So Much More
Than Testing
By Raymond J. McNulty
H

ave you ever had the chance to watch a pendulum? After it swings in one direction, momentum swings it back nearly equally distant in the opposite direction. There is a balance of energy that creates a smooth, continuous motion. If you could ride the pendulum, you’d see all the points along the arc and see how they are strung together.

If you could ride the pendulum, you’d see all the points along the arc and see how they are strung together.

In education, we are constantly in motion, swinging from one side to the other across a field of expectations. But instead of the balance of energy keeping us in motion, we tend to get stuck, usually at one end of the arc or the other. Psychologist Carl Jung once said: “The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” I think the same could be said about education. I don’t think about what we do in education as being the right thing or the wrong thing, but sometimes I think we choose to do things that don’t always make the most sense for the learners who are in school today or for the world in which we live.

Take test scores, for example. Over the past several decades in education, in reaction to measuring student success, we’ve swung across the arc and became stuck on test scores as the way to measure school and student success. We sailed right past the all the other points on the arc and lost sight of what education is all about.

So, as I travel the county speaking to educators, I think about all the different elements that make up the student educational experience. Yet, when I pick up papers in the communities I visit, I see test scores being touted as the ultimate key for determining the success or failure of schools. People buy homes based on school test scores. Because of this zeal about test scores, it’s not difficult to understand how people from outside of education might easily believe that the work of education is merely to produce test scores.

It’s frustrating to hear so much of the conversation about education relying on this single dimension. Is that really what our work as educators is all about? When I think about all the work that is going on in schools, I try to think back to why I became a teacher in the first place. Did I become a teacher because I wanted my students to achieve state standards, to have high test scores? Yes, absolutely! Okay, not really. But somehow, this is where it seems the conversation about education has ended up. Somehow, we’ve lost sight of the work we truly need to do in education and that education should not confine its focus to what students can do in a classroom or on a test. Education is really about preparing young people to go out into the world, to take what they’ve learned and apply it to the things they do in their lives. You see, the aim of education is not to have our children do well in school, but to have them do well in the lives they lead outside school.

Child looking at a globe
There’s only one thing worse than requiring students to reduce all learning to a single “correct” answer, and that is reducing assessment and accountability to a single standardized test.

The notion of education playing this important dual role – information learning and life prep – is not new, but it is forever relevant. In 1929, American writer and historian James Truslow Adams observed: “There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.” The key is to strive to help students figure out how to apply the learning in school to the world outside school, and this has become even more of a challenge as every five years the top skills necessary for success have changed.

There’s only one thing worse than requiring students to reduce all learning to a single “correct” answer, and that is reducing assessment and accountability to a single standardized test. Assessment should be rich, diverse, and tied to continuous improvement and the development of each student becoming a learning adult. I often ask educators if they have learned anything since they left school, and I get a loud and immediate response, “Yes we’ve learned so much since leaving school!” So, I dig into their response a bit by asking, “What subject(s) or content have you learned most about?” That question leads nowhere as they explain that learning happens where life happens. Yes, that’s the pivotal point for all of us to understand, learning happens where life happens, and no one assessment can capture that moment. Learning is worthwhile when it encompasses every part of your life, (physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual) and it can’t be measured on one day, by one instrument.

For additional ideas on replacing standardized tests with a growth model, I invite you to listen to this Future of School podcast miniseries episode, hosted by Amy Valentine and featuring yours truly.

About the author

Ray McNulty is the President of the Successful Practices Network and the National Dropout Prevention Center. Be sure to reserve your spot and watch Ray at the 2021 National Literacy Summit this November.