Common Sense on Testing

I began my teacher training as the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, causing a new wave of standardized testing. Working as a student teacher at an urban public school, I witnessed what happens when testing is taken too far, and seen as a fix to every problem in education. One day I asked the master teacher I had been paired with to help me understand her curriculum framework. With an exasperated look, she pulled out two full sets of content standards, one from the city and one from the state - they each spelled out the daily teaching she was required to do, and amazingly,  they were totally different. Not only were the standards competing and nonsensical together, but they were so focused on measuring bits of memorized content that the underlying skills and habits of mind had been lost, not to mention the joy and creativity that is natural to learning.

It's easy to hear stories like this and decide that standardized testing is always a mistake. Yet, as Susan Engel writes eloquently in the article "7 Things Every Kid Should Master," maybe the question isn't whether to use tests, but rather, what is worth testing. 

Engel, a psychologist at Williams College and head of their teacher training program, describes her review of more than 300 studies of K-12 testing: "What I have discovered is startling. Most tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and school districts predict almost nothing except the likelihood of achieving similar scores on subsequent tests. I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes."

Instead, Engel proposes seven core areas that are worth testing, and outlines thoughtful ways to understand a student's skills, beyond what can be captured in traditional fill-in-the-bubble sheets. These seven areas form a refreshing dose of common sense about which skills really lead to a fulfilling and successful life:

  • Reading 
  • Inquiry
  • Flexible Thinking and the Use of Evidence
  • Conversation
  • Collaboration
  • Engagement
  • Well-Being 

You might look at these (each of which are described in greater detail in her article) and think that science and math are missing, but those both can be captured within Inquiry and Use of Evidence, and expressed through all the other areas. What's important here is that the underlying skills, habits of mind, and attitudes toward learning are emphasized, rather than atomized bits of content. For example, while many middle schools currently require the periodic table to be memorized, Engel's approach would likely say that it's far more important to think like a scientist, to know how to use evidence, to have a spirit of inquiry and healthy skepticism about data. That's true scientific training, and while you may well memorize some things along the way, the memorization is a side-product, not the point of the exercise. 
This approach, beginning with the underlying skills and mindsets we seek to cultivate, is the core of our curriculum design at Millennium. We're interested in students being able to apply their skills in complex, real-world problems, the kind that are not well represented by fill-in-the-bubble sheets. We're interested in our students learning different modes of thought - to be investigators and scientists, to be agile entrepreneurs, to creatively and confidently express themselves through the arts, to collaborate effectively across cultures. We'll assess deeply along the way, but we know the real assessment comes decades later, as students work to carve out a meaningful, happy, and purposeful life.