Assessing Our Children to Death

College students taking test in classroom
College students taking test in classroom

Imagine a world where a poem was judged by the number of characters per line or the font in which it was published, or a violin concerto reviewed in terms of its precise conformance to metronomic beats or the posture of the violinist.

This is what we are doing to education: Trying to measure beauty with a ruler.

There is an industry, both academic and commercial, devoted to data and metrics. These industries have significant and dangerous overlap, given the $100's of millions of opaque dollars from Gates, Walton, Broad et al that are funding university-based advocacy organizations.

Standardized test scores are the currency of all education debate. Political and educational arguments rage on, year after year. Schools are opened and closed based on these metrics. Billions of dollars are spent. Well-intentioned folks debate about whether the relative test scores from school-to-school are a result of race, poverty, bad teaching or bad parenting. Are charters better than district public schools? Look at the test scores. Which schools are underperforming? Look at the test scores. How should we evaluate teachers? Look at the test scores. Is a particular piece of curriculum effective? Look at the test scores.

There are enormous resources devoted to determining the reliability of test scores. The most contentious debates roiling education reform are over the integrity of the scores. Do charters cream, thereby gaming the system? Have public school teachers or administrators cheated? (See Atlanta, Washington D.C., Chicago . . .)

There is virtually no recognition that we are negotiating in the wrong currency. The nearly universal capitulation to the data and metrics paradigm distorts and perverts our understanding of children and learning. The consequences are catastrophic.

In a recent blog post, the Director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford cited higher test scores as evidence for her stirring endorsement of urban charter schools: " . . .for low income minority students they are nothing short of liberating . . ."

(As evidence of my previous assertion, CREDO and its director, along with their parent Hoover Institute, are heavily dependent on funding from the Walton Family Foundation.)


There is abundant documentation of the strict regimentation, shaming, shunning and humiliation that characterize these kinds of "no excuses" charter schools. The statistics CREDO cites are the meaningless, self-fulfilling results of drill and kill practices that may temporarily elevate test scores, but do real psychological harm to many children. These children are subjected to rigid discipline, long days, long school years and relentless test prep. Liberating, indeed. Of course this raises test scores. Praising the schools for this circular, sometimes abusive, exercise is foolish.

The practices in such schools ignore the psychological, emotional and neurobiological needs of children.

In a forthcoming book I make a comprehensive case that current policies and practices are tantamount to educational malpractice. Conventional education policy and practice has always been based on three assumptions that are demonstrably false:

1. That children all develop at the same rate and therefore teaching, curriculum and assessment can be standardized.

False. A rudimentary understanding of child development contradicts any notion that children are standard.

2. That extrinsic measures, whether grades, gold stars, dunce caps, shaming, tests (and their attendant stresses), monetizing achievement etc., are the optimal educational milieu.

False. Even a cursory examination of the psychological literature confirms that extrinsic motivation is far less effective and long lasting than intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivational systems repress intrinsic motivation.

3. That human intelligence should be valued and is measurable by performance on language and mathematical assessments.

False. Howard Gardner, along with countless others, has made an inarguable case that human intelligence is far more complex and powerful than the traditional view recognizes.

Nearly all resistance to the overreach of education reform is based on the view that there is too much testing or too much time spent on test prep. Even the important and growing "Opt-Out" movement is only a response to the excesses of current policy, not a challenge to the underlying delusion.

There is a nearly perfect inverse correlation between the emphasis on metrics and the quality of learning in schools. More metrics mean less powerful learning. As reliance on this data (and the scores it measures) goes up, the real quality of learning experiences goes down.

Children are real, flesh and blood, funny, eccentric, imaginative, irreverent, loving and sensitive human beings, not data points for arcane studies of "outcomes."

Until and unless there is a revolution in how we think about educational "outcomes," our children will be increasingly deprived of the experiences that will allow them to become the beautiful, thoughtful, imaginative, ethical adults our world so desperately needs.