Standardized Testing Can’t Measure What Matters

by | Mar 20, 2012 | K-12 Education

Quick: What’s the difference between No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?

Not much. As Diane Ravitch notes in a powerful and insightful essay in the New York Review of Books, both are

part of what Pasi Sahlberg calls “the Global Education Reform Movement,” or GERM. GERM demands teaching to the test. GERM assumes that students must be constantly tested, and that the results of these tests are the most important measures and outcomes of education. The scores can be used not only to grade the quality of every school, but to punish or reward students, teachers, principals, and schools. Those at the top of the education system, the elected officials and leaders who make the rules, create the budgets, and allocate resources, are never accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

Indeed, for decades now, the “solution” for low test scores and “broken” schools has been more and more standardized testing – more “academic rigor” for the kids, more “accountability” and “incentive” for educators.

In the 1950’s, American education was said to be broken and was told to learn from the Soviet Union. In the 1980’s, American education was still bad but was told to learn from Japan because the Soviet Union was collapsing. In the 1990’s TIMSS showed how bad American education was and Singapore became the new model of educational excellence, especially in math. Entering the 21st century, Finland became the target of admiration because of its stunning performance in the new international academic horse race PISA. And today, China has become the newest poster child of great education. All along, American education was said to have never improved. And there is evidence to prove that. Just look at miserable rankings of American students….

Yet those “miserable rankings” actually say a lot more about the short-comings of our test-centric education system than the real-world results of that system, how our children – and economy – fare as adults. This fact is at the heart of much of the work of Dr. Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education in the University of Oregon’s College of Education. I had the privilege of hearing him speak at the learning and brain science conference I attended back in February – a talk (PDF) perhaps best summarized by a quote he shared from independent scholar Alfie Kohn:

When test scores go up, we should worry, because of how poor a measure they are of what matters, and what you typically sacrifice in a desperate effort to raise scores.

A professor of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership, Dr. Zhao repeatedly shows how the mania for standardized testing distracts us from the strengths of our schools and students. They are still, in fact, models to emulate. While US decision-makers look abroad for ways of narrowing the global testing gap, those in other countries look to us for ways of instilling less tangible but arguably more important qualities such as innovation and independent thinking. While we’re cutting arts, sports and humanities, China and other up-and-coming nations are adding them, understanding full well the value they add to a young person’s education – value that can’t be easily quantified and totted up on a spreadsheet but supports academic success and economic development.

“What China wants,” writes Dr. Zhao in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way,“ is what America is eager to throw away.”

And what does he see us throwing away? The traditional strengths of American education, including

    • broad understanding of what education is – not just “book learning” but arts, play and sports.


    • Accepting children as unique individuals.


    • Professional autonomy for teachers.


  • Plentiful resources to support learning (e.g., technology, arts and sports facilities).

Yet as Zhao noted for a Michigan State University press release on his book,

Right now we seem to be stuck with the idea of standards as the panacea to fix all of America’s education problems. I don’t deny that the U.S. education system has problems, but I don’t feel the problems can be solved by standards and high-stakes testing. Rather, standards and high-stakes testing run the risk of ruining the advantages and great tradition of the system.

Fortunately, more attention is being paid to the increasing number of education and child development specialists whose work repeatedly vouches for the value of a more humanistic mode of education. More people are understanding its role in both academic and life success. As Dr. Clifford Nass of Stanford stressed in an interview earlier this year on the public radio program Tech Nation, the best predictor of academic success isn’t test scores or grades; it’s emotional and social intelligence. We looked at a great example of this a few months ago on this blog: the New York school in which character education is emphasized over mere “academic rigor” – with stunning results.

Einstein once said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives a formal education!” Those words seem to have only grown truer over time. But it needn’t be that way. After all, we’re innovators! We can change things.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama said,

Remember – for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers — no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.

Dr. Zhao’s reply?

So who has made America “the largest, most prosperous economy in the world?” Who are these most productive workers? Where did the people who created the successful companies come from? And who are these inventors that received the most patents in the world?

It has to be the same Americans who ranked bottom on the international tests. Those 12th graders with shameful bad math scores in the 1960s have been the primary work force in the US for the past 40 years. The equally poor performers on international tests in the 70s and 80s have been working for the past 30 years now. And even those poor performers on the 1995 TIMSS have entered the workforce. Apparently they have not driven the US into oblivion and ruined the country’s innovation record.

American educators are more than willing to be held accountable; they just want to be measured on the right things, the things that really matter. And if we consider things like worker productivity, patents and innovation, GDP and standards of living, we have to acknowledge that yes, our education system and its dedicated teachers are doing a lot of right things.

Our country was born from the spirit of autonomy and innovation, and that continues to be our key competitive advantage vis a vis countries like China. So let’s free our professional educators from the shackles of testing to do what they already know how to do.

Image by biologycorner, via Flickr

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