No Testing?

Texas school districts are protesting high-stakes testing. Florida's Governor, Rick Scott, thinks perhaps the state's students are tested "too much." A national resolution is circulating to protest high-stakes testing. I hope we are beginning to turn a corner. I hope people are finally speaking up to say that maybe those "fill in the circle with my number 2 pencil" bubble-test memorization exercises are not a full test of intellectual capacity. If that's the case, then perhaps we are entering a time when we can talk about a balanced education policy that looks past a standards movement or a testing regime. Perhaps we can develop a balanced, interdisciplinary educational experience that challenges students to become fully functioning citizens.

The real world is an interdisciplinary place. Its citizens are called upon to solve substantial and complex problems. The information essential to solving those challenges is interwoven, confusing, and contradictory. It requires citizens to investigate and seek to understand various options and points of view. It requires citizens to be articulate with each other and be persuasive about their positions. It requires citizens to think critically about the information and formulate their own educated opinions. These skills are essential. It does not make any difference if you run a small business, teach at a school, make complex financial investments, design, manufacture, or create policy. The real world demands that we work collaboratively to build a common future.

Standardized testing does not teach or test any of this. It does not prepare our children for the real world. The regurgitation of facts is not a measure of our education system. It is not a measure of our educational standards. It is not a measure of successful education policy. It is not a full measure of a successful school. It is not a full measure of teacher performance.

That's disappointing to some, I know. I understand people who want, who need, who believe that there are objective measures in education with the clarity of a digitally-timed Michael Phelps 100-meter butterfly win. Nor do I advocate that we rid education of all testing -- but we must understand that standardized multiple-choice testing does not reflect the complexity of our nation or the world.

Real life cannot be simplified into bubbled-in answers on a test. A business can make a profit, but still fail. A building can stand up, but never meet the needs of the people who use it. We can teach our children a lot of content and fail to provide the critical thinking skills and tools that will make them successful citizens in a complex world. We need to educate our children in an atmosphere that values STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the humanities and the arts. We need to create an educational environment that encourages students to work cooperatively, because in the real world, problems are not solved by individuals. Problems are solved by teams and coalitions. We need to create an educational environment that encourages critical thinking, problem solving, and innovation.

For most of our history Americans have understood complexity. The founding generation certainly did. They employed history, philosophy, empirical evidence, and rhetoric. They took complex philosophical notions -- Enlightenment ideals -- about the nature of man, government, and natural rights, and innovated practical solutions. They did not get it right the first time. When the Articles of Confederation proved insufficient, they innovated again and collaborated to create new solutions -- a Constitution. And having convinced themselves during ratification that the Constitution was inadequate, the first Congress immediately set about drafting amendments -- a Bill of Rights. These were innovative solutions for complex problems: innovative solutions that changed the world.

Over and over again Americans have been the innovators in government, science, technology, business, social issues, and even in education. We can do it again. We can create an education system that encourages critical thinking and invention, values interdisciplinary work, understands that quality STEM education requires the integration of the humanities and the arts, and builds in our students the intellectual capacity to be engaged citizens in a complex world. American education must create the capacity to lead the world with the Enlightenment principles first articulated by our founding generation. It is our responsibility.