Education Opinion

Multiple Measures

By Ronald A. Wolk — October 12, 2004 4 min read

America’s obsession with standardized tests seems to intensify every year, especially now that the No Child Left Behind Act has raised the stakes by requiring that schools raise their test scores each year to avoid penalties and ultimately closure.

A longtime supporter of standards and accountability recently expressed his despair over the way standards-based reform has evolved: “I’m afraid we don’t have standards-based reform anymore, so much as we have test-based reform.”

Our almost total reliance on standardized-test scores as a measure of school and student performance has become a powerful obstacle to reform and innovation. Because the test questions are based on the conventional curriculum and are designed to assess the acquisition of information, they reinforce the status quo and put pressure on teachers to teach strictly to the test.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Small, innovative schools, such as the models being supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, concentrate on educating one student at a time by tailoring curricula and pedagogy to meet the needs and abilities of their students. Having to prepare their students to pass standardized tests compromises and stifles their innovative practices.

The foolish emphasis we put on testing is expensive, unnecessary, and probably harmful to millions of children.

Despite warnings from testing experts and educators that important decisions should not be based on a single measure, 24 states now require high school students to pass an exit exam to graduate or are planning to do so.

Standardized tests have too many deficiencies to be the determining factor in assessing student achievement, but their most egregious flaw is that they don’t address the qualities and values that most parents want their children to have—the skills and attitudes needed to continue learning on their own and to be good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings. Parents want their children to develop virtues and values that we can all agree on, like diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion—none of which are assessed by standardized tests.

When I suggested to a friend who has worked at both the state and district levels that policymakers and educators should develop an assessment system of multiple measures to evaluate students’ academic and personal achievement, he said it would be too complicated and subjective to be practical.

“The psychometricians would have a field day,” he scoffed. “What would you include in the multiple measures? How would you assure that the measures are valid?” At that moment, I had no answers. But as I pondered the matter, I became convinced that such a system is possible and, even with imperfections, would be superior to basing everything on test scores.

For the sake of argument, imagine an assessment system that requires 80 points out of a possible 135 to graduate. A student earning 100 to 115 points would graduate with honors, and those with more than 115 would receive high honors. Students could earn the points as follows:

• 40 points for passing the mandated state or district exit test.

• 0-20 points for the grade point average of all courses. An A average would earn 20 points; a B would earn 15; a C, 10; a D, 5.

• 0-25 points for personal work (such as exhibition in the arts and sciences), participation in class, and overall behavior. In written evaluations, two teachers would each rate the student on a scale of 0 to 25 points, and the student would be awarded the average.

• 10 points for having fewer than five unexcused absences.

• 0-25 points for participating and excelling in extracurricular activities. Students would receive 15 points for participating in two or more activities, and they could earn up to 5 additional points on the recommendation of the activity’s adviser or coach, and another 5 points for an award received in the activity, like an athletic letter or a writing prize.

• 0 to 15 points for volunteer work in the community. The number of points earned would be based on the recommendation of the adult supervising the activity.

Students could not earn enough points to graduate just by passing the mandated exit test; they must show enough achievement on other important measures to earn 40 additional points. And students who did not pass the exit test could still earn a diploma, but only if they excelled on all of the other measures and earned 80 of the remaining 95 points. If a student who failed the exit test earned the maximum for extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and attendance, he or she would still need to earn 30 points in either grades or teacher evaluations.

The foolish emphasis we put on testing is expensive, unnecessary, and probably harmful to millions of children.

These categories and point scales are offered as examples. A group of hardworking policymakers, educators, and parents could surely develop a better and more sophisticated assessment system of multiple measures.

Some of the evaluations are indeed subjective, but no more so than the evaluations students will face when they leave school and enter the real world. Few of us take standardized tests after we graduate. Instead, we are judged on what we produce and how we behave.

Teachers, advisers, and coaches evaluate students continuously, and their assessments should count for something in such an important decision as whether a student graduates or gets promoted.

The reason most often given for high stakes is to motivate students. That probably works for a portion of the students who are doing only as much as necessary to get by. For many others, high stakes probably encourage an early exit from school. Perhaps we could motivate both groups more effectively by awarding college scholarships to students who graduate with honors.