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Standardized Tests: Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?

Recently I wrote about one of the key issues in the recent Bellevue teacher strike: the mandated scripted curriculum. But this is a complex issue and I think there’s a larger point to be made about this: the connection between the standardized curriculum and standardized testing.

To be clear about this, Bellevue teachers didn’t strike against standardized tests. But standardized curricula are being implemented to improve standardized test scores. And what is being sacrificed in order to improve scores? Standardized tests emphasize recall at the expense of critical thinking. Automatic recall of basic facts is important because it frees up the mind to think. But recall isn’t the same as thinking, or putting those facts to use in real-world problem solving.

According to Marion Brady, a widely respected educator, this increased focus on tests means ignoring higher-order thinking skills because “nobody has yet invented a test-scoring computer program that can evaluate the quality of complex thought processes and spit out meaningful numbers…The more sophisticated the thought process, the less it lends itself to meaningful mechanical or electronic evaluation.”*

Prioritizing Educational Standards and Practices for Kids

Unlike a number of people at DreamBox, I’m not an educator. Rather, I draw on my experiences sitting down with my son after dinner for family study time. He would drag himself through the memorization homework and would light up with ideas for any hands-on creative or collaborative project. While I wanted to instill the discipline of studying, I hated having to pull him away from the progressive story or research project he and his buddies were developing when it was time to do some rote exercise.

Personally, I’m a wholehearted believer in reordering our priorities and making education one of our most important investments as a society. As difficult and subjective as it is to measure, I think we need a system that goes beyond standardized tests to truly recognize what great teaching can do. Excellence must be defined, outstanding teachers should be held accountable and rewarded (yes, monetarily) for improved student outcomes, but machine scoring shouldn’t be the only measure of success.

Tail Wagging the Dog

*Educational Leadership, Cover the Material—Or Teach Students to Think?”, Marion Brady, February 2008, Volume 65, Number 5, Pages 64-67

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