What’s More Important, High Test Scores or Self-Direction?

The education technology discussion is fraught with false dichotomies. One that I find particularly troubling is the false choice between improving test scores and preparing for life and work in the 21st century.

The argument on one side is that the United States is falling behind other countries with evidence offered such as our 30th place showing in math on the PISA test. In order to be competitive, we need to increase our scores on such international benchmarks. To achieve this we should:

  • Shift the focus in schools from what content is presented by teachers to what content has been learned by students. In order to ensure that focus changes, teachers must be held accountable for actual student test scores rather than just presenting the curriculum.
  • Ensure students have technology available for digital learning and collect data for real-time feedback to focus more on the needs of each individual student.
  • Use technology and blended learning to enable students to move at their own pace and progress based on mastery rather than seat time.
  • Personalize learning by providing an optimal path for each student through the core content they need to know for college.

On the other side, the argument is that the focus on test scores is unbalanced and has replaced meaningful learning with the rote memorization of facts and procedures with little critical thinking involved. This has unintended consequences of hampering great teachers’ ability to teach, while driving the best out of the profession while failing to improve test scores. The reasoning is that such rote decontextualized pedagogy is ineffective because it is irrelevant to students and gives them no context in which to place the new information in order to both understand it more deeply and remember it more effectively. This leaves students unprepared for college, but more importantly unprepared for a constantly evolving workplace. To prepare students effectively we need to:

  • Teach 21st century skills and higher order thinking skills
  • Foster student self-direction instead of perpetuating a culture of compliance
  • Empower students to take ownership of their learning both formally and informally through 24/7 access to digital resources, information, and communities of learning
  • Foster mindsets and dispositions that underlie life-long learning such as a growth mindset
  • Employ student-centered pedagogies such as inquiry-based and project-based learning to unlock intrinsic motivation and develop academic and workplace skills in tandem

The rebuttal, then, is that the focus on tests is required to prepare students for college and college entrance exams, and deviating from that goal perpetuates the gap between the privileged and the under-privileged. Those other skills are meaningless without a thorough grounding in core academic content. The solution is to improve the test to require critical thinking and higher order skills in addition to subject matter factual and procedural knowledge.

To which the response is that a focus on test scores to the exclusion of the skills that lead to real career success disadvantages those students who don’t have access to the richer learning environments that emphasize them.

Stepping away from simplistic characterizations, I think no one will argue that students don’t need both. The question arises in how best to get there. Consider the diagram below.

rigor - control MQ copy-2

Resigners are students who have low academic achievement and little or no ownership of their learning. Whether they are still physically in a classroom or not, they are disengaged and have, in effect, dropped out, finding their conditions intolerable.

Hobbyists are students who have complete ownership of their learning, but apply it to non-academic areas. They have tremendous skill and interest in areas they are passionate about such as coding, on-line gaming, skateboarding, journalism, crafts, fan fiction or other narrow fields that don’t provide broad core academic content. However, through technology and ready access to communities of interest, these passions drive students to develop ownership of their learning, collaboration through networks, reputation management, rigorous argument construction and use of evidence, growth mindset (within this context), persuasive and informative writing skills and more.

Compliers are the “good” students who get good grades and follow the rules. They may be low in engagement and self-direction, but they comply with the expectations placed on them by teachers and parents to excel academically.

Scholars are students who apply the passion and self-direction of the hobbyist to academic learning, developing both content knowledge and career skills.

One side of the argument is focused on moving students from the bottom two quadrants to the top two. There is great work showing how adding rigor and a systematic data-driven improvement process can shift students from low academic achievement to high academic achievement.

The book Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo is an immensely pragmatic guide for improving academic achievement by adding rigor and a data-driven process.

Although, this book is strictly focused on improving test scores, the same process of rigorous improvement can be applied to other desired student outcomes such as growth mindset, agency, ownership, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and so on. These skills, dispositions, and mindsets involve shifting students from compliance to ownership, which requires a data driven process plus a gradual release of control from the teacher to the student.

balance MQ copy-2

There are three paths to shifting students from Resigners to Scholars. The first is to add rigor to move first to the Complier quadrant, then activate intrinsic motivation to move to the right to the Scholar quadrant. The second is to balance increased rigor with activated intrinsic motivation to move diagonally straight to the Scholar quadrant. The third is to begin by activating intrinsic motivation to move from the Resigner quadrant to the Hobbyist quadrant, and then add rigor to move to the scholar quadrant.

The key, of course, is to avoid fallacies that allow us to be satisfied with “merely” fostering compliers or hobbyists, but to set the goal on preparing students to be prepared for both college and career as well as life in our rapidly evolving world.

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Interesting article. The Titel suggest however that Self Direction could counteract with high Test Scores which is in my opinion has two sides: Either the educational method is not appropriate for the test or the test is not appropriate for the educational method. In fact we talk about a mismatch in constructive alignment. When we try to use traditional testing and assessment for new modern skills and competences you could expect problems. A bit like measuring the performance of a modern computer processor with a stopwatch.
When we really want to "evolve" we first have to reconsider the paradox of academic and non-academic and secondly completely reconsider our ways of testing and assessment.

I warmly agree with the stimulating of ownership of students. And I am quite convinced that the way of testing and assessment plays a crucial role here as well. Lots of tests are merely self justifiable transparent nor recognizable which therefore stimulates compliance. Or in students words: "Don't see how this would make me a better ... (yet) but I need a good grade...)" Students study focus (and methods) will be focused on "teachers' expectations" in stead of own expectations or targets.

Jasleen Kaur

Thank you so much for reading and your comment. Blogging is an amazing platform. So much goes “into” the thinking behind what we wish to post and why. It is a wonderful way for students and families to learn alongside each other.


Hobbyists are the most balanced. Find your passion. Self education is the best!

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