Since it is difficult for us to measure what is truly valuable, do we have to value that which is easier to measure?
We need to be very careful about our priorities when it comes to “high stakes” testing. With national and international pressure to weigh in with a norm-referenced score to prove where our schools fall on the big sliding scale of standardized test scores, it is quite possible that many smart, ethical, passionate educators are forced to place too much value on students’ acquisition of the skills and knowledge bytes that make for successful test-taking. While some of these tools for achievement are important to have and to hone, others are becoming archaic while the ink dries on the new test bubble sheets … and even the most important and relevant items are still really just tools. It is much easier to assess that a mechanic does, indeed, have a wrench in his hand than it is to determine whether or not he can fix your engine properly. We can’t necessarily judge the seaworthiness of a boat based on the fact that it appears to have a rudder and a fog horn, and we wouldn’t recommend a brain surgeon just because she owns a scalpel and can define several neurological terms.
When schools and teachers are publicly judged (and compensated/penalized) based largely on their ability to get students to demonstrate skills and information outside of authentic contexts, we are giving priority to the wrong things. When teachers are busy preparing students for standardized tests, they have little time left over to provide the sort of instruction that fosters necessary 21st Century capabilities.
Recent research on brain development and learning practically insists that we engage students in complex, loosely-defined challenges and activities that require them to struggle through ambiguity, ask questions, and work together to find innovative solutions. Project Based Learning, Service Learning, and Design Thinking all help to support development of synaptic connections for improved learning. This type of instructional practice also fosters important executive functioning skills – the ability to plan, prioritize, delay gratification, predict consequences and outcomes, engage in abstract thinking, and interact in positive, productive ways with others.
It is possible to measure student achievement through authentic assessments. Rubrics, portfolios, and actual performance tasks can all contribute to a system that gauges truly important outcomes like critical thinking and collaborative skills, interpersonal communication, creative innovation, entrepreneurial risk taking, flexibility and adaptability under conditions that fluctuate, and other necessary competencies for success in the fast-changing present and future world. The Authentic Assessment Toolbox offers excellent rationale for authentic, performance based assessment AND practical ideas and strategies for implementing these assessments.
Since there is national interest in revisiting the NCLB rules these days, it might be the perfect time to reconsider what it is we really want for our students, figure out how to measure that, and make sure that classroom time and energy are devoted what is truly important.