Standardized Tests Distort Schooling: Experts Reflect on Authentic Learning

Federal school policy these days is limiting what children study at school.  The tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, the federal testing law, measure students’ progress in language arts and math.  Students are also tested in science once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. And states had to promise to adopt college- and career-ready standards to qualify for Arne Duncan’s federal waivers from the most awful consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act.  College- and career-ready standards translate into the Common Core, one of two sets of curricula standards and the tests that accompany them. What all this means in practice is that much of what happens at school is driven by what is on the tests.

Our national obsession with standardized testing has motivated many people including parents and teachers to push back.  What about the skills that we all know determine people’s capacity to work together, to persist at their work, to question and talk about their work and about the issues citizens need to understand?  Test preparation doesn’t cover these things.  School needs to be more than test prep.

In late February Susan Engel, a professor of psychology at Williams College and founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching, published a critique of standardized tests because, she said, neither do they show us much about what children know nor do they predict children’s success at school and in life:  “I have reviewed more than 300 studies of K-12 academic tests.  What I have discovered is startling.  Most tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and school districts predict almost nothing except the likelihood of achieving similar scores on subsequent tests.  I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes.”

Engel then presents a list of seven abilities or dispositions she believes all children need to master at school. She suggests our testing ought to measure whether our schools are teaching these skills: “One key feature of the system I am suggesting is that it depends, like good research, on representative samples rather than on testing every child every year.  We’d use less data, to better effect, and free up the hours, days, and weeks now spent on standardized test prep and the tests themselves, time that could be spent on real teaching and learning.”  What are the seven abilities and dispositions Engel believes every child should develop at school?

  • Reading — Every child should be able to read well by the end of elementary school and should read regularly.
  • Inquiry — Schools should develop children’s natural desire to discover by helping them investigate deliberately, thoroughly and precisely.
  • Flexible thinking using evidence — Children need to be able to approach a topic in different ways, reason about it and write about it.
  • Conversation — Students need to practice listening and explaining, taking turns, marshalling evidence, exploring different points of view, telling stories.
  • Collaboration — Children must learn to navigate their social settings and be reflective about the way people treat each other.
  • Engagement — Children need to have opportunities to become absorbed and learn to concentrate.
  • Well-Being — Children need to expect to feel safe at school.

I encourage you to read Engel’s essay to learn how she suggests testing can be designed to evaluate how well schools nurture these abilities.

In a profound new reflection, Mike Rose, the UCLA professor who has spent a long career observing teaching and learning, also critiques how standardized testing has narrowed what children are taught.  Rose agrees that we ought to push back against the narrowed emphasis on reading, math and a little science.  Valuing similar priorities to Engel’s, Rose wants us to think about what are often called “the soft skills”—“punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others,” but unlike Engel, Rose is not rethinking testing.

Rose worries about the way we have come to parse instruction and to imagine we can teach separate skills or dispositions each one on its own, for nobody really learns that way.  “An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity.  If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do.” (Emphasis added.)

Rose describes watching adults learning in a community college setting: “I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding.  While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively  acquired competence, soft skills developed apace.  Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.”

Rose is thinking about teaching and learning as an organic process of human development.  The things one learns and practices at school come together to form the person who is becoming more educated.

Notice that neither Engel nor Rose describes the kind of standardized testing that dominates our schools today as an essential part of education.