The Testing Fallacy

Standardized testing has been a part of education for a long time, even if it was at a smaller scale. You can go back and look at vintage footage of classrooms or gymnasiums with rows and rows of students taking standardized tests on bubble sheets. There are countless arguments against their use and a few arguments in their favor but there is one argument that is rarely discussed and often dismissed. Student motivation.

Every argument for or against testing relies on one (very large) assumption that students try their best and care about the result. For many students that assumption is true. When I was in school I gave my full effort on state assessments but that was because of who I was. I liked getting the results in the mail and seeing scores in the 98th percentile. After teaching for the better part of a decade, I can now say that I was in the minority. One stance against standardized testing is that it forces teachers to teach to the test, and that is absolutely true. Some say that it diminishes creativity and innovation in the classroom and teaches students not to take risks, which is also true. However, even if I strictly teach to the test and we practice every problem that I have ever seen on a state math test, if my students do not care about the result then it’s all moot. They will answer the questions correctly when an answer is readily apparent or they recognize the solution path quickly but if not they will not expend the energy to persevere to solve that problem because it’s easier to just guess.

I do not say these things lightly. This is a manifestation of hours and hours of watching students take standardized tests and talking with them about testing afterward. The greatest insight comes from listening to the students talk among themselves. I hear things like “I had no idea, I just filled in bubbles,” or “I don’t really care, it doesn’t affect my grade.” To be honest, I can’t blame them. While I encourage doing your best at every task, I can’t help but look at the motivating factors (or lack thereof).  What are the consequences of good or bad scores? My teacher will get a better/worse evaluation. My school will get more/less funding. Our school’s name will be higher/lower on a ranking printed in the paper. The federal government will know that my school is teaching me everything I need to know. Which of those reasons would motivate you as a student? Which would motivate your children?

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STEM is Incomplete

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math or STEM has become a popular term in the education reform world. It goes by other names such as 21st century skills or college and career readiness. This idea has been widely accepted that the world is becoming so technologically advanced that the only way to get ahead and ensure a successful career is to study one or more of the STEM areas. It is also seen as necessary for the economic advancement of the country. We are in short supply of workers that are skilled in these technical areas and cannot meet the demand in the workforce. Politically it is popular to talk about the unemployment rate and how many people are out of work. People understand and can relate to that figure. In reality, the underemployment rate is more important and more dire. There are jobs available. There may be more jobs available than people that are unemployed. However, these jobs require skills that are more advanced that the skills of those looking for work. That’s why we have this renewed emphasis on STEM education. One that hasn’t been seen since the time of the space race and cold war.

Critics of our new emphasis on STEM say that we are ignoring the arts and losing the creativity of our children. In a way they are right. But it’s not a matter of learning the piano, painting pictures, or performing ballet. Those things play an important part in our society and culture but no one is keeping Sally from learning to paint or stopping Johnny from learning the piano. The real threat to creativity is our neglect of the fifth member of the STEM family, design. Not only should we be teaching our children how to solve complex problems using mathematics and create powerful computer programs by learning to code, but we should also be teaching the importance design plays in the effectiveness of your idea.

Great design can come in many forms. If you consider Apple, arguably the most influential tech company (or any company) in the world, they put beautiful and functional design at the forefront of their business model and it sparked a revolution in more than one industry. But it also shows up in the smallest details. A well designed presentation to a client or a well-put-together report for your boss can make or break a career. In math a proof may be structured correctly but an elegant proof is much more powerful and insightful. This is one reason that standardized testing is destructive to the educational process. Nothing can be further from teaching design than answering questions on a bubble sheet.

Stop Comparing the U.S. School System to Other Countries

In recent years it has become popular to draw comparisons between public schools in the United States and public school across the world. Our students take more international standardized tests and the scores are compared in math, science, language, and reading. We compare attendance rates, graduation rates, teacher education, money spent per pupil, and many other data points. It has become a habit for the media to pick out the top performing countries on these international exams and compare their systems with the public schools of the United States. However, their “comparisons” are often overstated, oversimplified, and cherry pick convenient facts that fit the narrative. In reality there are very real reasons that these countries perform as they do and the United States has fundamentally rejected those reasons on a matter of philosophy and principle. Let’s look at a few of these comparisons along with the current trend in the U.S.

Finland

Behind the Asian countries, Finland is a very popular comparison to the U.S. in the media and also public policy debates. In the latest rankings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Finland is ranked 6th in math and science scores. The latest PISA data shows Finland 6th, 12th, and 5th in reading, math, and science respectively. So, why can’t we just do what Finland does?

First, this country has a population of just over 5 million (about the size of Colorado) with 93% of the population being the same ethnicity. Those stats alone eliminate a multitude of obstacles that face schools in the U.S. Diversity of culture and languages alone is something not plaguing Finnish schools. Their low population allows for a comprehensive education program that begins at birth and includes free school materials, free meals to all, and free transportation.

Second, their teacher salaries are well above the OECD average which leads to competitive teacher education programs and and overall respect for the teaching professions that we do not see in the U.S. Each school has local control when it comes to grading and testing with limited to no high stakes exams. They also spend less time in the classroom (about 600 hours/year compared to 900 hours/year for the U.S.)

Comparing those facets of the Finnish school system to the trends in the U.S., we see a large disconnect. We already discussed the monetary limitations due to the population differences. More and more schools are trending toward longer school days and longer school years which is the opposite of Finland. We have more and more testing and centralized standards which is opposite of Finland’s model of local control and less testing. So I say, stop comparing our scores until we can reconcile the fundamental differences between our philosophies on education.

Singapore

This is also a popular comparison, especially in math, because of the improvement they’ve shown in the last century and their standings at the top of the world rankings year and year. However, this is possibly the worst comparison we can make because the United States flatly rejects most of the mechanisms that seem to work well in Singapore. This includes tracking (or streaming), high societal and parental pressure, and compulsory co-curricular activities.

After elementary school, students in Singapore are tracked into one of four programs designed for higher education to technical/career training and everything in between. This is based on one high stakes exam at the end of primary school. The best secondary schools ares highly competitive. During secondary (and primary) school, each student must participate in a core activity outside of the classroom. I am a huge believer in the benefits of co-curricular activities  and would be in favor of this requirement in the U.S., but it will never happen. One of the biggest criticisms of this system is their focus on rote preparation for high stakes and international exams and a lack of focus of creativity and personal development.

Compared to the Singapore, the U.S. fundamental believes in a comprehensive education for all students without the tracking and elitist system of many Asian countries. We provide extra activities as an option but are far from required. We do not attract the best and brightest of foreign countries because of our diverse school systems. Our “high stakes” testing is on a much lower level than Singapore and is used for post-secondary entrance rather than secondary entrance. If we want to compare ourselves to these Asian countries, are we prepared to turn up the heat and pressure at a younger and younger age just to perform well on these exams? I think not!

The United States’ leaders and media would be better off focusing on the goals we have for our own system and how we reach them rather than cherry picking parts of other systems and ignoring the inconvenient statistics of tracking, local control, lack of diversity, or shorter school days. The U.S. is unique in almost every way and we should treat our education system as such. We cannot focus solely on STEM subjects yet maintain our creativity, artists, and innovators. We cannot rail against the job that teachers do yet demand our top students enter the education field. It’s time to change the discussion of education in America toward one of trust, high expectations (with the matching resources), and accountability to our local districts and states.

– Lance