Measurements Gone Wild–How Assessment Can Send You Down the Path of Darkness

30 Apr
Math Fact Test, by Judy Baxter, from Flickr

Math Fact Test, by Judy Baxter, from Flickr

Pardon me for the dramatic title, but I don’t think it’s overstated.  In America, we love data.  We love to track what we eat, count how many people visit our website, and test our kids endlessly.  We make important decisions from these numbers.  The scale is up?  Cut back on carbs for a while.  Did you see a spike in traffic?  Iterate on that last post.  Kids are doing poorly in math?  Time to shorten recess and add in weekly times-tests.

What happens the next week/month/year?  Too often it’s…nothing.  The scale is still up, the website hasn’t taken off, our kids are still stagnating in the bottom half of the world in math achievement.  Our response?  Cut out more carbs, eliminate recess altogether, etc, etc.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, America is one crazy country.  We’ve been railing against the achievement gap and low reading proficiency rates for decades, and our response has been to do more of the same.  No Child Left Behind brought in a surge of standardized testing and accountability, some of which was enlightening.  Disaggregating data by income level, English level, and racial group highlighted the disparity in achievement, especially in schools that were considered “high performing” and then were revealed to be failing their neediest children.  Data and accountability  are important for any program.

But are we looking at the right data?  Eduardo Briceno, the cofounder of Mindset Works, began a recent post on assessment with this quote: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.  That quote encapsulates the current data crisis neatly–we are counting what can be easily counted, not what really matters.

Briceno’s article goes on to discuss the idea that important elements of success–creativity, collaboration and communication skills, mindset–cannot be easily assessed, and thus aren’t.  It’s easy to know if a student can answer, “what’s 5 x 7” or “Henry the XIII led which church reform?” but it’s much harder to know if a child will persevere after hitting a setback.  It’s easy to tell if a child can correctly tell you what’s wrong with the sentence, “Elizabeth runned for the ball.” but harder to know if she could write a complex paragraph on her own.  The result?  We test what’s easy–multiplication facts, punctuation–but not what’s difficult.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to know how to multiply and punctuate.  Those are important skills.  But they’re low level skills, and if we stop there, we’re in real trouble once we leave the cocooned confines of the classroom.


Finland, long held up as a model of educational success, does things totally differently.  Finland engages a number of positive educational practices, like lengthy teacher preparation programs, small classes sizes, and equitable funding, but Finland also assesses totally differently.  While America has been ratcheting up the testing, Finland has been pulling back.  The results?  Finland leads achievement on the PISA, an international assessment of math, reading and science, whereas the US is stagnating below the mean.

top-ten-pisa-scores1Linda Darling-Hammond, a Professor of Education at Stanford University, shares how,

There are no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools in Finland, and most teacher feedback to students is in narrative form, emphasizing descriptions of their learning progress and areas for growth. …samples of students are evaluated on open-ended assessments at the end of the second and ninth grades to inform curriculum and school investments. The focus is on using information to drive learning and problem-solving, rather than punishment. NEAToday, October, 2010.

By using open-ended assessment and teacher feedback in narrative form, Finland is able to assess a much broader scope of skills than our standardized tests can handle.  The result?  Their teaching focuses on a broader, more complex set of skills.

In America, assessment is the tail that wags the dog.  Whatever we test, we teach.  We have to, with curriculum, school rankings, and salaries all tied to those assessments.  Testing what’s easy is cheap in the short term, but expensive in the long term as we emphasize low-level skills.  So let’s use those tests for good.  Let’s test what we really care about–discrete skills, like multiplication, but also complex thinking, problem solving, collaboration.  Let’s put our minds to work to come up with solutions for how tests can be comprehensive, but also economical, rather than coming up with more carrot and stick measures for schools.  Let’s measure what’s really important so that we can teach what matters.

2 Responses to “Measurements Gone Wild–How Assessment Can Send You Down the Path of Darkness”

  1. Thad May 5, 2014 at 10:15 pm #

    I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice,
    keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back
    later on. Many thanks

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. With Knowledge, You’re Never Lost « The Core Knowledge Blog - April 30, 2014

    […] many in the education world, I spend much of April and May wondering about U.S. testing and […]

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