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.

The Death of Testing and the Rise of Learning Analytics

I know that it is sad news for some, but more than a few of us have assessed the situation, and the prognosis is not good for our friend (or perhaps the arch enemy to others of us), the test. We might be witnessing the death of testing. Tests are not going away tomorrow or even next year, but their value will fade over the upcoming years until, finally, tests are, once and for all, a thing of the past. At least that is one possible future.

Tests are largely a 20th century educational technology that had no small impact on learning organizations around the world, not to mention teachers and students. They’ve increased anxiety, kept people up all night (often with the assistance of caffeine), and consumed large chunks of people’s formative years.

They’ve also made people lots of money. There are the companies that help create and administer high-stakes tests. There are the-the companies that created those bubble tests and the machines that grade them. There are the test proctoring companies along with the many others that have created high-tech ways to prevent and/or detect cheating on tests. There are the test preparation companies. There are even researchers who’ve done well as consultants, helping people to design robust, valid and reliable tests. Testing is a multi-billion dollar industry.

death of testingGiven this fact, why am I pointing to the death of the test? It is because of the explosion of big data, learning analytics, adaptive learning technology, developments around integrated assessments in games and simulations and much more. These technologies are making and will continue to make it possible to constantly monitor learner progress. Assessment will be embedded in the learning experiences. When you know how a student is making progress and exactly where that student is in terms of reaching a given goal, why do you need a test at the end? The student doesn’t even need to know that it is happening, and the data can be incredibly rich, giving insights and details often not afforded by traditional tests.

Such embedded assessment is the exception today, but not for long. That is why many testing companies and services are moving quickly into the broader assessment space. They realize that their survival depends upon their capacity to integrate in seamless ways with content, learning activities and experiences, simulations and learning environments. This is also why I have been urging educational publishing companies to start investing in feedback and assessment technologies. This is going to critical for their long-term success.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that all testing will die. Some learning communities will continue to use them even if they are technically unnecessary. Tests still play a cultural role in some learning contexts. My son is in martial arts and the “testing day” is an important and valued benchmark in community. Yes, there are plenty of other ways to assess, but the test is part of the experience in this community. The same is true in other learning contexts. Testing is not always used because it is the best way to measure learning. In these situations, testing will likely remain a valued part of the community. In some ways, however, this helps to make my point. Traditional testing is most certainly not the best or most effective means of measuring learning today. As the alternatives expand and the tools and resources for these alternatives become more readily available, tests will start the slow but certain journey to the educational technology cemetery, finding a lot alongside the slide rule and the overhead projector.

Is There a Testing Crisis in Competency-based Education?

The more I follow the growing competency-based education movement, the more I am interested by certain decisions. Why are we so often limiting ourselves when it comes to assessment? It could be that we have an emerging testing crisis in competency-based education. Allow me to explain.

When the University of Wisconsin announced that they would be offering bachelor degrees based on competency testing instead of seat time and credits earned the old-fashioned way, there were many reactions. Some rejoiced that this was a promising step toward increased access and opportunity, and extending affordability of higher education. Others lamented the loss of the intangibles and deeply human side of instructor-student and student-student interaction. Still others decided to withhold judgment until they could learn more. Then there were others who couldn’t quite grasp what this meant or what it would look like. The UW model is not that different from many existing CBE programs. If you can show that you know it, you get the “credit”, and there are pre-established “assessments” to determine if you know it.

Yet, “assessment” is a loaded term. For some, that can mean projects, portfolios and a myriad of other ways to determine and document learning. For others, they mainly think about traditional tests. As such, if we look at the growing interest in competency-based education, I have a serious concern that some (not necessarily the UW model, I’ve not examined that one enough to know) are failing to be as innovative with their approaches to assessment of learning than they think they are being with their overall shift to a CBE approach. When this happens, all we are really talking about is allowing people to test out or progress by testing well.

Some join the conversation at this point noting that this is a very important topic. That is why we must become experts in test design, knowing that our tests are valid and reliable measures of student learning. Why focus on traditional tests? Even common approaches to assuring reliability and validity of tests do not go so far as to look at transferability. If you perform well on a test, does that mean you are highly likely to perform well in that domain in a real-world (by real-world, I don’t just mean work) context?

I call this the testing crisis because traditional tests (especially the common multiple choice, true/false types) are not the real world. We don’t hire people to take tests. The testing crisis is that we have created this entirely alternative world in educational institutions that do little to amplify the best of a school’s historic or contemporary identity and mission. Many tests are designed in ways that they are abstractions, one or more steps removed from authentic interactions with knowledge or skills.

Yet, they are scalable and that seems to be what people most value about them. You can assess people quickly and with measures of reliability and validity that most others accept. So, they are time-savers for the teacher with a large number of students. They support the ability for less personal and less intimate forms of education, although I acknowledge that some learning experiences can be rich and rewarding without being personal and intimate. As best as I can tell, these types of tests are and always have been efficiency more than anything else.

When it comes to  competency-based education or even traditional contexts measured by seat-time, I continue to plead with people to imagine the possibilities for their assessments. I recognize the time challenges of teachers with large groups of learners, but there are far more possibilities than many initially imagine. You can design a robust, rewarding and effective assessment plan by mixing a myriad of current and emerging practices. You can leverage projects and rubrics, performances and rubrics, papers and rubrics, narrative assessment and feedback, portfolio assessment, self-assessment tools, peer-assessment strategies, scenario and case-based learning with integrated assessments, many approaches to authentic assessment and more.

When it comes to the CBE movement, some argue that traditional and more standardized tests are an important part of the movement itself. These tests will allow them to validate this method and communicate the widespread impact and effectiveness. It gives thems the numbers that they need and want to defend their innovation. Yet, there are others ways to do this. We just need to take the time to more broadly and deeply explore and imagine the possibilities.

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.