What Type of a Person Do We Nurture with Standardized Tests & Quantifying Students?

I’m not a fan of the heavy emphasis upon standardized tests and I’m increasingly skeptical about our rapid move toward the quantification of learners, but I am almost certainly on the losing side of that debate. Learning analytics will be ubiquitous in schools of the future. Big data will transform how many think about education. It will bring about affordances, but it will also bring about plenty of limitations. Even though big data is the future, I’m not going silent on this issue, because there is too much at stake…even the minds of a generation. I’ve written about this a in different ways over the past few years, but I’m compelled to add one more article to the conversation.

I was reminded of this when reading Noam Chomsky’s article about the dangers of standardized testing. While I don’t always agree with Chomsky’s interpretations and evaluations, I appreciate that he gets the issue with standardized tests. It isn’t just about what is on the tests, it is about the whole idea of making school centered upon measuring and quantifying students. It is that these tests and measurements start to take over our thinking, and they begin to take over the mindset and focus of the person being tested and evaluated. It drives us into a mindset of quantification. We value that which is easier to measure and begin to dismiss that which is not.

Candidly, I’ve experienced this countless times in K-12 and higher education contexts. When schools started to make the move toward becoming more data-driven, I urged them to start by clarifying their core goals, beliefs, and values; and to hold on to those even when they struggle to find easy and accessible ways to measure how they are they are doing with regard to those goals, beliefs, and values. If they give in, even if just for the short-term, this the data with take over. It becomes a data-driven and not a mission-driven organization, even though well-meaning leaders will insist that this is not the case. Hard to measure and less concrete goals get set aside and other goals get put in place that are more easily quantifiable or that align with the data that is readily available. Before long, our focus is on how to raise the numbers of whatever measure. Those rich conversations about beliefs and values fade away as relics of the past. Those who speak up about the change are labeled as Luddites, anti-progress, or unrealistic romantics. Even more common, they are just ignored as the data-ocracy bulldozers its way through the organization, bypassing existing governance and organizational structures, even demanding submission from the the leaders of the organization over time. They even do it under the guise of mission.

From the sound of that last paragraph, you might think that I am not a supporter of standardized tests, big data, or learning analytics; but you would be wrong. I see promise and value. I also see caution. I believe in mission-driven organizations that are informed by data that best supports the mission, vision, values, and goals; and that is not what I was referring to in the last paragraph. Data in the form of standardized tests can be useful and offer valuable insights, but my concern in when we let these data points take over, and they do it quite often.

In higher education, consider how narrow our policy conversations become when we try to reduce the mission, vision, values, and goals of higher education institutions to graduation rate, retention rate, post-graduation employment rate, and loan default rates. These are valuable data points, but if they are the top priorities in higher education, then we are better off shutting down all Universities. That is not worth the time, energy, and investment (of many and lives).

What is education really about? I sure haven’t devoted my adult life to supporting an education ecosystem that is about achieving increasingly higher test scores in math, science, or language arts. My daily thoughts are not consumed with musings about education because I want to get high graduation rates for as many students as possible. Not that this is unimportant, but there are grander goals related to access, opportunity, learning, and equipping people for rich, full, meaningful, and impactful lives.

We must not let standardized tests drive the design of our learning organizations. Data must not dethrone mission, vision, values, and the goals informed by those three. When we discuss and debate the efficacy of various policies and practices, we must resist reverting to comparisons of the options on the basis of numeric scores on tests only, or other easily understandable data points. We are far better off taking the time to collectively decide upon a larger and broader set of data points, quantitative and qualitative. The statisticians and often the policymakers will want to drive us to that which is more systemically quantified and validated, and we must push back. Life and learning is about more than numbers and setting up the most valid and reliable measures and experiments.

As Chomsky notes, what is at risk is the mind of a generation. Our worship of numbers, quantification, and standardization produces a certain type of person, and I choose that word “produce” intentionally. There is a better way. There are, in fact, many better ways. I vote for one of them.

