers can target areas of weakness. Yet learning research consistently shows that an emphasis on test scores does not necessarily lead to gains in academic performance. Perhaps learning, with its long-term gains and diffuse experiences does not lend itself well to an economic model. Instead of focusing on test scores at the elementary and secondary levels, why not take a longer-term view? Why public education? What are our true goals for teaching and learning? When pressed, most politicians will state that the long-term goals of education are to develop a citizenry that maximizes contributions to society and economy, yet our measures of success typically do not focus on those who embody these qualities. It seems that to move toward a goal of an educated, engaged citizenry, we should consider the skills, aptitudes, and experiences of those among us who do positively contribute to society, who embody the values we seek to instill, and measure our school systems in terms of these long-term outputs.

Current testing mostly focuses on short-term achievement without considering long-term goals. For example, after our early 20s, most of us don’t remember quadratic equations, regardless of how well we tested in our teens, but perhaps the lesson wasn’t the equation itself, but the process of understanding or not understanding it. Learning is about more than its parts, it is about perseverance, to pursue a thing regardless of its obstacles, to adapt ideas and frameworks in light of new challenges and uncertainty. Yet these lessons aren’t adequately measured in national or international tests, not because of lack of interest but because of their intangibility. How many high school students who many considered ‘least likely to succeed’ did anyway? When we limit our measures of potential to fragmented subject knowledge, we risk missing what truly contributes to fostering the citizenry to which we aspire.

Ticking boxes and demonstrating an understanding of concepts in isolation, skills measured by PISA and ETS, do not prepare students well for demands of university learning or future careers. Established predictors of academic success—patience, perseverance, and adaptability—are not measured by these exams. Another consistent predictor of academic and professional success, delayed gratification—discovered in the now infamous marshmallow study that tested children’s ability to forego short-term gratification in favor of long-term gain—cannot be measured by the PISA tests.

Also not reported through PISA is the ability to crossover between subjects and concepts, to see the applications of and relationships between ideas beyond a single instance. The ability to imagine, to be creative, to adapt ideas regardless of challenges or obstacles are predictors of innovation. In these skills, we could argue that many graduates of the U.S. school system have far surpassed their counterparts. For some reason, despite our ‘average’ scores, the U.S. continues to be a major contributor to technologies that change the world: the Internet, Facebook, Google, the iPhone, to name but a few examples, not to mention innovative contributions in the areas of entertainment, health, and science. So perhaps testing well isn’t the only measure of success.

In looking at examples from Finland and South Korea, we want to take the learning gains a la carte, apart from the social systems that may foster them. We desire learning gains in mathematics, for example, but not a nationalized health system. Often absent from discussions of testing and improvements to education is the parent’s role in their children’s academic performance and future career choice (Friedman provides an excellent overview of research in 2011). How do parents in these high performing countries support their children’s learning? Consistently in the U.S., parent’s education level is shown to be a predictor of academic success, yet corporate models of increased testing and academic competitiveness ignore the role of the parents. There is a gap in expectation, we expect teachers to improve, school systems to improve, indeed even children to improve, but we do not consider what kinds of support parents might need in order to cultivate adequate learning environments for their children outside of the classroom. We do not expect parents to play a stronger role in prioritizing education and further do not offer an infrastructure to aid parents in supporting their children’s learning experiences.

Friedman accurately states there is a mismatch in worldviews. The aggressive rhetoric of ‘education challenge’ seems unhelpful though and I recommend instead focusing on the questions David Graeber posed, why are there no flying cars? If an entire nation of schoolchildren scored perfectly on the standardized tests now, what would our society be like in 15-25 years? Would we enjoy more social equality, enlightened distribution of resources, flying cars? As a nation, we need to be more clear about what it is we’re aiming at and the best place to start is to look around at the people who already embody these qualities and consider how our school system and larger society fostered their development.


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