It’s Time to Throw Out Standardized Tests

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

As a teacher, one of the things that drives me crazy about my job is the disconnect between what I teach and what my students need to be able to do in the real world. And I’m not the only one who understands this complaint. For years, teachers, school leaders and education activists have bemoaned the education system and called for sweeping changes that better align with the modern world. Yet textbooks remain the main curriculum guides and teachers mostly continue assessing finite information that comes from said textbooks.

This is because “accountability” and “standardization” are the reigning end-all-be-alls in education policy. This means that education relies on testing agencies to design and administer exams that show exactly whether students have mastered the prescriptive curriculum. The problem, however, is that this model worked well back in the industrial age, when memorizing information mattered, but now school should be preparing students for a whole new post-graduation reality.

“The only way you can invent tomorrow is if you break out of the enclosure that the school system has provided for you by the exams written by people who are trained in another generation.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

I graduated high school over a decade ago and nothing has really changed about the school experience for my students. Yet in that time there have been incredible changes in technology and the way the world works. And the rate of change is only accelerating, leaving schools farther and farther behind.

To demonstrate this fact, LinkedIn surveyed over 5,000 talent professionals in 35 countries around the globe and created a report about the future of work. The findings of the Global Trends 2019 report show that what matters for employers is no longer the specific information or qualifications that job seekers have, but rather their soft skills.

According to the report,

“While hard skills are about doing specific technical tasks, like tax accounting or graphic design, soft skills are more about the way you do them, like your ability to creatively solve problems or work within a team. As automation and AI continue to reshape entire industries, companies, and jobs, strong soft skills — the one thing that machines can’t replace — are becoming absolutely vital.”

Yet high school still places so much emphasis on memorizing information and specific processes. We also continue to silo information into disparate subjects, as if in the real world history exists separate of science or language or math. In keeping with these antiquated practices, we’re doing students a major disservice, because they miss out on opportunities to make real-world connections and address real-world issues.

“Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” — Edward M. Forster

Now, I’m not advocating for complete elimination of learning discrete facts, but I am saying that there is room to improve on the system by changing the focus on education and measuring what matters to be successful in the real world.

So what should we be teaching and assessing instead?

1. Critical thinking and problem-solving

Instead of memorization, the new standard of learning should be whether students can rationalize and synthesize information across disciplines to solve problems they have never before encountered. This is what adults do in their jobs every day, yet the school system keeps teaching students that there is one “right” answer and when students struggle to find it, they get upset and give up. Education has to foster resilience in students by teaching them how to analyze a problem and create new solutions.

2. Communication

In a world more connected than ever, students lack the basic skills to communicate across different platforms to a wide diversity of audiences. The new norm is understanding how to use social media versus instant messaging versus email. It also means learning how to work through disagreements face-to-face and how to communicate across different cultures and languages. In order to be successful in the future, students need to learn how to effectively convey what they know.

3. Collaboration

In the modern workplace, people have to solve problems together. They have to utilize their strengths to help and support their colleagues. Schools mostly use collaboration only when it comes to end-of-unit projects, but collaboration should be part of the learning process. Learning is about co-creating knowledge and sharing experiences, just as employees do when designing new products and services. Students must learn to work with adults, peers, other students across grade levels, as well as community members.

4. Creativity and risk-taking

By focusing on discrete information, schools kill the creative genius of students. Students start believing that creativity only occurs in the arts classes — theater, music, or art — which simply is not true. There is creativity in computer science as much as there is in ceramics. But schools stifle new ideas and innovation by reducing knowledge to a common standard and grading students accordingly. Schools should instead move away from these types of limiting grades and emphasize overall development and growth.

“Creativity is as important as literacy” ― Ken Robinson

5. Overcoming Failure

Building the soft skill of resilience is huge for education. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard students anger when trying to solve a complex problem, quickly followed up with “What’s the answer?”, expecting me to just give it to them. Education is failing students by teaching them to believe that there is one answer, one way of doing things, and that if they struggle to find it then they must just be “bad” at that subject. Instead, we should be fostering a growth mindset and the ability to not only overcome complex challenges, but also enjoy the struggle along the way.

While there is no simple fix to the problems that face the education system, there is a clear need to change the focus of the end result. Education is not about a standardized test score, it’s about teaching students the skills they need to be lifelong learners, capable of adapting to the unknown changes of the future.

“Our job is obvious: we need to get out of the way, shine a light, and empower a new generation to teach itself and to go further and faster than any generation ever has.” — Seth Godin

Stories of a former high school teacher, now business consultant. Husband. Travel fanatic. Obsessed coffee drinker. And all-around nerd.

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