In favor of training and (better) testing

At the Closing the Gap rally in Washington DC , a speaker shouted, “You train dogs not children.” He went on to attack standardized testing and the resulting, “dumbed-down teach-to-the-test curriculum.”  It sounded like he was in favor of open-ended discovery learning. 

I’ve been thinking about his comments for two weeks.  They raise two of the most important questions in education, “What should young people learn?” and “How will they show what they know?” Both questions warrant book length responses—my shelves are lined with examples of attempts.  Following are a couple thoughts summarizing what I think (right now) about aims and measures.

Training isn’t a bad word.  We train professionals (including teachers) to do important work.  As an over-trained and undereducated engineer I appreciate the argument—at least the need to balance targeted learning with exploration of the Humanities and the natural world.  While I’d stop short of E.D Hirsh’s desire to impart encyclopedic knowledge, kids need a base of knowledge and skills to attack complicated problems and participate in a democracy.  As a result, I’m in favor of learning standards.  But not the 50 different state standards with thousands of unique subskills and tidbits of knowledge.  We need national standards—fewer, clearer, higher and common expectations of learning at least in math and English. 

While we’re adopting national standards and locking in higher graduation requirements, it would be a great time to rethink college entrance requirements especially in math where the historical path to Calculus reigns supreme.  All young people should learning algebraic (i.e., multivariable) problem solving but I’d gladly swap statistics and probability for factoring polynomials.  I use statistics daily but haven’t factored a polynomial (other than helping my daughters slog through high school) in 30 years. 

The speaker also railed against testing. He was right that we are badly misusing 50 year old psychometrics and that many schools have narrow instruction to what is tested. EdSector recently published a great paper explaining why we haven’t made more progress and how “our testing methods don’t serve our educational system nearly as well as they should.”  We need measurement to drive improvement, but we could be much smarter about how we measure learning.  Computer games are a great example of background assessment with instant feedback.  EdSector reports that, “Other fields, such as military training and medical education, are already using technology-enabled assessment to enhance teaching and learning.”  Adaptive games and online diagnostics provide fast, reliable, and inexpensive measurement that should replace the bubble sheet paper and pencil exams.  Broadband and computer access are no longer an excuse not to make the switch. 

I’d like to see kids write more—at least one rubric-scored research paper, an op-ed, and new media presentation each semester of high school.  Writing prompts that encourage science and social studies teachers to participate would encourage more cross-disciplinary work (and spread the assessment work load).  Computer scoring continues to improve and will also help avoid the “how do I grade 150 exams this weekend?” problem. 

Students should have the opportunity to go deep and become an expert.  They should have the opportunity to present what they’ve learned.  How about a Science Fair every other year from 4th to 12thgrade?  We know how to reliably score project-based work but we’re too lazy and too cheap to do it. 

We need standards and measures but they don’t need to be as intrusive as they are today.  We need to train students to read, write, compute, and solve problems, but we can embed it or complement it with opportunities to discover, to go deep, and to apply learning.  With ubiquitous broadband, cheap netbooks, and $5 billion in federal incentives, it’s time to make progress on standards and assessments.  

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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