Standardized Tests: School change at its worst.

by Steve Wyckoff on April 3, 2010

I was involved in the discussion the other day about school change when I was asked why I am so opposed to standardized tests. So I thought I would take a few minutes to justify my position.

It’s not that I believe standardized tests are inherently bad. They’re like many other things they are neither good nor bad inherently it’s just how you use them that turnes out to be good or bad.

Let me try to give you an analogy. My son coaches college baseball, he’s a pitching coach. He keeps an array of statistics for his pitchers, one of which is ERA. Earned run average is an important statistic for pitchers, but ultimately if they don’t win the game the ERA may make him feel better but ultimately he, and the other coaches, will lose their jobs if they don’t win enough games. Is the ERA an indicator of how well they’re doing? Yes, but it isn’t the only indicator.

In schools the only indicator that seems to matter are the scores on standardized tests. Yet increasingly our students are unprepared for the world they will live in. Standardized test, while they do give us some information, aren’t the only or the best information. In essence we are raising the “ERA” but losing the game.

In addition, the behaviors that we are instilling in our students as a result of the focus on standardized test are counterproductive to the behaviors that our students need to possess when they leave our schools. Let me explain.

Standardized test prepare every student to answer the same uninteresting questions, using the same uninteresting strategies, to come up with the same uninteresting answers, in the same amount of time. Dan Pink has described this process is algorithmic. Meaning there is a prescribed set of steps to reach a single answer. Mackenzie and Associates estimate that less than 30% of new jobs being created in America are algorithmic in nature. In fact, jobs that are algorithmic in nature are the first ones to be outsourced to other countries, or replaced by technology.

What our kids really need are heuristic behaviors. Heuristic problems have a defined path to solving problems, that lead to one correct answer. Rather there are many ways to approach these problems and there may be multiple solutions. At least 70% of all new jobs being created in America are heuristic in nature according to McKinsey and Associates.

So by focusing on standardized tests we are preparing our students to be perfectly suited for jobs that are least likely to exist, and most likely to be low paying, when they leave our schools. When we talk about school change I think we need to change the conversation from,  “how do we change schools to get higher standardized test scores,” to “how do we change schools to better prepare our students to be productive members of society in the 21st century?” –  Steve Wyckoff

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