Editor’s Note: Education Week Commentary editors asked seven education practitioners and leaders to respond to the White House’s “Testing Action Plan” and a coinciding Council of the Great City Schools study on mandatory testing. Read what each contributor had to say.
The government’s new plan is a long-overdue correction conceding the damage overtesting can do to a student’s love of learning.
While Hampshire College has always been skeptical of standardized testing—we opened as test-optional in 1970—in 2014, our skepticism was validated when our institutional research team led a study to identify the attributes of students most likely to succeed here. We asked faculty members: Who are our best third- and fourth-year students? We interviewed those students then looked at their admissions files from three or four years earlier.
We didn’t intend to look at the SAT or ACT in particular, but it quickly became obvious: There was no correlation between high SAT or ACT scores and success at Hampshire. The test scores were poor predictors of success.
Since our decision in 2014 to stop accepting test scores in admissions, we have heard from families and educators nationwide about the unintended consequences of testing. High-stakes testing has become overwhelming, a source of intense anxiety for countless students. The tests have become a major distraction for teachers and students, who have no time or incentive to innovate when they’re being evaluated against test scores.
Our college was founded by leaders of our four sister colleges here in Amherst, Mass., to “rethink” education by challenging the lecture-test-grade model and giving students far more independence than at traditional colleges. Hampshire does not “test” or grade our students. We reject standardization, grades, lectures, and textbooks. Instead, we emphasize what the student brings to their learning experience. Our college’s goals include training students to educate themselves and developing in them the capacity to continue to lead their own education throughout their lives. We leverage each student’s curiosity as a fuel for motivation.
Once we decided to get rid of the SAT and ACT, U.S. News & World Report disqualified us from their “Best Colleges” rankings, which was surprisingly liberating for us. There was no longer an incentive for us to do the things that other colleges feel they must do to drive rankings.
At Hampshire, we believe education should be about actively engaging and fostering each student’s curiosity, inquiry, and joy of learning, including some intellectual risk-taking. Education should be exciting, and transformational. Education should enable unlimited growth and exploration.
The best schools at any grade level enable a student’s interests and curiosity to influence the design of a curriculum that can be adapted as they delve more deeply into their studies. Under teacher advisement, students learn as a natural consequence of exploring. Students master methods of learning through active participation, as the student drives their own learning.
To that end, Hampshire has chosen authentic assessment in the form of project-based learning and narrative evaluations of a student’s performance, instead of traditional letter grades. Professors give students detailed, narrative feedback for every course, which students use to identify strengths and areas for growth.
If our schools are to prepare students for a fast-changing world, we need to promote and encourage innovation, adaptability, and problem-solving. We should be teaching them how to learn in the most adaptive, innovative ways.
Meredith Twombly is the dean of enrollment and retention of Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass.
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