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Moving away from standardized testing

As readers of this bog know we believe Michigan needs to move away from standardized testing. Anytime we make that case, the first question we get is “what is the alternative?” In a column for Bloomberg entitled Testing Craze Is Fading in U.S. Schools. Good. Here’s What’s Next. Andrea Gabor tackles just that question.

Before we delve into the alternatives to standardized testing, let’s review why Michigan Future has turned away from supporting a test-based assessment and accountability system:

  • The book Crossing the Finish Line details findings that a student’s high school GPA – made up of grades given by individual teachers across four years of high school – was far more predictive of eventual college graduation than her SAT/ACT score. Why? Because while test scores measure a student’s ability on a narrow band of math and reading skills, GPA measures a diverse set of capacities, encompassing academic habits, content knowledge, and non-cognitive skills, exhibited day after day across four-years of high school.
  • Research by Northwestern economist C. Kirabo Jackson found that a non-cognitive index of grades, attendance, and disciplinary records was more predictive of long-term success than test scores. He also found that the set of teachers that were able to improve this index was an entirely different set of teachers than those that were adept at raising test scores. The message from both Jackson and Crossing the Finish Line: when we focus only on test scores, we miss the really important stuff.
  • Our learnings about the skills that are rewarded in today’s labor market. Far broader, and in many ways more rigorous, than the skills that are measured by standardized tests––particularly single right answer multiple choice tests. As you know we would define career- ready skills as the 6Cs which includes content (what is on the test) but much more.
  • The unintended consequence of test scores being the only measure that schools/educator are held accountable for has led to non-affluent kids (in cities, suburbs and rural areas) attending schools with curriculum and pedagogy that is both non engaging and way too narrow. Focusing almost exclusively on what is on the test at the expense of all the other Cs as well as extracurriculars, electives, the arts, even writing that are so important to a quality education that we all want, if not demand, for our kids. To us this is a key equity challenge of our times: non-affluent kids in schools that are designed to build too narrow skills.

You can delve into why we have turned against standardized testing in our previous blogs which can be found here, here, and here.

For those interested in learning more about the damage to both curriculum and pedagogy caused by test-based assessment and accountability systems, the book In Search of Deeper Learning is highly recommended.

To be clear our reason for wanting to de-emphasize standardized testing is not to lower standards. In fact it is the opposite. We strongly believe the bar for student achievement in Michigan is too low. We need to hold school management accountable for more rigorous and broader student outcomes. To do that requires better assessments. The reality is that the non-content specific skills that make up the 6Cs are higher-order skills than what is measured by today’s standardized tests.

If we are serious about college and 40 year career success (not a first job) we had better get what we are holding schools accountable for right. What we need to come up with is an assessment system that actually predicts college and career success. If we don’t we are harming, most importantly, our kids as well as the Michigan economy.

Which brings us back to the question “What is the alternative to standardized testing?” Gabor writes:

Now states from Arizona to Wyoming are retreating from high-stakes testing. The announcement last month that New York’s education commissioner, a testing proponent, will resign in August, signals another reversal.

It might be easy to say good riddance, but schools still need ways to measure student progress. The accountability movement that pushed testing was a response to a genuine need to improve K-12 education. Since the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” a bipartisan report by a commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan, business leaders have warned that schools weren’t developing the knowledge workers modern industry needs, and progressive educators have criticized traditional factory-style schools for not fostering an engaged and informed citizenry.

So schools need to find new ways to show accountability advocates that test retrenchment won’t weaken standards, and this presents an opportunity to develop more robust assessments and better education.

The country’s best under-the-radar experiments are a useful guide. Chief among these is the New York State Performance Standards Consortium, a decades-old effort led by progressive educators and involving 38 high schools, which won exemptions from all standardized tests except English. Instead, students complete ambitious projects known as performance-based assessments — think mini theses with lots of research, writing and real-world projects in everything from social studies to physics, which students present to expert panels, including teachers (often from different schools) and community members.

Since launching in the 1990s, the consortium has racked up far higher graduation rates and college matriculation rates for its schools than New York’s traditional public schools.

… In 2015, New Hampshire won a waiver under a federal pilot program that opened the door to alternative assessment programs, and is introducing performance-based projects like New York’s that are designed almost entirely by teachers

Another answer to the what is the alternative question is the MIT Playful Journey Lab in collaboration with Albemarle County School District, Portola Valley School District, and San Mateo County Office of Education, Beyond Rubrics Toolkit. Really worth checking out.

The skills the Toolkit is designed to assess:

  • Agency: The capacity to make intentional choices and to understand that you have such a capacity. With agency, you see yourself as a contributor and an agent of change in the world surrounding you.
  • Design Process: A way to approach challenges by brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and iterating. Designers are aware of the many steps to reach a solution and deliberately work on each step to improve a design.
  • Social Scaffolding: An active participant in a community that supports everyone’s learning.
  • Productive Risk-taking: To try an idea or a solution beyond your comfort zone. Even when an action ends in an unexpected way, you can identify lessons learned and connect it to the next iteration or future projects.
  • Troubleshooting: A capacity to persist and to find solutions. If a project is not progressing as expected, you can use different strategies to diagnose and fix the problem. Not giving up requires patience, resilience, and resourcefulness.
  • Bridging Knowledge: Using knowledge from your lived experiences at home, community, and culture as well as from OST experiences and other subject areas to benefit the project you are working on.
  • Content Knowledge: You may develop stronger conceptual understanding, be able to accurately understand why this do or do not work, or be able to use materials in safe and effective ways.

Does anyone really believe these skills are not a better predictor of life outcomes than the skills assessed on the single right answer multiple choice tests that we use today?


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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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