Hopes and dreams, standardized tests and the achievement gap

May 17, 2013 • Guest Blogger

Guest post by Julie Sabo, currently a 5th grade teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota and former state Senator.

Hopes and dreams

A popular way to begin the school year is with an expression of Hopes and Dreams from students and sometimes also from parents. When I first began doing this beginning of the year ritual the Hopes and Dreams expressed were usually broad and blustery, grand in nature. Some students dreamed of worldwide social justice, some for personal strength, fame, great riches, and some for very specific careers.

An interesting change has happened in children’s Hopes and Dreams statements lately. I noticed that they have become measurable. They have become manageable. They have become boring. “My hope is that I will become a Z reader.” “My hope is to have 10 new friends this year.” “My dream is that I will get a 4 in math.” My hope, as a teacher, was to spark their curiosity, to develop their relationship with learning. I wanted to sell them on the greatness of learning, the power of knowledge, and the benefits of personal discipline. But measurable outcomes, manageable steps, and the rigidity of standardization dominated all of our hopes and dreams.

If you think standardization of curriculum and testing isn’t impacting your child, please think again. Standardized testing that defines which schools, teachers, and students are successful and which are not has resulted in the narrowing of school experiences, including reducing participation in the arts, the quality of art programs and the incorporation of the arts in academics. Creativity, executive thinking skills, social skills, and other cognitive and non-cognitive skills have been stifled. Stifled and narrowed, and so, it seems, are the hopes and dreams of students.

What parent ever said, “My hopes and dreams for my child is that they are a good example of a standard child, nothing special, or unique, just grow into a standard issue person.” No, the word standardized is not typically used. Creative, happy, successful, inspired, cared for, loving, kind, strong, determined, just, thoughtful, maybe even powerful are words more commonly used when describing what we hope and dream for our children, but standard is not commonly used. Yet, “standard” has become the focus of our schools.

The assumption is that standardized testing is a good, overall measure of how our children are doing. “Are they doing well or not? Let’s look at their test scores.” But is that what we learn from these tests? Do we know how well a person perseveres in challenging situations? Do we know how well they work within groups? Do we know how empathetic they are? Do we know how well they evaluate or think divergently? To use the newest favorite word in education, grit, does it measure how much grit they have? No. Standardized tests miss a lot of information. As Albert Einstein is quoted to have said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

You might be nodding your head, who can argue with the wisdom of Albert Einstein? Yet these tests now dominate our schools. Our children’s learning environments are being defined by them, designed to get test scores higher but not necessarily children learning better. Tests are given excessive power, determining which children, teachers, and schools are successful and which are not successful.

Success, as measured by these tests, is what judges your child’s accomplishments. If your child’s gift is creative, divergent thinking, too bad, it’s not on the test. If your child’s strength is music, too bad, it’s not on the test. If your child’s strength is group dynamics, sports, verbal discourse, too bad, because it’s not on the test. That is a lot of power for single tests. That is too much power.

“But wait.” you say. “They measure something of value. Don’t they?” Sure. Standardized tests are not bad. As long as we understand that they are limited assessments of some knowledge and skills. That the tests are a snapshot of how a child performs on that day, and at that time; that the tests are limited and that their power should be limited too. We ought to be calling for, demanding, appropriate use of standardized tests, as part of a broader set of assessments to help educators and district administrators make educational decisions that move each child to his or her own next level of achievement. Decisions not about who fails and who succeeds, but decisions about how to help all kids grow, by changing what we have been doing; including changes in how we assess and respond to children in an educationally, culturally, economically and socially appropriate manner. That is the only way we will leave no child behind.

Standardized tests and the achievement gap

So what about the gap, the achievement gap? How have these tests been used to bring educational equity to all children? Well, they haven’t. They have demonstrated a testing gap between different groups of students. A testing gap that was labeled an achievement gap, but standardized tests do not measure achievement by any realistic definition. They measure the narrow set of skills being tested, and these skills do not automatically translate into achievement. In fact, non-cognitive, social and personal skills are shown to be associated with academic achievement and future success. These tests are typically biased to the dominant culture, and used to entrench existing patterns of employment, school admittance, and school graduation. Testing gaps have typically been used to exclude, not include equitably. And these tests have been no exception.

An interesting example of this testing gap, which is present at all levels, and how it is typically used to entrench existing patterns of “achievement”, was discussed in Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. In this example, the testing gap was at the University of Michigan Law School. In an act of affirmative action the University accepted minority students with significantly lower standardized test scores and lower undergraduate grades. Now, the assumption of our testing culture is that these students were less qualified, of a lower caliber than students with higher marks, and that more qualified, better students were not accepted as a result. It seems logical, the higher you score, the better you are. Right?

Well, the University followed up with these students after they had graduated from law school, when achievement really begins, in the real world. After a thorough study that included both personal success and community contributions they found no significant discrepancies between the higher scoring white students and the lower scoring minority students. They were all qualified to be lawyers. There was no “achievement gap” consistent with the testing gaps.

The law students all met the threshold of being able to achieve as lawyers, regardless of the testing gap. But that testing gap was used primarily to exclude minority students. Our testing culture wrongly assumes that the higher you score, the better you’ll achieve. In fact, as Malcolm Gladwell points out, beyond a certain point it is those other skills, that are not counted or valued by standardized testing that matter in actually achieving beyond school. Our assumptions about standardized testing are wrong and have been used to exclude minority students to a much greater level than to bring about equity.

To break the existing patterns of “achievement”, we must not embrace the very system of methods that have created and strengthened these patterns. But we have. We’ve accepted the narrowed scope of success and teaching methods, when the opposite was required. We should broaden our methods of teaching and look to new, culturally appropriate forms of assessment. As our student population diversified, we’ve stood by while our schools narrowed the teaching methods and standardized the assessments. That’s not a logical response as we find ourselves responsible for educating young people from a broadening range of cultures.

We need to identify, recognize, and take-up innovative ways to teach culturally and economically divergent students and demand that our schools assess success in a broader manner than we currently do. We responded to high drop out rates, and gaps caused by a system heavily reliant on family resources, by making school more rigid in the name of equity. Why are we surprised the results haven’t changed? Why are we surprised kids still don’t see their hopes and dreams in our schools and continue to drop out. Is standardization the best way to approach the issue of greater inclusion? Nope. It’s proven not to be.