Guest Column

We need an alternative to standardized testing

August 16, 2019
| By Lou Glazer |
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Michigan needs to move away from standardized testing. Any time you make that case, the first question is “what is the alternative?”

Before we delve into the alternatives to standardized testing, let’s review why the think tank I lead — Michigan Future Inc. — has turned away from supporting a test-based assessment and accountability system.

1. The book “Crossing the Finish Line” details findings that a student’s cumulative high school GPA is far more predictive of eventual college graduation than his or her SAT/ACT score. Why? Because while test scores measure a student’s ability on a narrow band of math and reading skills, GPA measures a diverse set of capacities, encompassing academic habits, content knowledge and noncognitive skills exhibited day after day across four years of high school.

2. Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson found that a noncognitive index of grades, attendance and disciplinary records was more predictive of long-term success than test scores. He also found that the set of teachers who were able to improve this index was an entirely different set of teachers than those that were adept at raising test scores. 

The message from both Jackson and Crossing the Finish Line: When we focus only on test scores, we miss the really important stuff.

3. Our understanding of the skills that are rewarded in today's labor market. They are far broader, and in many ways more rigorous, than the skills assessed by standardized tests. We think the best description of those skills are the six Cs from the book “Becoming Brilliant”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity and confidence.

4. The unintended consequence of test scores being the only measure that schools/educators are held accountable for has led to nonaffluent students across the state attending schools with curriculum and pedagogy that is both not engaging and way too narrow. Focusing almost exclusively on what is on the test at the expense of all the noncontent-specific Cs, as well as extracurriculars, electives, the arts and even writing that are so important to a quality education that we all want, if not demand, for our kids. This is one of the key equity challenges of our times: nonaffluent students in schools that are designed to build too narrow skills.

To be clear, our reason for wanting to de-emphasize standardized testing is not to lower standards. In fact, it is the opposite. If we are serious about college and 40-year career success, we had better get what we are holding schools accountable for right. What we need to come up with is an assessment system that actually predicts college and career success. If not, we are harming our kids and the Michigan economy.

Which brings us back to the question, “What is the alternative to standardized testing?” One intriguing answer comes from the MIT Playful Journey Lab in collaboration with the Albemarle County School District, Portola Valley School District and San Mateo County Office of Education. They have designed a Beyond Rubrics Toolkit that embeds assessment into student projects. The skills its toolkit is designed to assess:

Agency: The capacity to make intentional choices and to understand that you have such a capacity. With agency, you see yourself as a contributor and an agent of change in the world.

Design process: A way to approach challenges by brainstorming, prototyping, testing and iterating. Designers are aware of the many steps to reach a solution and deliberately work on each step to improve a design.

Social scaffolding: An active participant in a community that supports everyone’s learning.

Productive risk-taking: To try an idea or a solution beyond your comfort zone. Even when an action ends in an unexpected way, you can identify lessons learned and connect it to the next iteration or future projects.

Troubleshooting: A capacity to persist and to find solutions. If a project is not progressing as expected, you can use different strategies to diagnose and fix the problem. Not giving up requires patience, resilience and resourcefulness.

Bridging knowledge: Using knowledge from your lived experiences at home, community and culture, as well as from school experiences to benefit the project you are working on.

Content knowledge: You may develop stronger conceptual understanding, be able to accurately understand why this does or does not work, or be able to use materials in safe and effective ways.

Does anyone believe these skills are not a better predictor of life outcomes than the skills assessed on the single-right-answer, multiple-choice tests that we use today?

Ultimately, what we want to know is if schools are preparing all kids to be successful adults (which is not the same as being a successful test-taker). There has to be a way of assessing that does not demand a single score on the same instrument for all kids in the nation. We need to get to work on designing an assessment system that is far better aligned with the broad skills that give all students the best chance for success as adults.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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