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Testing what really counts

June 10, 2015 | Filed in HFM Superintendent Blog

For months, “opting out” has been the torch and pitchfork tirade echoing around schools in my region. In their quest to show Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature their displeasure about standardized testing and teacher evaluations, lots of parents and the teachers’ union have dredged up something deeper and more relevant to student success in schools. Testing, particularly standardized testing, is a broken model.

The current system of testing was created for an education system doggedly sustained since the 19th century and cannot meet the needs of 21st century students, post-secondary educators and employers. As we desperately aspire to match the educational successes of other countries, we have lost track of what makes New York State and the United States great — innovation.

What are we trying to accomplish in school? What’s the point of all the testing? What is fundamentally different between the late 19th/early 20th century learner and students in the 21st century? Does the old model still work when there has been such significant and fundamental change since its inception?

In public education, the unwritten but widely embraced rule is that change means doing what we’ve always done but calling it something different. A critical look at the history of public education “reform” reveals the continuous recycling of ideas that once were discarded for the next “new” thing. The discredited ideas languish on the sidelines until they are rediscovered and become new again.

Standardized tests have their place and rightful purpose. However, when all they measure is how much information a student acquires but not how well that student can develop and use knowledge to draw conclusions, make real-world applications and innovate new ideas, those tests are all but useless.

That’s the difference between education requirements for a 19th century learner (information acquisition) and what is expected from a 21st century learner (developing and understanding knowledge, manipulating that knowledge to create and apply solutions to better ideas, and creating new knowledge). Today’s testing system attempts to do some of these things but always falls back to information acquisition.

Developmental psychologist Susan Engel reviewed more than 300 studies of K-12 academic tests, and concluded that standardized testing does nothing more than measure how well a student can be expected to perform on other tests of the same kind.

“I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes,” Engel wrote in a recent Boston Globe article*.

The fight over testing and teacher evaluations will undoubtedly drown out any logical and rational conversation about the value of tests that actually measure the things we value most and will best benefit students’ future.

We quickly celebrate students who innovate new ideas. Let’s seriously consider innovation in our own field and leapfrog beyond today’s mundane and ineffective testing system. The Regents exams, Common Core-aligned testing and almost every other in-school test measure information acquisition rather than knowledge manipulation, application and creation.

We are testing students for information we pump into them within a traditional classroom environment. We quantify how much they can regurgitate. If the numbers are good – because the numbers are all that seems to count today – we keep on going.

But, this delivery system is simply no longer adequate to train and prepare our children for the demands of the 21st century. The outdated testing (accountability) system in place in our state perpetuates a mode of learning that is inadequate and actually damages our children’s future prospects.

It’s time to discuss knowledge delivery and testing in a very different way.

The Common Core has feebly attempted to shift this paradigm; however, the noise from the evaluation fight has drowned that out. Common Core also does not go far enough. We need to create new delivery systems that allow students to discover knowledge, manipulate and apply knowledge, and create new knowledge. The vast majority of students in public, private or charter schools continue to be taught –and tested – in an obsolete 19th century modality.

Instead of wasting our time fighting over a system that should have died 30 years ago, we should know enough to follow the old adage; when the horse is dead, dismount.

If we truly want to debate valid testing in New York State, let’s first agree that no matter how much we try to compel everyone to comply with an outmoded testing system, it still will not deliver what our children need or desire.

For once, let a logical and rational conversation about testing revolve around what matters most to our students’ future.


Dr. Patrick Michel is District Superintendent of Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES in Johnstown , NY.

* 7 things every kid should master, The Boston Globe, Feb. 26, 2015


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