Of Testing and Teaching, Carts and Horses

It would not come as any surprise to any teacher I know, that the United States’ current obsession with high stakes testing may not be the best thing for student learning—to say nothing of student creativity. Test scores appear to have become our ultimate goal, as if we believe that raising scores, particularly on international tests, will be the solution for all our political and economic ills.

High test scores=Smart students=A stronger economy and probably a cure for cancer

Right? Not necessarily.

Don’t get me wrong, I know assessment is important. I teach courses in classroom assessment. I believe teachers, like all professionals, should be accountable for their work. But I am also very aware of standardized assessment’s limitations, particularly as the stakes become higher and higher. And I’m afraid we are putting the proverbial cart before the horse, bigtime.

I recently read some fascinating research by Yong Zhao, who was with me in the radio interview a few posts ago. In his study he compared countries’ rankings on the PISA math test, one of the best-known international rankings, and rankings on an international measure of entrepreneurial activities, aspirations, and attitudes. Guess what he found? Countries with high PISA math scores did not have correspondingly vigorous innovative economies. In fact, the results were quite the opposite. In the graph, the PISA rankings are in red, with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) data in blue. It was what researchers refer to as a negative correlation—higher scores on the PISA are associated with lower scores in innovation/entrepreneurship.

Here it is very important to remember Research 101—just because two things are correlated does not mean one caused the other. It does mean there is a relationship that should be examined. That relationship may involve a number of other factors. One thing this correlation suggests is that the kinds of educational practices that prepare students to score extremely well on tests (what Dr. Zhao calls a “laser focus” on test scores) are not the same practices that help students solve problems or generate new ideas. They are not the practices needed to move forward on new economic and cultural frontiers. Many of the high-scoring countries recognize this and are working hard to adopt more creativity-friendly practices. Meanwhile, we in the U.S. seem to be running willy-nilly into test-driven curricula, without much thought as to what we may be losing along the way.

If your staff would like to begin thinking about that question, Dr. Zhao’s research may be a good place to start. What have you gained from high stakes testing? What have you lost?

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