What if Schools Were Penalized for Overemphasizing Standardized Tests?

In 5 Things I Learned, Jeb Bush wrote, “If we are going to prepare students to compete in a knowledge-driven world, we need to set higher standards for achievement in core subjects. Setting higher standards—and measuring to them—really, really matters. You can’t know if you are getting better if you don’t set the standard and measure to it.”

Do you agree? It can be good to have academic standards and to measure our progress. In fact, I suspect that most people today agree with Jeb Bush’s statement. Yet, debates about the Common Core and countless related issues persist. Why? While there is room for a healthy discussion about the benefits and limitations of the concept of standards in general, most of the debates are not focused upon that. Instead, they relate to one or more of the following questions.

1. Who gets to create or choose which standards should be used…and on what level?

Should this come from the federal government, state government, professional associations and organizations, a group of governors, or local groups? Is the answer the same for all standards or should some be local and others more common across contexts? What say should students, parents, teachers and others have in the establishment of standards? Given that we are a nation that welcomes and embraces diversity, how do we approach standards that speak to areas of contention, areas where there is genuine disagreement among deeply informed people? Should the standards be at the sole discretion of academics with credentials deemed relevant by some group? Who decides what is relevant? There may be less debate in a content area like math, but there is even disagreement there, because standards are not neutral. They are created with some goal or aim in mind. The Common Core, for example, claims to be about college readiness along with workforce readiness. What happens when we test this by looking at whether people thriving in various workplaces meet the Common Core standards currently? I do not pose those questions to argue against the Common Core, only to note that standards are not simple, neutral, uncontested statements. As such, questions about who sets they, how they are revised, and where they are used become critical to the current conversation.

How do we measure progress toward meeting standards?

Many talk about measurement today. We measure what we value, and we value what we measure. Some immediately assume that we are talking about standardized tests, but there are dozens of ways to measure, many of which are more formative, giving feedback about a learner’s progress. It is possible for a K-12 school, for example, to adopt the Common Core, but to reject the standardized test approach to measuring student progress. They might instead create a rich portfolio that is constantly reviewed. It could come from the review of ongoing authentic student-centered projects, adaptive learning software that gives daily updates on progress, or through a teacher’s narrative assessment of each student. Some today treat big data and standardized tests as synonymous with standards, but that is not necessarily the case, and we would be wise to separate these two in our debates. There are limitations to every form of measurement and assessment, and a system of thoughtful educational leaders will separate the means of measurement from the broader discussion and invite others into this important decisions. This ties directly to a question that I will reference at the end of this article.

3. What is the role and value of the “non-standard” in education?

Standards are good. I like them in healthcare, automobile manufactures, and electricians. Yet, not everything in life and learning is standard. What is the role of non-standard learning in an increasingly standards-based approach to education? What about the role of values and convictions? What about the role of helping each learner discover their distinct (maybe unique) set of gifts, talents, abilities and passions; and learning how to build upon them, refine them, and use them to benefit others? That is no small and valuable part of a good education. If standards become the sole (or even just primary) focus, do we lose this important part of education? What about the culture and climate in school, which impacts the disposition, feelings and attitudes about life and learning in general? We have a mandatory schooling model on the K-12 level. While there are alternatives, for most that means young people forced to be in a community for years. How should they be treated during that time? How do we create a culture and climate that honors, values, and celebrates the uniqueness of each person? These non-standards can be lost in a standards-focused system unless create equally robust ways to measure and emphasize them.

This is what inspired the title to the article. If we value these other elements, perhaps schools should be penalized for over-emphasizing standards or standardized tests as much as some argue for penalizing those that under-perform on standards. I am not convinced that penalizing is the best route regardless of one’s take on these issues, but I offer the question as a way to promote important thought and discussion.

4. How do/should values inform what and how we go about education?

I mentioned this above, but it deserves separate attention as well. Every organization has values, whether they are stated or implied. By definition standards value standard performance. That is a core value of a standards-based educational system. What are the other values? Browse core values of schools and you will read things like integrity, collaboration, diversity, and respect. At one school, they state a core value as “a balance between individual achievement and a caring community.” Values are a rich and important part of a learning community. If we value measurement, should we not measure the extent to which are values are embodied and lived out in our schools? I’ve yet to hear massive debates or mandates from government officials that we should measure schools on the extent to which they truly embody their values. If academic standards (as they are largely used today) are the only measure that counts to outside stakeholders, we could find ourselves celebrating a school with  impressive standardized scores while having a socially and emotionally toxic climate and culture.

5. What is the purpose of education in a given context and on a given level?

All these questions lead us back to critical basic questions about our learning organizations. What is their purpose? We do not have a universal answer to this question, which is why I contend that it is most humane and consistent for us to embrace an educational ecosystem of choice and variety in school options. Many parents, students and community members do not simply see school as about meeting certain academic standards. Learning organizations play a larger role than that in most communities, and we would be wise to approach conversation about standards and measures with this in mind. As such, what would it look like for us to measure schools in way that represents this more holistic view of education?