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Character in Somerville, Mass.

Standardized testing doesn’t measure the qualities we want most in our young adults

Think of the last time you sat down to interview for a job. You probably submitted a resume and cover letter, and you probably went through some process that included a phone interview and one or more in-person interviews.

During those interviews, you were likely asked questions like, “what is your greatest weakness,” or “tell me about a time you overcame a challenge,” or “describe a project in which you had to collaborate with teammates to succeed.”

You were likely not asked to fill out hundreds of bubbles with a number two pencil for a standardized test in which the top score got the job. In a high stakes interaction like a job interview, second only to choosing a mate, how one person is chosen from many applicants lends insight into what we truly value in others. Primarily, once a basic level of competence is determined, what drives this decision is critical thinking and character. Our current method of evaluating student growth through standardized testing misses this entirely.

“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.” — Heroclitus

Standardized testing, like the MCAS in Massachusetts, gives us data to analyze, interpret, graph, and tell a story about what we’ve done and what we should do. But decisions in the classroom or in a school district made with a singular focus on improving test scores will create young adults that won’t pass the interview test of character.

To be clear, standardized tests do give us valuable data. On math. And on English. About students who can answer written questions. In English. Within a time limit. Over and over and over again. And in order to compare one school to another, test scores are valuable. And in order to compare a school this year with the same school last year and the year before, test scores are valuable.

But test scores will never tell us to focus on the thing we care about most — character.

Somerville Public Schools are excelling in providing character-building opportunities for our 4,900 students. One example is our exceptional music program. From age ten on, all students have the opportunity to play a stringed or wind instrument with regular instruction. And instead of forcing parents to pay for an expensive violin or clarinet, students can check out an instrument for the year like a library book making this an opportunity that is truly available to all families.

Musical skill is one competence that isn’t directly represented in standardized test scores, but is highly linked to success in academics and growth of character. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, says that music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create,” and others have stated that music sharpens an ability for collaboration, for listening, and for creative thinking.

One particular music program in Somerville focuses more closely on the relation between music and character development — El Sistema, an after-school youth orchestra program that originated in Venezuela. Through intense instruction, El Sistema seeks to deepen students’ appreciation of culture, increase confidence through practice and performance, and support communication and motivation. To illustrate this point, El Sistema Director Diana Cline asserts that her students “become better people through playing music together.”

Cline’s assertion is supported by many who’ve attained a traditional version of success. Veteran advertising executive Steve Hayden, most well-known for Apple’s “1984" ad, recounted lessons learned from music in a recent New York Times article.

“Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow.”

This social intelligence gained from music, along with lessons around creativity, curiosity, persistence, vitality, humility, appreciation of beauty, all combine to create the depth of character we want in our children. While these traits aren’t measured through standardized testing as we know it today, they absolutely should be a focus for our school communities.

The New York based Character Lab defines character as a person’s disposition to think, feel, and act in ways that help the self as well as others. This, through our collective investment in public education, is the ultimate outcome we want in our young adults. Character development is why public school exist, and we must keep this in mind in trying to make policy decisions based on standardized test results.

On November 5th, Ward 2 will elect its first new member of the School Committee in 22 years to continue building a School District that develops character in partnership with parents, teachers, and local organizations & businesses. Please let your voice be heard.


Dan Futrell, a U.S. Army veteran and two-time recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, is a candidate for School Committee in Ward 2. He currently works at the nonprofit, Year Up, helping young adults transition from poverty to professional careers through a year-long development program.

Learn more about Dan at www.danfutrell.com.