All year long, important data are published in the United States. Spring is the season for state education report cards. Last fall, it was the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term-trends assessment. Next up is the biannual math and reading results from “the nation’s report card.” When it’s released, you should completely ignore it.
Better yet, my honest advice is to ignore all these assessments and then do away with them. It’s not only that I think they aren’t necessary—you actually do not and should not want the results.
That’s my view based on more than 30 years in education leadership as an education entrepreneur, school leader, and author. I’ve visited, advised, studied, written about, worked with, and supported other education leaders as well as district and school leaders, teachers, and other stakeholders on all but one continent (and I am just waiting for an invitation to Antarctica).
Why do I think you should ignore the forthcoming NAEP scores? Because we—all of us in education—measure the wrong things and we measure them too often.
Considering the investments we make in education, in getting teaching and learning right, it’s an understandable desire to want to know how our students are doing. It’s natural that we want to spot the things that are working and fix the things that are not and do all of it as soon as possible. I get it. But it is a temptation we would do better to avoid.
For one, measuring educational progress—especially with tests—provides information only on how well those students performed on that test on the exact day it was given. It’s like trying to measure the progress of a basketball game by measuring how far one player moves in three steps. It tells us nearly nothing about what’s actually happening or what is likely to happen. If we were trying to “fix” or “improve” the rules of the game by doing that, we’d make a bad decision nearly every time.
In other words, when we judge an entire education system based on the results of a test, any test, we design solutions aimed at doing better on that test.
That is especially true now, with education systems across the globe still in or trying to recover from the massive disruption of COVID–19. Testing now, measuring now, under these circumstances, is even more unnecessary. And the idea of using those results to find “improvements” in education? Well, that’s shortsighted and risks far more than it solves.
Also, consider that solutions to problems in education usually take years to show results. Policymakers need to draft and approve new legislation, curriculum writers need to make changes, teachers need training in new teaching methods, and, finally, students need to absorb those changes. That means that whatever tinkering we may think makes sense based on a given test result won’t have any actual impact until the students and teaching methods we measured are long gone. We will, in effect, plant specific seeds in a specific garden that no longer exists.
I’m not saying we should not assess education, just that these types of summative, quantitative tests and results don’t tell us much. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, for example, which every participating nation takes as the end-all scoring and comparative ranking of its entire education system, is really nothing more than an occasional test of 15-year-olds. Interesting, maybe. Informative, not as much.
Moreover, if we shape what we really think is a high-performing school system to include for students their well-being, rich experiences, breadth of education, and skill building, many nations on the PISA scale would be well down the league tables. Even if they measure well-being, which some of the tests propose to do now, it’s still just a snapshot assessment that will be absent any context or longitudinal insight.
But the best reason to ignore national (or international) measurements of education attainment—the ubiquitous scorecards—is that education does not happen in a day, let alone on test day. Education, true learning, takes years, decades, a full lifetime to assess.
Honestly, and I cannot underscore this enough, we cannot possibly know whether the education we provided in 5th grade was “good” until those 5th graders are 20 or even 30 years old. What careers do they have? Are they happy? Are they good citizens and conscientious neighbors?
If we really want to measure educational success, decide what kind of adults we want. Then, measure that.
If we really want to measure educational success, decide what kind of adults we want. Then, measure that. However, this takes time and patience—two things parents and politicians seldom indulge. Parents and politicians alike want fast fixes for obvious reasons, impulses that are only exacerbated by random scorecards of progress.
My advice from my work in England, a smidge outside the daily pressures of the American education system, is to do more of what places like Finland and Singapore do. Both countries do tend to fare well on the various scores and report cards, including PISA. But they do so because they focus on trusting teachers. They invest in teachers’ skills and listen to their advice. They allow teachers to look inward and follow their own course. In fact, if we really want a report card on how a school is doing, ask teachers for one. Giving report cards is literally their job.
But unfortunately, and to the detriment of every education system that does it, we test. And then we usually and inexplicably use the test results as a proxy to measure the students, teachers, and schools. After which, an army of pundits, politicians, and other noneducators rush in to tell teachers how to teach. It’s chaotic and unhelpful.
Seriously, when the latest NAEP results come out this fall, and everyone tries to tell us what it means and how we should next fix schools—ignore their advice and ignore them. Chances are that testing advocates, however well meaning, are looking at the wrong things in the wrong way and will inevitably offer solutions to the wrong problems. After my more than 30 years in education, I see this as a debilitating cycle that’s easy to spot. It starts every time a new national or international testing report rolls out.
The bottom line is that we can test schools to death, rushing the patient into surgery every time we get new information. And if it’s not possible to stop the testing, which it usually isn’t, we can at least take a breath and a step or two back. The NAEP results are coming. We’d all be much further ahead if we paid little or no attention to them whatsoever and simply let schools and teachers do what they do best: educate students.