Standardized tests are harming our schools

The Michigan Department of Education recently came out with a new set of proposed accountability guidelines for Michigan schools, detailing how Michigan schools’ A through F school report cards will be formulated. The major takeaway is that the evaluation system continues to rely, to an overwhelming degree, on standardized test scores. What this means in practice is that Michigan students in general, and non-affluent students in particular, will continue to receive an unengaging, test-prep model of education that will fail to prepare them for the 21st century economy.

A school evaluation system based around standardized tests is undesirable for few reasons. First, schools serving high concentrations of low-income students are severely handicapped. Low-income students are less likely to be at grade level in math and reading, and since knowledge begets knowledge, they’re also less likely to grow as fast as their more affluent peers. And because of policies that close rather than improve low-performing schools, we’re all but guaranteeing that more and more schools in non-affluent areas will be closed, with uncertain but potentially disastrous outcomes for students, families, teachers, and neighborhoods.

Second, a school system focused solely on improving a narrow band of math and reading skills is, counterintuitively, unlikely to meaningfully improve math and reading skills. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, high-stakes testing and school sanctions have been the law of the land. And since that time, test scores nationally have been less than stellar. On the 2012 National Assessment for Educational Progress, reading scores for 17 year olds – who’d spent almost their entire k-12 education under NCLB policies – were lower than scores in the early 90s. Education theorist E.D. Hirsch has suggested that the narrowing of the curriculum that NCLB policies promoted prevented students from gaining a broad base of knowledge – in history, civics, science, and literature – that would aid their reading comprehension.

In a system based around high-stakes standardized tests, in place of a broad, enriching curriculum, students get drills. In math students will be taught quick tricks (e.g., “when dividing fractions, flip the second fraction and multiply”), rather than the conceptual understanding that takes far longer to develop. In reading, students will be drilled on finding the main idea of a passages they struggle to comprehend, rather than be exposed to a broad curriculum that will aid their reading comprehension. When the survival of your school depends on growth and proficiency on these tests, and there’s a lot of material to cover, the temptation to simply drill students on test-style questions wins the day.

But even if high-stakes testing did produce higher test scores, an accountability system focused inordinately on standardized tests would still be undesirable. Because a focus on these tests fail to advance the skills students really need to thrive in the 21st century. In a 21st century workplace, in which well-paid jobs are largely centered in offices, hospitals, and schools, workers will need to be able to think critically and creatively, express themselves clearly and convincingly in writing, have a deep knowledge base and be curious to learn more, and be self-directed, flexible, and collaborative. And placing a school’s fate solely on their student gains and proficiency on a narrow set of reading and math skills all but assures that they won’t spend any time trying to develop that broad set of 21st century skills.

How do we teach 21st century skills? One place to look is the Expeditionary Learning (EL) charter school network, whose model of project-based, collaborative student work dealing with relevant questions is tailor-made for pushing 21st century skills. Along with EL, models that promote a style of instruction in which students are asked to engage deeply with content, come up with answers on their own, be self-directed, collaborate, and create final written and oral products, are often referred to as “deeper learning” models. It’s this instructional model we should have in our minds when we imagine 21st century instruction: discussion over lectures, discovery over rule-following, and performance-based assessments over high-stakes tests.

But this model has little chance of flourishing in a system built around standardized tests. And this is particularly true in non-affluent schools, where low test scores and the threat of closure only encourage more drilling in the hope of short-term gains. What we need instead is a school evaluation system that truly takes into account the things the matter for 21st century success, and pushes all schools towards deep learning and engaging projects, over more drills.










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