Vail Daily column: Do we test what matters?
Last week, thousands of Colorado seniors (mostly in the Denver and Boulder metro area) refused to participate in newly required state tests for science and social studies. These refusals represented an unprecedented level of resistance to the growing battery of state tests. Notably, this resistance came from an unexpected source — the students themselves.
This past Monday, I had the chance to visit and listen with a group of high school seniors at our own Eagle Valley High School on this issue (and others). While we had no such testing revolt here in Eagle County, these students were far from complimentary of these newly added assessments.
The theory at work behind Colorado’s (and the country’s) fascination with large-scale testing is based on a concept known as accountability. In an educational context, accountability simply means testing students for academic results, publicly displaying the aggregated test scores and then either punishing or rewarding schools, districts or individual educators.
A component of this theory is the adage that “what gets measured, gets done,” a quote sometimes attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. More directly, there is an operating hypothesis within the accountability theory that if we rigorously test something, then we can be sure it was taught (and learned).
But in comparing our national outcomes to those of other high performing education systems, we should ask some serious questions about this hypothesis (and the larger theory of educational accountability). Most high performing educational systems (including Singapore, Finland and Canada) only do accountability testing at key gateway transition points — usually no more than three times in a student’s entire academic career and often less.
So is it true that large-scale and frequent accountability testing is necessary to make sure teaching and learning to high standards is taking place? If we look to the world’s best performing education systems, that answer is no.
This is not to say that accountability has no place or value. All systems need some level of accountability, including education. It is to say that other educational systems seem to be able to achieve higher results with a much less elaborate system of testing than we have here in Colorado.
One must wonder if we have gone far past the point of diminishing returns in accountability testing; and that perhaps piling on more tests and measures is not actually improving outcomes and may actually be detrimental to system improvement.
In my conversation with the Eagle Valley High School seniors, we talked about a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers — which asked 260 large and small employers around the country (including companies like Chevron and IBM) what skills they wanted most from 2015 graduates. The results are eye-opening. In ranked order, the top 10 skills were:
1. Ability to work in a team structure.
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems.
3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization.
4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work.
5. Ability to obtain and process information.
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data.
7. Technical knowledge related to the job.
8. Proficiency with computer software programs.
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports.
10. Ability to sell and influence others.
Albert Einstein reportedly had a sign on his office wall that read “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.” The students at Eagle Valley High School noted that while the CMAS tests they participated in made efforts to get at some of these skills; it was mostly still a test of memorize-able facts and concepts.
The students and I also noted the disconnect between the No. 1 skill identified by employers (i.e. work in a team structure) and a test where any sort of collaboration is considered cheating.
At this point, it is difficult to tell if this recent instance of student refusals to participate in state-required testing is isolated to a demographic of students who are eyeing graduation and life after high school — or if it is the sign of a larger counter-movement in opposition to the accountability theory of educational change.
Whatever the case, our state (and nation) should be asking some tough questions about the system of testing and accountability we’ve built for our public schools. Are we testing what really matters for our kid’s futures? Is all this testing what we really want for our children? Both of these are good places to start the conversation.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.