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.

What if #EdTech Funding Amplified a Culture of Engagement & Not Testing?

How much educational technology funding goes toward testing? A Bunch. What would happen if we shifted that funding to focus on student engagement? Magic.

The state of Michigan spent 145 million over the last three years on educational technology updates in MI schools. That is an impressive amount of money. Look more closely and see why and where the money is going. Is it going toward increasing student engagement, designing high-impact learning experiences, helping classrooms connect with fascinating people and resources around the world, designing rich and immersive educational games and simulations, personalizing learning or creating adaptive learning that meets the needs of individual learners? Yes and no. There are some forward-thinking and admirable goals behind the Michigan Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grant.

  • Provide opportunities to increase capacity to deliver personalized learning in districts and classrooms.
  • Create sustainable collaborations that increase districts’ abilities to leverage actionable data, maintain reliable technology, and support learning.
  • Increase the capacity of local districts to provide ubiquitous access for “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” learning.

Yet, that isn’t the entire story. This is also a grant focused on getting people ready for online testing. Following is an excerpt from an April 6, 2015 Michigan Department of Education News Release:

The state has invested $145 million, appropriated over the past three years in Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grants (TRIG) for education technology in Michigan.  School districts have used those grants to develop or improve their technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hardware and software, in preparation for the planned implementation of online assessments; and teaching and learning.

Eighty percent of Michigan school buildings, accounting for 83 percent of all students, are tech-ready for M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress), with the others using the optional paper-and-pencil option. The paper-and-pencil option will be available for schools through the Spring 2017 M-STEP administration.

In other words, this 145 million dollar pool of money from the state was partly focused upon preparing schools for the next new wave in education, online summative testing, annual snapshots student progress. Here is how the M-STEP web site describes the testing.

The M-STEP will include our summative assessments designed to measure student growth effectively for today’s students. English language arts and mathematics will be assessed in grades 3–8, science in grades 4 and 7, and social studies in grades 5 and 8. It also includes the Michigan Merit Examination in 11th grade, which consists of a college entrance exam, work skills assessment, and M-STEP summative assessments in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.

While I’m not entirely opposed to taking snapshots of student learning at different stages in their schooling, I am concerned that the massive investments and seeming obsession with summative testing continues to detract from far more important efforts around student engagement, ongoing learning, and creating spaces where students experience transformational learning and grow in competence, character, and confidence. I know that there are excellent schools in Michigan, so this is not a critique of those schools as much as an opportunity to further reflect on the state of modern P-12 education. Such grants and efforts exist around the United States. Interview creative school leaders and classroom teachers who are recipients of the Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grant and you will see plenty who are finding ways to use the money to invest in educational technology that is about more than testing, things more in line with the list in my first paragraph.

Assessment technologies are now over a billion dollar industry largely due to such testing (of both students and future teachers). Such an influx of money has a way of changing priorities. It can change the focus of educational startups and venture capitalists. It can alter the attention of schools and teachers. It can change the experience of students. My concern is that some much funding (often from state and federal sources) focused upon these efforts is helping drive a culture of testing. Using snapshot assessment can provide interesting data, but students are not the winners when testing becomes an emphasis of a school system. Students don’t wake up in the morning excited to be assessed, but there are are schools where students wake up excited to learn, experience, explore, and expand their horizons.

Imagine what could happen if we shifted grant money away from funding summative testing, and instead focused them on efforts to increase student engagement and agency. Yes, there would be opportunity for misuse, just as there is today. However, this would drive significant attention in schools toward something that truly benefits students, and I suspect that it would engage teachers and school leaders in ways beyond what we can imagine…because we would be funding and resourcing the sort of thing that gets great teachers and school leaders up in the morning…and students too.

So, if you happen to be an independently wealthy investor, someone who manages a portfolio of grants, or a person with influence on state and federal funding; consider how your investments can amplify what really matters in the lives of students. Invest in engagement and agency. The same goes for education startups and venture capitalists. Yes, there is money in summative assessment, but there just might be a greater return on investment if you find ways to amplify student engagement and agency, and you will be contributing to something amazing. If you are not in one of those categories, invest in engagement and agency too. Invest your time, attention and support in those efforts that amplify the values that we know will make a difference for students. Our schools will be better and we will see an impressive social return on investment.

Broken or Blessed by Learning Communities?