Tests & Standards Can’t inspire a Compelling Vision for Education But This Can

We need a compelling vision to drive education reform and it will not come from debates about tests and standards. I had the privilege of working with a group of people recently who are exploring the possibly for a new and different type of school. Having the chance to facilitate such conversations and be welcomed into these coalitions of the willing continues to be a humbling and incredibly rewarding experience for me, whether I’m helping a group think through the possibilities for a new school, a new startup, a new educational product, or perhaps to reimagine what an organization is already doing.

As such, I always find it helpful to begin by getting to know the people individually as well as the community or communities that they represent. So, I started by sharing an authentic and vulnerable story from my own life, something that tied to what they were considering. Then, others went around the room, responding to a simple question. “What do you bring to this meeting?” What sort of beliefs and values did they bring to the meeting? What goals and desires did they bring? What fears, uncertainties and questions?

I can usually tell how a session like this is going to go by how people respond. If it is a trusting and open community, it is not uncommon for people to start to open up with powerful, sometimes even emotional stories. This is only natural because we are gathered to explore something that is important to people, something that relates to their core beliefs and what they value in life. After all, we all have personal experiences with school or education in some form. Some of those are pleasant and others are quite unpleasant, even traumatic. We have experiences of our children in school, and our joys and fears associated with that. For the teachers and school leaders, we have experiences of what worked, what didn’t, our dreams and passions for education, and the sort of core motivations and reasons that often led people into the profession in the first place.

So, when people started to share about their personal and unpleasant experiences with schools, their joys and moving experiences with schools, their dreams for reaching new populations of students, I knew that we were going to have a great day. Yet, even as I am writing this and reflecting on the experience, there was one short story shared by a person in his introduction that continues to move me. It illustrates the types of narratives and metaphors that can fuel our innovations and reforms in education. Grounding our efforts in something raw, real, and meaningful is far more important than many imagine.

It was an assistant principal who recalled a recent eighth-grade graduation speech. In the speech, the young man told of his experience coming to their existing elementary school. “When I came to this school, I was a broken window,” this young man explained. I don’t know what that meant for him personally, whether it was pain and loss in his life or something else. Yet, it was clearly this young man’s way of describing some sort of brokenness in his life. But then, the young man went on. He explained that he came a broken window, but through the nurturing and experiences in that school, the broken glass in his life had been turned into a stained glass window. His brokenness was turned into something whole and beautiful.

Now that is a compelling narrative upon which to describe the power of possibility of education in the contemporary world. As I write in What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, our modern conversation is too bogged down in debates about careful alignment of standards and standardized tests as the most valuable measures.

I don’t deny the role of these things, but they lack a compelling why for school leaders, parents, teachers, and students. They lack a broken window to stained glass window way of thinking about what we do and why we do it in schools. As such, if we are not careful, we risk creating learning communities with a meaning and purpose deficiency. Yet, we know that meaning and purpose are critical for student motivation and engagement. They are critical for persistence. Why try if it doesn’t matter? Why persist through struggle and difficulty? Why do more than just go through the motions? Education is and must remain, at its essence, about meaning and purpose, and about the transformation that happens with learners and teachers alike when they swim in these meaning and purpose-rich learning communities.

If you agree with me, I invite you to join me in deepening our public conversation about education and education reform. Join me in refusing to let that critical dialogue be dominated by outspoken voices that unintentionally seek to promote efforts and set agendas that dominate the conversation with lifeless policies and provisions. Join me in championing a conversation about what really matters in education.

When will we stop judging elephants by how well they can climb trees?

You’ve probably seen the 2012 cartoon where there is a long line of animals: a monkey, penguin, seal, fish, elephant, bird, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” Welcome to the common mindset behind some of the most dominant educational policy discussions.

