Obama’s Charge to Slay the Testing Dragon

It looks like we have the beginning of a national conversation about cutting back on testing, enhancing learning, and maybe once and for all slaying the testing dragon in American education (or at least taming it, which is probably more difficult). Some of you might remember a recent article that I wrote about ten critical issues in education (and I am working on expanding that into a book). If so, you might also remember that number two on that list was testing and assessment. As I wrote in that article, “Whenever people start to build learning organizations and experiences around tests instead of designing tests to serve and amplify the organization’s mission, vision, and values; we have a problem.” For the first time in a long time (at least in such an explicit way), we got to hear support for the same general idea from the Whitehouse. On Saturday, October 24, 2015, President Obama shared the following message in a short (less than two minutes) video.

In President Obama’s concluding remarks, he highlighted a three-point guide for testing in schools.

1. Our kids should only take tests that are worth taking.

2. Tests should enhance teaching and learning.

3. Tests should give an an all-around look at how our students and schools are doing.

Then he finished with a couple of noteworthy quotes.

  • “Because learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble.”
  • “…to make sure that our kids are enjoying learning.”

This is a fine start to a national conversation. And while these three principles are a solid starting point, we have much work to do beyond them. There is ample room for people to look at these three principles and contend that what is happening across the country is already complying with the President’s charge. While many of us would challenge such a claim (and I think the evidence would be on our side), it isn’t clear for all. For too many people, standardized testing and traditional testing in general are synonymous with high academic standards, academic rigor, and challenging students to high levels of performance. As such, if we want to address the testing problem, it is going to require a design revolution as much or more than efforts on the policy level.

As far as I am concerned, the problem with testing in schools is caused by a lack of creativity and depth about how to design rich, engaging, high-impact cultures of learning…that and pressures around demonstrating progress, even if in less holistic ways, to policymaker and external agencies. As I’ve written many times before, a culture of earning still dominates in the American school system. Teachers sometimes still lean on tests and quizzes for classroom management. Student questions are often focused on what they need to know for the test instead of what they want or need to learn for life or personal interest. People looking at schools from the outside are too often focused on test scores as a sign that something good is happening. As such, a design revolution focused on school culture is a key to this shift, and that has to start with examining our core convictions about the purpose of school…then building from there.

This statement from President Obama comes amid large-scale moves toward more testing in schools across the country. This happened to demonstrate adequate yearly progress, to show whether students are meeting state standards and/or the Common Core State Standards, and because big data is a growing part of the education landscape and traditional multiple choice tests are easier for the quantitatively minded to analyze across large populations. Such testing is not used because the research shows us how impactful they are for creating high-impact and engaging learning communities. They don’t exist to help individual students as much as to help people analyze large pools of students or to speed the grading process for teachers.

Yet, even before No Child Left Behind, CCSS and big data, we had a problem with such tests in our schools. For a long time, teachers have turned to T/F, multiple choice and matching tests to keep students “motivated” and compliant, but even more so to make grading easier and bearable for the teachers. We can learn plenty about student progress through detailed rubrics, rich narrative feedback, oral assessments, devising a triangulation of feedback from various sources, through real-time coaching, and amid immersive and authentic projects. We can do all of that without touching a single traditional test. In addition, we know that these other forms of feedback and assessment generate more authentic and engaging learning environments.

In addition to all these strategies, we are on the verge of a learning analytics revolution, where computer-augmented learning experiences track student learning, behaviors and progress in real-time. Formative and summative assessments merge as one in this new space, giving the student valuable instant feedback, giving teachers and others insight on student progress, and allowing others to analyze these data across large populations…all without testing. There is no need for traditional tests in this new world of learning.

I can’t think of a better way to end this article than with a substantively (two key words) revised quote from Betrand Russell. “It is possible that [education] is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is [testing]. Well, I can think of a few others dragons in the way, but testing is a good start.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Obama’s Charge to Slay the Testing Dragon”

  1. Mike Dietz

    You are on point, and it’s nice to see a Bertie Russell quote in the mix, as well. While it’s nice to see that the President has had a change of heart on the matter, it’s sad that this is happening on the back end of his administration rather 6+ years earlier. Many of us were on the Hill at the onset of ESEA/NCLB discussing the very issue of the amount of time devoted to testing, the punitive nature of the legislation and policy, and the reality that there was scant research to support any of it. Essentially, all of this has been policy by “Rule of Thumb” as opposed to evidence-based practice. History will not be kind regarding the years and opportunities lost as a consequence of this, among other things. The key with any of the analytics involves how they inform teaching and learning. Creating conversation, capacity, and context around this would be a significant step toward crossing the “golden threshold.”

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