I came across a stirring quote from Henri Nouwen that invited me to think about its implications for learning organizations, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” If you don’t know Nouwen, he was an accomplished academic and author of close to 40 books. Nouwen was a Catholic priest who spent two decades teaching first at Notre Dame, then Yale and Harvard divinity schools. His books tell a candid and authentic story of life, faith, struggle, compassion and living in service to others. In 1986 Nouwen moved from the lecture halls of the academy to a community called,L’Arche Daybreak, a living community where people with disabilities are welcome, loved, and nurtured. If you have seven minutes, the following video gives a glimpse into L’Arche from the perspective of a good friend of Nouwen, Jean Vanier. If you don’t have the time, I encourage you to at least watch the first minute or two.

Vanier describes his first experiences leading up to the formation of L’Arche, when he says, “…through his body, through his eyes, he was craving relationship. ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ ‘Will you come back?’ So, everything was around relationship, whereas, with my students in philosophy it was around ideas.” Vanier goes on to explain the experience of meeting people with disabilities who seemed feel as if they were living on this earth “with nobody wanting them.”

In the video, Vanier describes the meaning behind the name, L’Arche, or The Ark. In the story of Noah’s Ark, Noah welcomed the creations from around the world into his ark to save them from the flood. Vanier uses this story to explain that many people with disabilities are washed away in the flood of this world: not given places of freedom, killed before or after birth, placed into institutions. As such, the vision of L’Arche grew out of Vanier initially inviting two men with disabilities to live with him. In essence, L’Arche is a vision for warm, welcome, inviting, liberating community. As I’ve learned about L’Arche over the years, I’ve come to understand it as community that is rich with freedom and compassion, not a condescending hand out understanding of compassion, but one that truly loves and honors the people in this community.

For many young people, next to the home, school is the community in which they will spend the greatest amount of time in their young lives. The formative experiences of living in these communities have a significant and over an extended period, dramatic impact on the way young people view themselves, others, and the world. This is why I persistently argue for school options and choice, because every community teaches a worldview.

As I think about Nouwen’s quote and the community to which he devoted the last decade of his life, it prompts me to wonder about what one participant in my Adventures in Blended Learning MOOC referred to as humane education. I think of that as education that happens in a hospitable, safe community; one that is not only focused on outcomes, tests, and ideas; but that invests in relationships. I am not suggesting that schools take on the greatest social issues of society. That is a broader social and community responsibility. Yet, the nature of the communities in which we learn helps to shape the ways in which we learn to interact with others. This is why I often write with advocacy for self-directed learning and choice. What does it do to a person to spend over a decade in learning communities driven almost exclusively by authority, control, and the highly elevated value of compliance? What are the lessons learned (even if they are not explicitly taught) in such a community?

Democracy depends upon participation and hospitality, upon not simply protecting the “rights” of those who are least capable of defending themselves. I contend that it is also about creating spaces where people have freedom, where they are honored, and their contributions are valued. What happens when students spend years in a school culture dominated by tests and measures, outcomes without regard for community and process, and that celebrates those who meet or exceed established norms and standards while often remaining silent about those who do not fit the mold. Silence can scar as much as insults (as can be attested to by the child begging for a parent’s attention while the parent is zoned out on the laptop or cell phone).

If any of this resonates with you, then what are the implications for how we design learning communities? Is there room for the spirit of L’Arche in our school system? Schools are indeed about learning, but is there value for us to recognize that so much more is learned than what is tested? How can that be a greater part of our conversations about education reform?

This has implications for things like worforce development as well. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by how people bring their past experiences with community to new jobs and communities. I’ve seem people who struggle so much to find joy in the tasks of their work, to be independent in their decisions, to thrive in a context in which they are not told what, when, and/or how to do it. I’ve seen leaders who never or rarely experienced this either, so they think that direct orders, being firm and quick, or being assertive are somehow the critical traits of an effective leader. There is a time for these, but work also takes up large parts of our lives, and as much as making money is an important part of a business, it is possible to create great communities at work, places where people are valued, honored, given space for independence an choice, and invited to flourish. Why not cast a vision for such work places by being intentional about the way we shape our learning organizations, from preschool to high school, undergraduate to graduate studies?

Let’s return to the Nouwen quote, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” A professor of mine years ago exclaimed that, if you are in education, you are in the business of changing and influencing people. I don’t disagree. It is just a matter of how that change takes place. Medical schools certainly need to establish standards of performance for students. The well-being of future patients depends upon it. Yet, even in such a high stakes learning community, isn’t there room for spending as much thought and care in designing experiences where people care and have compassion, a space where people have freedom to change without it being thrust upon them. Again, this is not about letting medical students do whatever they want, but it is a suggestion that there is room for a little Patch Adams in all learning communities.  How much more is this true when we think about K-12 education, community college and technical training, and even professional development and learning in the workplace? As education becomes more focused on data and measures, how can we measure the extent to which our learning communities are hospitable, the extent to which participants are broken or blessed by them?