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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Happiness Is a Post-Standardized-Test World

By Guest Blogger — May 19, 2015 6 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA), president of the National Education Association.

I always find it ironic if not a little silly when someone (especially someone who’s never taught actual children) suggests that the answer to every question regarding improving American education is to offer prizes or punishments based on standardized test scores. The rationale behind such misguided “motivators” is often a panicked “Our kids aren’t prepared for their global competition!” Put aside for a moment the fact that this statement may or may not be true; the premise is that (1) prizes and punishments will produce higher test scores, (2) higher test scores will prepare U.S. students to compete globally, and (3) high test scores are the purpose of education.

My point is that these dots do not connect. Yes, indeed, we have global economic competition. Most of the world’s creative thought-work can be done regardless of borders. Writers. Researchers. Architects. Engineers. Designers. It’s not just cheap labor from a foreign factory taking U.S. jobs. More and more folks live in a world where their work can be outsourced, and they want something to offer that global employer. But I would quickly add that the goal of a good education isn’t solely to give our students a better chance for a good job (although I certainly have no problem with them getting good jobs). The goal of good education is to give them a better chance at a good life.

This begs the question: do good scores mean a good life? Asians now occupy the top five slots in PISA math and reading rankings. But Google “Singapore” and “stress.” There are 16 million hits. The New York Times reports that Singapore will stop releasing the names of top-performing students who are often bombarded by offers from companies to endorse commercial products that they claim will boost scores (like chicken soup—I am not making this up) so that panicked parents will rush out and buy them. In Hong Kong, parents begin the fierce competition to get their children into elite high schools by making sure they get the right test scores in elite kindergartens. Parents are obviously stressed. But there’s a price to be paid by their children for this stress. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University reports that one-third of their students have tried to hurt themselves with almost 14% having experienced suicidal thoughts.

Canada has also consistently scored well in international rankings. But it’s worth noting that it didn’t do it through obsessive test drills, pay-by-test-scores, or a culture of parents distraught over their child’s kindergarten report card. It did it with a systems approach to the whole child, including fostering safe and accepting schools; physical activity and nutrition; and a program of “open minds, healthy minds” making mental health an education issue. Our Canadian friends know that school climate impacts academic results, but it also impacts that child’s resilience when things don’t go well; it impacts how that child interacts with others when he’s angry or disappointed; it impacts all the things that it takes to be a successful member of society. Canadian children are given grade-span tests in elementary, middle, and high school, but not for high stakes. “Standardized tests are only a small portion of the Canadian student’s educational experience and are used with other sources of information to guide how we can further help our students,” says Dawn Imada Chan, a teacher and education consultant from Toronto.

And finally, there’s Finland. Save me your “Finland isn’t anything like the U.S.” argument. Here’s the thing: Finland wasn’t always where it is now. Thirty years ago, it decided on a plan. It worked the plan. And the plan had nothing to do with test scores or merit pay or privatized public schools or fast-track teachers. Its secret sauce has three ingredients: (1) Equitable, adequate resources in every school so that every public school is as good as their best public schools, (2) Highly trained and trusted career professionals, and (3) Authority for those trusted professionals to use their professional judgment to collaborate and make instructional decisions best suited for their students.

But for me, the important part of the Finnish plan is the purpose of the plan, the purpose of education: building a good society. We talk a good game about public schools being vital to our democracy or to ethical citizens, but the talk doesn’t wash with the “rank, punish, reward” standardized testing cult. I’ve never heard anyone try to argue that higher test scores are essential to a better community. The argument is almost always an economic one. And we know how to build a billionaire. On the Forbes list of countries by billionaires, U.S. is #1 with 536. Canada is #10 with 39. Finland doesn’t make the list.

Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg holds his head high because getting rich isn’t the purpose of Finnish education. He says, “Becoming a member of any community means that an individual needs to have adequate interpersonal skills, understanding of different cultures and good understanding of moral responsibilities in life. It’s character and mind that matter in competitive labor markets today, not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Researchers Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves explain, “The Finns build their future by wedding education to economic development, without sacrificing culture and creativity. They promote a broad and enriching curriculum, rather than obsessing only about literacy and math; they raise standards by lifting the many, rather than pushing a privileged few. And they morally inspire, rather than financially incentivize, a high-status profession.”

I spoke with a Finnish teacher in January during a tour of her school. I had a million questions. She had only one for me. “What do they think all that testing in your country will get you if the students grow up and they aren’t happy with their lives?”

Our global competition does not come in a standardized form. Test scores do tell us something. That Hong Kong scores well and its students are suicidal tells us something else. That Canada scores well and supports mental health services in schools tells us something else. That Finland scores well and teachers are given broad decision-making authority to design and deliver instruction with nary a prize nor a punishment—nor a standardized test, for that matter—in sight tells us something else again.

I don’t mind looking at rankings from time to time—when they tell us something. In the 2010 rankings by the Gallup World Poll and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finland was found to be the second happiest place on Earth. I’m not making this up. They say it’s their high literacy rate, access to health care, low levels of corruption, little income inequality and healthy work-life balance. In a post-standardized-test world, which I hope we are moving toward with all due and happy speed, maybe this is the ranking worthy of our obsession.

--Lily Eskelsen García

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.