The Problem With School Testing

In a recent post, I argued:

Tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter.

Just published is a new book by education writer Anya Kamenetz that attacks the standardized tests that are used today in the United States. The TIME Magazine review quotes from it:

The research against these tests is fairly damning. “MIT neuroscientists found that improving the math scores of a group of eight grade students in Boston has little influence on their…ability to apply reasoning,” the author writes. Most standardized tests aren’t objective, don’t measure a student’s ability to think, and don’t reliably predict how well a kid will do in the workplace. So what’s good about them? They’re relatively cheap to create, easy to administer, and they yield data.

By coincidence, this week I also attended a compelling keynote talk by Harvard’s Tony Wagner, education researcher and author of five books on educational change and reform. He emphasized the same points, noting that we actually DO have tests today that in fact CAN measure valuable 21st century skills. So why aren’t they used? They’re expensive and time-consuming to administer–too expensive for every student to take. So we keep using tests that everyone knows are lousy, just because politically, we need SOMETHING and we can’t afford anything that’s actually based in research. (Well, not without increasing school funding…)

We know how to improve schools. And it’s NOT by doing the same thing we’re doing now, just incrementally better. (Which is the only possible outcome of today’s tests.) To learn more, read this new article, available for free: “The future of learning.”

3 thoughts on “The Problem With School Testing

  1. Hi Dr. Sawyer!

    I’m excited to have found your blog. I’ve been interested in creativity for awhile, and am trying to figure out how best to approach the study of it in graduate school. Your comment about the obtuseness of tests as an evaluation resonated with me; I attended St. John’s College, a very unique college program that has no tests, no grades, and is renowned for producing thinkers at once creative and critical. The technological solutions you discuss in your paper about the future of learning were interesting, and widespread technology is certain to be a very important tool in reconstructing our learning environments, but I wonder if some of the most important aspects of this turnaround are not essentially technological, but interactional – the flipped classroom is the foundation of the St. John’s program, and the most important learning environment is the college community itself, rather than the classrooms. Professors are aides to student directed learning, and technology is almost non-existent on campus.

    I’m also curious as to whether you’ve ever heard of Georgy Shchedrovitsky. I’m currently in Russia teaching English, and have a philosophy club that discusses his works. He has some interesting things to say, certain of which I find very true. One of his students has a school in Moscow that was written up in the New York Times a few years ago; the gist of his philosophy is method of thinking in terms of action. From the article below:

    “Bogin taught a required class called myshleniye, which means “thinking,” as in critical thinking. It was based in part on the work of a dissident Soviet educational philosopher named Georgy Shchedrovitsky, who argued that there were three ways of thinking: abstract, verbal and representational. To comprehend the meaning of something, you had to use all three.When I asked Bogin to explain Shchedrovitsky, he asked a question. “Does 2 + 2 = 4? No! Because two cats plus two sausages is what? Two cats. Two drops of water plus two drops of water? One drop of water.””

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on St. John’s as well as Shchedrovitsky.

    1. You mentioned my paper “The future of learning”…most of what I say in it is not really about technology at all, but is about the need to ground educational reform in the science of learning. Technology enables some interesting new ways to do that, but for me this is not an ed-tech issue, it is a science of learning issue. One of my biggest concerns is that educational reform should NOT be driven by technologists but rather by learning scientists.

      I am a fan of St. John’s. As you say, good learning environments can, and have been through history, created without any fancy technology. But they tend to be expensive (in staff resources and expertise.) The challenge has always been “scaling up” these effective environments to the institutional size and complexity of modern mandatory public schooling.

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