Opinion
Federal Commentary

Know What the Real Goals Are

By Arnold Packer — November 06, 2007 6 min read

Current proposals to “fix” the No Child Left Behind Act demonstrate the pitfalls of moving from broad and complex goals—“American prosperity, security, and civility” were the targets in 1983’s A Nation at Risk report—to simple objectives like “adequate yearly progress” of students passing standardized tests.

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The broad goals reflect concern over the ability of students to perform adult roles when they grow up: to be productive workers and engaged and knowledgeable citizens. The tests, meanwhile, are designed to gauge knowledge of academic subjects. They make no claim of predictive validity regarding students’ future performance or their ability to apply (or even remember) what they have learned after graduation.

Different goals—accountability and equity—led Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and President Bush to join forces on the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. Conservatives like Mr. Bush want accountability for public funds spent on education, and liberals like Sen. Kennedy want to be sure that the disadvantaged get their fair share of those funds. Conservatives recognize the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” while liberals note that the best teachers and facilities are often found in more affluent neighborhoods. Today, liberals again join conservatives in decrying actions that would “water down” the sanctions in the current law. Again, the larger goals are ignored.

The link between standardized tests and adult performance was tenuous 25 years ago, and is becoming considerably weaker as the knowledge economy becomes global. A number of individuals, groups, and commissions have investigated what productive workers need to know and be able to do. Anthony Carnevale, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, the U.S. Department of Labor’s SCANS commission, the National Center on Adult Literacy, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are but a few.

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All the reports on this issue arrive at similar conclusions and, interestingly, do so irrespective of whether their target is basic literacy, entry-level workers, technicians, scientists, or executives. Critical thinking, oral communication, using technology, and working in teams are the common skills sought; responsibility, the work ethic, and integrity are the common behaviors employers value.

If performance skills are not tested, they will not be taught. The challenge is summed up for me in a memorable conversation I had with the head of testing for the education system of a large Northeastern state. He agreed that being able to make a public presentation was likely to be a more important skill for adults than knowing how to factor a polynomial. “But,” he added, “I know how to test the ability to factor a polynomial.” He could not, on the other hand, design or buy a standardized test to evaluate students’ public speaking, critical thinking, or any of the other performance skills that would go into their making a public presentation—the very kinds of skills that have become essential in the 21st-century job market. Policymakers are also unwilling to trust teachers’ evaluations of these skills, because they fear these may reflect favoritism or prejudice. Statistically, teacher-based assessments are thought to be unreliable.

Nor do education’s policymakers trust colleges and employers to make these determinations. Rather than simply present grades and let colleges and employers judge who is qualified for higher education and employment, school systems want to refuse diplomas to those who cannot pass standardized tests. Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland aptly summarizes the dilemma this approach presents: “You don’t want to create a workforce where a number of young people are unemployable because they haven’t mastered basic high school skills, and at the same time, you don’t want to make a number of kids unemployable because they haven’t been able to get a high school diploma.”

The No Child Left Behind law, in its current form, has other adverse side effects. Too many students, bored by preparing for state-mandated standardized tests, turn off and drop out. Some of the best teachers, disillusioned when they find that making adequate yearly progress has become their schools’ primary purpose, leave the classroom. Responding to these weaknesses in the law without denying accountability for the academic progress of all students is the challenge we face.

An improved No Child Left Behind Act should help the nation become a learning society. It should be based on the following:

• Education’s goal is ensuring that “no child is left behind” in learning what is needed to achieve a rewarding adult life.

• Different children have different interests and talents.

• Learning increases, students stay in school, and teachers remain in the classroom when education is exciting and relevant.

• A good education prepares students for productive work, engaged citizenship, and satisfying relationships with people and ideas.

With the emphasis on adult performance, looking at how learning occurs in the arts and in sports—“performance” activities—may be useful. Those who teach would-be performers emphasize excellence—something that, sooner or later, a broader audience will evaluate. Coaches recognize differences in students’ interests and talents and play to strengths, rather than concentrating only on deficiencies. Aspiring dancers need not pass painting classes, and pitchers need not play the outfield. Students do not aim to get a passing grade but to do the best they can. Few basketball players ask to be taken out of the game once they make their 20 points; few actors want the smallest possible role.

The link between standardized tests and adult performance was tenuous 25 years ago, and is becoming considerably weaker as the knowledge economy becomes global.

This analogy can be applied to core academic courses, but only in the context of a system for tracking and assessing the performance of at least a representative sample of students, to see whether graduates of every high school are able to demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed to perform well enough on the job to climb a career ladder and earn a decent wage.

But school is about more than making a living. Surveys of graduates’ reading habits and entertainment choices may be better indicators than test scores of whether a school has fostered admirable habits of mind. Engaged citizens read a newspaper, in print or electronically; they vote and serve in civil society. “The result of a school is a student who has learned something and puts it to work 10 years later,” wrote the management wizard Peter Drucker many years ago.

We cannot, of course, delay the task of assessment and evaluation for 10 years, just as coaches cannot wait until the moment of performance to tell their protégés what they are doing wrong. But in classrooms across the country, teachers have been assessing critical thinking and performance skills for years, usually as a part of project-based learning. These assessments have not been done systematically, however, or become part of graduation requirements.

Recently, though, several states have adopted so-called 21st-century-skills requirements. After 2011, for example, students in North Carolina will have to demonstrate research skills, make an oral presentation, and work well in teams before graduating from high school. This fall, the college of education at Western Carolina University, where I am currently affiliated, began teaching these performance skills to education students preparing to teach in middle schools. Workshops to enlist employers in the assessment process have been held, and, starting next fall, pre-education student-interns should begin working with middle school students on projects that address problems that hold meaning for themselves and their communities.

None of these things can be done easily. All students must be taught to read, write, and compute (although whether they need to learn quickly forgotten mathematical algorithms is questionable), and standardized tests do serve useful purposes. But legislation affecting the education of a nation is too serious to be confused about what the real goals are—namely, turning youthful potential into rewarding adult performance.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week

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