This cartoon relates to a conversation I once had with a school district superintendent. I was talking with her about the possibility of launching one or more magnet or charter schools within the district she serves and she was initially interested in exploring the possibility. We had trouble finding a time to meet, but a few months later I reached out to see if we could grab lunch and revisit the conversation. Her reply was something like this. “I’d love to have lunch, but I’m not sure about this charter or magnet school thing. It seems to me that if it is good for one kid, it is good for all of them. Do we really believe that? Do we believe that a uniform educational experience is the key to equity, access, and opportunity? Does that mean we think the same education or training is required for every role in family, society, and the workplace? Is this the path to helping each student discover and develop her unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions? Is the “what is good for one is good for all” philosophy of education the best way to help people make their unique contribution to the world?

I do not question the value of a common body of knowledge to some extent, but that is different from arguing for the same type of education for every child driven by the same tests. True equity, access and opportunity will come from educational choice and a diversity of educational options. This is why I continue to argue that a great strength of the United States educational landscape is the rich diversity. On the K-12 level I’m referring to legacy public, public magnet, public charter, independent, parochial, homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, project-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, STEM academies, bilingual schools, democratic schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, and a myriad of others. On the University level I’m referring to everything from small liberal arts colleges to state Universities, blended and online options to technical and community colleges, public to private and faith-based, elite schools to a wonderfully interesting collection of alternative schools, even (maybe especially) the self-directed and uncollege options available today.

Have you noticed the recent articles and blog posts critiquing Arne Duncan for sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Part of the critique is that he is sending his kids to a school that does not align with many of his educational reform efforts as US Secretary of Education. I appreciate that critique, but from another perspective, I commend him for selecting a school that he thinks is the best fit for his kids. Now all we need to do is to pursue more national and state policies that make such choice more widely available to the rest of the families in the country. Duncan knows that you don’t test an elephant by how well it can climb a tree, and he knows that the same thing is true when it comes to finding the right fit between a student and a school.

What does this have to do with testing and the cartoon? Standardized testing is a powerful educational technology, so powerful that it can reshape an entire school or district. It can drive schools and leaders to redesign their curriculum, schedule and priorities to make sure that students perform adequately on a given test or set of tests. That means prioritizing certain core competencies over others. It means celebrating the strengths and passions of some students while paying little attention to the gifts and interests of others. It means that some will believe that they are “good at school” while others don’t think so. It means having some students who strive to simply tolerate or survive the school day. That is a waste of a person’s gifts, talents, abilities, passions and potential; especially given that there are so many schools today that would be a great fit for these students.

Some might argue, “Haven’t you seen how poorly many charter and choice schools are performing?” Yes, there are problem schools, but there is also a problem with measuring the performance of these schools using those same tests that make elephants try to climb trees. I respect how this is a tidy want to compare schools, but it is a bit like doctors using standards for dentists. Both are healthcare workers, but they have enough differences that they probably call for a different measure of effectiveness. If we are going to measure across wildly different schools, maybe we should use measures about student engagement, holistic and personalized student growth and development, and the discovery and development of their gifts, talents, abilities, and passions.

Isn’t this just another sign of our increasingly self-absorbed culture? Students want everything their way instead of sucking it up and doing the work? I’ve talked to more than a few people who think as much, but I look at it differently. Yes, this is about a more personalized and customized approach to education. It is a recognition that people are different and we can best celebrate and maximize those differences by matching the student with the best fit school. This isn’t about catering to every whim and preference of a person. It is instead a perspective that doesn’t want to see a single student go to waste, one that aspires for learners to discover their unique contributions to the world. This is ultimately not about self-service, but it is about best positioning students to discover how they can live a rich and fulfilling life that benefits themselves and the people around them. And while some argue that focusing on STEM in our schools is the key to winning some international economic competition, I continue to defend the position that a nation and world will be better off if we invest in maximizing the potential of each person instead of sifting out those who don’t fit the STEM mold. In fact, by choosing a more personalized approach, we may find that we gain more traction than ever on everything from crime reduction to workforce and economic development.