In 2010 I published a book about the transformation of higher education, called DIY U. It anticipated the coming of MOOCs and inspired the founders of next-generation educational organizations like General Assembly and The Amani Institute, as well as a lot of leaders of, and thinkers within, traditional institutions who were thinking about the threats to their business model and teaching practice, respectively.
In 2011, I had a baby. When I got back to work, I set out to write a book that captured the bubbling transformation and innovation in the world of children’s education. DIY U PreK-12, was the idea.
There was just one problem. All the interesting, cool, innovative, progressive stuff I saw happening in K12—the Khan Academy, the Minecraft, the makerspaces, the inquiry-based, project-driven, collaborative, 21st century teaching and learning practice, the unschooling and “hyperlocal micro-schools”—all of that was happening at the margins. And a big explanation for that marginalization, I found, was high-stakes standardized testing.
Many people with far more expertise than me, on both sides of the aisle politically, believe our public schools are being held hostage to weak, limited, outdated metrics. That the dozens of standardized tests required by states, districts, and the federal government measure a tiny subset of what children need to know. That what they can measure they do in an often inaccurate way, while monopolizing scarce resources.
It gets worse. Like anything else, when these tests are attached to high stakes as they have been since No Child Left Behind in 2001, they are open to being gamed by students, teachers, and everyone else in the education world, with consequences that are frequently disastrous and end up hurting the most disadvantaged kids the most.
Not only are these kinds of tests not telling us what we need to know, the prevalence of testing in schools (113 by graduation!) may be actively interfering with what we want kids to learn. Research shows that fully half of what it takes to succeed in the 21st century is not captured by academics, however they are measured. Nobel Prize-winning economists tell us this; MacArthur Genius-grant-winning psychologists tell us this. I’m talking about “social and emotional skills” aka “21st century skills” aka “mindsets and essential skills and habits.” Communication, conflict resolution, empathy, comfort with diversity, resilience, to name a few.
In a nutshell, what’s needed to succeed is a certain orientation towards self and world; a belief and an attitude that says “I can set goals and achieve them by changing and growing—and I’m excited to do that.”
When you subject kids to year after year of tests with fixed answers, when you label them year after year as “approaching basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” (where is the “amazing” label? the “awesome” label? the “you tried harder” label?) the danger is that you kill their curiosity, hope, engagement, and zest for learning. This is a measurable process too. One huge national Gallup poll shows fewer and fewer children engaged in school each year as they progress from fifth grade through 12th.
Even within the realm of academics, what we’re interested in is not as much what kids know as how they learn and how they think. Once-a-year tests can’t tell you much about that.
So my new book, The Test, is all about The Tests: where they came from, how they work, their real-world consequences. And just as important, what the future of tests and accountability might look like.
This book is not an argument against data or rigor or accountability. It’s an argument that accountability is only as good as the data it’s based on. It’s an argument for questioning baseline assumptions when it comes to gathering that data more or less the same way we’ve done it for the last 100 years.
I think the stakes are pretty darn high here. If outdated tests continue to define the experience of public school, the danger is that the parents who can afford to will increasingly opt out of public schools. (Great teachers are leaving the profession over testing too.) When schools lose parents with resources, they get weaker. Weaker schools mean weaker cities, a weaker democracy, a weaker economy, and ever-rising inequality.
If this thought bothers you, I hope you’ll take a look at the book.