The debate over standardized testing in public education is about as contentious as controversies over charter schools and teacher unions. With American students ranked embarrassingly low in math and science learning compared to students across the world, educators, politicians, and parents all agree we need new ways to get the next generation on track to being more competitive on the global stage, and better prepared for their college years.
President Obama has pledged to hire 100,000 more STEM teachers to schools around the country, while others push for voucher systems and school-of-choice options. But perhaps the biggest initiative is for dramatic changes in standards and testing. And while many see this as a simple solution, testing and standards also raise many problems, often obscuring the underlying purpose of education in the process.
Let me briefly explain:
What Exactly Are The Standards?
One of the more recent changes to standards and testing is a State-led set of goals called Common Core, which mirror Federal standards in the No Child Left Behind Act for benchmarks in Math and English. Many states have already adopted the Common Core standards, and are developing an assessment and testing system for students through two coalitions, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which is spending $360M from provisions in the Federal Race To The Top program to create these tests.
In October of last year, the SBAC released some sample tests to show what the system would look like, once implemented in 2014. However, many educators are skeptical, and aren’t convinced that the SBAC tests are on the right track.
While they do encourage more in-depth analysis of reading and math problems, incorporate digital tools, and provide numerous real-world examples, they are far from inspiring, and resemble the No. 2 pencil, fill-in the bubble style questions students have been taking for decades — only upgraded to fit a computer screen.
Educational Test Creation: A Big Business With Debatable Educational Benefits
Traditionally, three companies dominate the market for producing tests for K-12 students: Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing, while NCS Pearson scores the vast majority of the tests. And their business is successful; contracts for state-wide, multi-year deals for just a single test can range in the tens of millions of dollars.
Some estimates say standardized testing could cost as much as $1.7 billion a year – a startling amount. Testing costs can differ greatly among states, but critics say those funds could be used to increase teacher pay, or provide updated classroom materials. Supporters contend that such costs are valid to provide across-the-board objectivity. In any case, it’s clear this money isn’t leading to the results we need:
Currently, $10,615 is spent on each student per year on average for public education in America, more than almost any other developed nation. Yet American students are ranked average-to-poor in terms of reading, math, and graduation when compared to other countries.
With budget constraints from all sides, education professionals everywhere are looking to lower spending wherever possible, especially as costs per student continue to rise over the years.
While spending more money on general education doesn’t always equate to better learning (nor a viable solution in today’s political climate), and spending more money on testing doesn’t guarantee measurable results, we can pretty confidently suggest several directions to take – and avoid:
-Setting curricula that adhere to consistent standards across all states will give students a clearer understanding of what’s being asked of them.
-Aggregating student test responses so that we can compare long-term success to early grades, and see how they’re influenced by individual interaction and relationships across varied communities.
What Doesn’t Work:
-Punishing schools whose students don’t perform and incentivizing schools to artificially inflate test scores with the offer of increased funding is a flawed, counterproductive approach.
-By focusing so much effort on testing (largely because good test scores lead to more funding) we are removing the exploration, experimental components of learning – arguably the most important and inspiring aspect of knowledge.
-By and large, tests in public schools, while an important part of the college application process, don’t teach the fundamental components of trial and error that lead to new innovation, and may hinder the development of academic curiosity needed to succeed in a rigorous and competitive field.
-As several critics have noted, the Common Core standards lack attention to science, world languages, and the arts.
What We Can Do To Make Education Better:
At our PlayMaker school in Los Angeles, we asked a group of parents to tell us when King Tut died (since we had been teaching their children about ancient Egypt). Within 30 seconds, one parent had found the answer using his smartphone. But none of the parents could properly put the importance of Tut’s reign into the context of the region’s history. So, how much was that correct answer really worth?
Standardized tests can be a good measure of certain abilities, but their focus in American public schools today is stunting students’ inspiration, which in turn hampers teachers from nurturing the advancement that comes from cultivating a love of exploration, and a passion for knowledge.
Instead of administrative-to-student tests, then, why not consider exit exams, in the form one-on-one, or group project presentations, which require students to demonstrate their ability to retain cumulative knowledge on a variety of subjects? This could prove to be a far more honest assessment of a student’s ability.
We need to prepare our students for a world we ourselves cannot yet comprehend, and in that manner, we must teach them first and foremost to explore and think without fear, reason and question without tiring, and report their ideas and findings to others in a way that enhances collaboration.
The new criteria of value for academia, private business, public service, and the arts is the ability to ask the right kinds of questions; this leads to the creative use of information, identifying patterns and relationships, and communicating process and results in an effective manner.
To hone that ability, we need to understand that playing should be an integral component of education. We need to teach our students to enjoy the process and progression that leads to deep understanding of scientific concepts and historical perspectives. Information isn’t the same as intelligence. Information is cheap. Understanding is priceless. And no standardized test can truly teach that.
-Lucien Vattel is the Executive Director of GameDesk, a Los Angeles-based organization created to develop a next generation model of education through interactive learning. To find out more about GameDesk, please visit: http://www.gamedesk.org/