Steve Nelson Believes America’s Obsession with School Policy Based on Standardized Tests Is All Wrong

Steve Nelson is the former Head of School at the private, progressive Calhoun School in Manhattan, but he has also spoken passionately about the danger of current trends in public school policy.  I recommend his book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, and I also enjoy his new blog, where, last week, he warned against the problems in federally mandated standardized testing—a big issue right now as education advocates are urging the new U.S. Secretary of Education to grant states waivers to cancel federally mandated standardized testing in this COVID-19 school year.

Where did our fixation and obsession with standardized testing come from? Nelson weighs in: “Education reformers and so-called policy ‘experts’ are constantly collecting and analyzing data.  Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called ‘the dismal science.’ The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: ‘evidence-based,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘metrics and accountability.’ At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform ‘best practices’ based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests.”

Today’s accountability-based school reform is, writes Nelson, “an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment… systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.”

Nelson calls this sort of teaching “direct instruction,” and he describes the direct but fading results: “‘Direct instruction’ does increase scores on the tests the instruction is aimed toward, even with very young children. This self-fulfilling prophecy is not surprising. But multiple studies also show that the gains in performance are fleeting—they completely wash out after 1-3 years when compared to children who have had no direction instruction.”

What kind of education does Nelson believe is consistent with normal child development?  “If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery).”

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement—‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’—is the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Last year, Betsy DeVos cancelled the federally mandated standardized tests in the midst of COVID-19. I think it is safe to say that Steve Nelson would tell Miguel Cardona that we can safely allow states to cancel the tests again this spring as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our schools and our children’s lives.