Standardized testing has received a lot of criticism these days. For many, standardized tests embody all that is wrong in schools. Many justifiably claim that standardized tests prompt educators to obsessively focus on a few key variables and that that narrow focus ultimately distorts the whole endeavor of preparing students to be motivated, self-directed people who love learning and know how to do it.
I’ve seen first hand the damage that testing can do. I’ve been told by district leaders, “We’re not worried about writing. We just need to improve our math and reading scores”–since at that time, math and reading were the only areas tested in that district. The obsession with standardized testing has created an environment where too often music, art, physical education, craftwork or even the humanities, are pushed way to the back of the agenda, if those subjects are even taught at all.
The obsession with test scores also means that teachers are often forced to turn away from doing what they know is in the best interest of their students. Too often teachers stop taking the time to enjoy a story, an historical concept, an experiment, or a powerful and fun hands-on learning experience so that they can be sure to cover the material or stay in step with the pacing guide. The result, of course, is that school becomes drill and kill, and kids become more disengaged and disinterested (and less successful on tests). At the same time, teachers lose the heart to teach. In the past few years, too many great teachers, disappointed by what and how they are forced to teach, have told me, “teaching just isn’t fun any more.”
So I understand why people have lost faith in testing and assessment. The trouble is, I love the data that testing yields. Such data has often reinforced my personal learning and growth experiences. For example, my interest in running is greatly enhanced by my experiences using the Nike+ iPod software, which documents how far, how fast, and how often I run. Measuring those variables motivates me to lace up the runners and helps me see exactly how I am improving (or not) as a runner.
The difference between the Nike+ data, and the reading and math data, however, is that the Nike+ focussed me on what was important in my running. And while literacy and math are obviously vitally important, maybe we do a better job of educating our children if we expanded testing to measure other variables. What would happen to our schools, for example, if we assessed “love of learning” or “happiness” along with academic scores?
Well we can. We don’t need to wait for others to create the assessments. We can make our own. Today, if you are a teacher, you can start giving your students two slips of paper that ask them to report their joy of learning and their happiness (say on a scale of 1 – 5). You can give the students ten seconds at the end of the class to write down their score, and gather the slips of paper as the students leave the classroom. Then you can average the scores, or, if you’re so inclined, do other kinds of statistical analysis. You might want to create different colored assessments for each class you teach so that you can compare and contrast how each group of students is doing.
If you are a principal, you can ask the school’s teachers if they’d like to take a school-wide assessment of “love or learning” or “happiness” and then, if they wish to, ask teachers to gather the data once a month or once a semester. The same kind of assessment, of course, could be done district-wide.
What gets measured gets done is an old truism. If we only test math and reading, our focus will only be on improving those scores, and important aspects of learning will be forgotten. However, if we test our students’ “love of learning,” or “happiness,” or “self-efficacy,” and we act to improve “scores” in those areas, we might broaden our attention to the whole child. And if our students’ love of learning and happiness improve, we might just find that the scores in mathematics, literacy, and other areas, also improve.