Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why Test Scores are Failing Us

The question that the current crop of education pseudo-reformers fails to ask is, “Do we really want a country of really good test takers?” 

This is an important question to ask because the direction of education reform will not only dictate results on international tests such as the PISA, but will also dictate the very nature of our society.  Will we be a society of theoreticians who exist in an unreality of choice A, B, C, or D, where a skilled workforce is one that can plug and chug through computations and recite facts without ever thinking critically about what they mean and what implication they may have for society, or will we promote a culture of creativity and innovation?

I believe we are at heart a culture of creativity and innovation, and standardized tests are indeed failing us.  Not only do standardized tests fail to discover the talented, compassionate, wise, and creative members of society, but by connecting these tests to such things as teacher pay, school itself is losing its freedom to be innovative and creative as teachers continually feel the pressure to perform for the singular measure of standardized testing. 

Some people believe you can be creative while teaching the standards, but that is not the point.  The standards themselves do not dictate the current atmosphere in education.  It is all the other hubbub surrounding standards that gets in the way.  The truth of the matter is that schools just aren’t as creative as they were 10-15 years ago.

Education is a pendulum that reverses direction every 15 years or so.  Stick around long enough, and what you were doing when you started the profession will come back en vogue.  I believe the reason for this periodicity is the failure of society to address the root causes of the problems facing education, namely the health and welfare of our youth.  Thus, we keep digging into the same bag of so-called reforms. 

However, I think there are signs that the pendulum is swinging and that standardized testing is losing its stranglehold on American education.  Fantastically, this is coming from institutions of higher education.  Firstly, there is a long-standing list of hundreds of schools who do not use the SAT to gauge admissions.  But recently, some hold-outs (such as the University of California system) have been dropping the SAT II, or Subject Test, requirement.  Secondly, some universities, such as Tufts,  are using a new set of metrics to dig deeper for successful students.

In a great article titled To get the real star students, college admissions should look beyond SATs”, Robert J. Sternberg  writes on Washingtonpost.com about how Tufts uses a set of essay questions to assess a student’s “creative, analytical and practical skills and general wisdom.”  Tufts found that measuring these qualities was a better predictor of student success than test scores and GPA.

Any teacher will tell you this is obvious, and why standardized tests are such a joke in the first place.  Many of the students who will go on to make productive, creative, and innovative contributions are not the students sitting tamely in class and getting all their work turned in.  These creative contributers have an extra spark that some of the top students in my classes lack, a spark that is not detectable on standardized tests.

Universities should push harder to do away with testing requirements where it makes sense to (Engineering programs may want to retain test scores, as they may be a fair predictor in those fields).  Perhaps state and federal governments would follow suit.  The future ability of our nation to survive in the environmentally and economically challenged world of the future will not reside with a bunch of students with an aptitude for test taking, but with the creativity and innovation that education can and should instill in our youth.

Put down the No2 pencils, reclaim your inner creativity, and reclaim public education!

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