Looking Beyond Stardardized Testing

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Our AIMS results are in and although the specific results are embargoed from public dissemination until September, I can share with you that our PUSD students, overall, continue to both perform very well and demonstrate gains in achievement in reading, writing and mathematics. That's a very good thing and I commend all of our hard-working teachers, administrators, staff and students. Our teachers approved building in AIMS achievement gains into our State Performance Pay plans, and recently received payments for meeting plan goals. I congratulate them on a job well done.

There is an ominous side to the AIMS however; not related to our students' achievement or teacher performance, but the overwhelming emphasis at the state and federal levels on this type of standardized testing. Research is indicating that unless we change the way we think about learning and testing, it won't matter how well our students perform on the AIMS and most other standardized assessments. This singular approach to teaching and assessment threatens to be part of the problem of American education, rather than the solution.

The unfortunate reality is that the United States is falling far behind other nations on every measure of educational achievement. In the latest international assessments, the United States ranked 28th out of 40 countries in math -- 20th in science, and 19th in reading. Unfortunately, that's further behind than a few years ago.

In addition, these other countries surpass us in graduation rates and, over the last decade, in higher education participation as well.* Among the highest-achieving countries, including Finland, Japan, Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and India, standardized tests of some form are administered. There are major distinctions however, between their tests and ours. The Stanford Institute for Educational Leadership notes that these countries have in common a curriculum focused on critical thinking, problem solving and examinations that require students to solve complex, real-world problems and defend their ideas orally and in writing. They have realized and heartily embraced the concept that a healthy and growing economy is based on a well-educated work force capable of creative problem solving and innovation. Yet, our teachers, try as they do to foster high order thinking skills, are under significant and sustained pressure to produce higher test scores based on students' ability to select the best answers on a single multiple choice test: AIMS ( The fortunate exception is the writing test).

In these other countries, their assessments use mostly open-ended and essay questions with local assessments given by teachers. These assessments include research projects, science investigations, mathematical models and real-world application of concepts. By contrast, our multiple-choice tests -- which typically focus the curriculum on low-level skills such as recollection, procedures and comprehension -- are helping us to fall further and further behind. Studies confirm that as teaching mirrors testing, U.S. students are doing less writing, less science, less history and reading fewer books. Is this the course we should remain on?

We need the legislative support and resources to direct and support an approach to teach and evaluate the higher-order thinking and performance skills that leading nations emphasize in their systems, and this requires major changes in the federal legislation: No Child Left Behind. Our teachers have the skill sets and desire to provide quality teaching that matches mastery of skills with the ability to apply them using critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Noted business adviser and writer Daniel Pink, in his book "A Whole New Mind" asserts, "The scales are tipping away from what it used to take for people to get ahead -- logical, linear, left-brain and spreadsheet-type abilities -- in favor of abilities like artistry, empathy and big-picture thinking, which are becoming more valuable. Left-brain skills are still absolutely necessary in our complex world. They're just not sufficient anymore."

Whatever political party is victorious in November, I believe we, as a country, need to insist that quality, comprehensive education moves from the periphery of our nation's priorities to front and center. For other nations competing in the international marketplace, education inclusive of developing higher order thinking skills has become a priority and our children's satisfactory scores on a multiple choice exam may be largely irrelevant in the world they will have to compete in.

What about Payson? What are we doing to address these challenges and prepare our students for a world that will demand the type of skills and abilities that transcend the linear skills required to pass the AIMS test? I'll address this in my next column.

  • Source: Dr. Linda Hammond, Stanford Educational Leadership Institute

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