Education Opinion

Performance Is Not Necessarily Learning

By Walt Gardner — August 23, 2010 2 min read
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Leave it to the British to teach Americans about their common language. A report by the Institute of Education on more than 100 international studies found that obsessing on performance on standardized tests is counterproductive to learning about the subjects evaluated by these tests (“Pupils do better at school if teachers are not fixated on test results,” The Guardian, Aug. 13).

Semantics comes into the picture because reformers use the words “performance” and “learning” interchangeably. But as teachers have repeatedly maintained, they are not necessarily the same. Students can score high (perform) but internalize little (learn). In my opinion, the result does not qualify as a quality education. Albert Einstein said it best: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Nevertheless, when teachers point to this explanation, they are seen as making excuses. But the Institute of Education’s recent study lends support to teachers. It found that when instruction focused on learning, as opposed to performance, students not only scored better on tests, but they became more analytical and better behaved. I’d venture to say that they also enjoyed their classes more because they became more engaged. These affective outcomes are important to emphasize if the goal is to develop lifelong learners.

Instead, high-stakes tests are portrayed as the sine qua non. Not surprisingly, intellectual life is sucked out of classrooms when they are converted into test preparation factories. What is left is little more than fragmentary knowledge that quickly evaporates. Test scores will almost always improve by the adoption of this strategy, but at what price? How are students and the country served?

The usual reply to this question is that students will have shown evidence of learning at least something. Isn’t this better than the present system that allows students to graduate without reaching any reasonable level of proficiency? But this retort overlooks the need for enrichment, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These students are precisely those most in need of stimulation. As the British study explained, teachers are under such pressure to boost test scores that they talk at their students, rather than talk to them. Drill has its place in the classroom, but when it constitutes the overwhelming pedagogy it is hardly the way to nurture a love of learning.

The reductio ad absurdum of this strategy is the use of scripted lessons by districts desperate to avoid sanctions. In this scenario, teachers are reduced to talking robots. It’s little wonder that their students become bored and disruptive. And matters are only going to get worse as pressure mounts to provide evidence of learning. All it will do, however, is to provide evidence of performance.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.