From the hundreds of thousands of parents who refused to have their children participate in standardized testing over the past two weeks in New York, it’s pretty clear that people have issues with testing. But that doesn’t mean we should get rid of standardized tests.
According to most school leaders, these tests are part of the educational program and have value as a measurement of students’ knowledge against an objective standard. Opponents contend the tests are faulty for multiple reasons. Who is right? Both sides’ arguments probably contain some truth. But a better question, and one worth asking, is if these state-mandated standardized tests measure something truly meaningful.
A recent Boston Globe article by developmental psychologist Susan Engel considers this question and proposes a sensible way to add real value to standardized testing. She says, after reviewing more than 300 studies of K-12 academic tests, that the two-week exercise in ELA and math assessment does nothing more than measure how well a student can be expected to perform on other tests of the same kind.
“I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes,” Engel writes.
Engel is, by the way, the founder and director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. Her article, an excerpt from her book “End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools,” argues that standardized testing would be much more useful, and popular, if the tests actually measured the things we value most.
“How silly to measure a child’s ability to parse a sentence or solve certain kinds of math problems if in fact those measures don’t predict anything important about the child or lead to better teaching practices,” Engel wrote.
Engel believes that methodologies exist to map accurately the growth of seven abilities that kids should learn and develop while in school. She states that good research is based on representative samples, and argues against testing every child every year. She proposes using diverse alternate technologies and methods instead of relying on the standard pencil-on-paper bubble sheet to measure the “capacities that really matter in life outside the testing room.”
“We’d use less data, to better effect, and free up the hours, days, and weeks now spent on standardized test prep and the tests themselves, time that could be spent on real teaching and learning,” Engel said.
Seven things every child should master
Probably the most obvious item on the list, Engel says every child ought to be able to read by the end of elementary school. But what does the ability to read mean? To Engel, it is the “ability to read an essay or book and understand it well enough to use the information in some practical way or to talk about it with another person.”
Engel points out that kids are born curious, but when they get in school, they tend to ask fewer questions and become less inclined to explore.
“One of the great ironies of our educational system is that it seems to squelch the impulse most essential to learning new things and to pursuing scientific discovery and invention,” Engel said.
According to Engel, the good news is that excellent, precise methods exist to measure children’s curiosity and ability to find things out.
3. Flexible thinking and the use of evidence
Engel says this is one of the most important skills children acquire in school.
“This has already been measured in college students. Why not measure it in younger children?” Engel asks.
An important aspect of measuring the other goals, developing conversational skills is critical in itself, according to Engel, and something with which parents and teachers can play a big role.
Adults conversing with children – in the classroom and at home – helps kids enrich their ability to discuss ideas and strengthen linguistic and narrative skills. Engel points out that children living in poverty are less likely to be part of worthwhile conversations at home, and teachers are “given scant training about how to encourage, expand, and deepen children’s conversations.”
“This makes it all the more essential for teachers to encourage a lot of discussion and verbal exchange at school,” Engel said. “This kind of ‘teaching to the test’ would improve children’s educational experiences day in and day out.”
Engel points out the challenges of developing habits of kindness and teamwork among students, but argues for their importance. Research repeatedly shows that “kids learn how to treat one another by watching the way adults treat them and treat each other.” She says that teachers, principals and parents don’t always pay much attention to the informal ways they behave in front of children.
Engel says that just as measuring whether kids are getting better at getting along together and helping each other is important, so too are the ways teachers are working with students to foster the collaboration.
Are students given opportunities to become engaged with different kinds of activities, and are they energized by that engagement?
Engel cites education philosopher Harry Brighouse, who suggests, “The ability to think about something for 20 minutes at a time (sustained focus) may be one of the most powerful cognitive skills [students] acquire in school.”
Acknowledging that students’ levels of concentration differ, Engel proposes a basic benchmark.
“We don’t need to insist that children and schools get higher marks each year. Instead, the assessment should simply show that an individual child does become deeply immersed in one thing or another periodically,” Engel said. “Similarly, the assessments can show whether a given classroom is providing enough opportunities for immersion.”
Engel’s number one priority is that children should develop a sense of well-being in school. She proposes asking occasionally, “How do you feel?”
“Economists and psychologists have shown that people are pretty reliable when it comes to telling us how happy they are. Why not use this metric in evaluating our schools?”
7 things every kid should master – The Boston Globe, Feb. 26, 2015