By Brad Choyt for the Valley News (Published in print: Tuesday, June 20, 2017)
We live in a culture that likes to evaluate and quantify how we’re doing. From an early age, we test students relative to their classmates and issue them grades. Governments commission agencies to create national exams that compute a particular slice of achievement so that results can be compared between districts and among schools across the country. And we have students sit through lengthy standardized tests such as the SAT that compare students’ abilities from around the world. These exams provide certain information that is used in a variety of contexts, including the all-important admission to college. But we know even the best designed tests don’t paint a complete picture of a student’s knowledge or potential. All have inherent cultural and social-economic biases that are influenced by one’s familiarity with certain academic contexts. And the opportunity to practice the unique format of questions as well as one’s comfort level with the testing environment also influences results.
Given the weight we place on test results and their long-range impact, we need to ask an essential question: To what extent do these tests predict future success? At best, they reveal a degree of mastery in certain subjects. Certain results correlate to how students perform in their careers or their potential to lead productive lives. At worst, they offer a limited view on what students know and skew expectations for the kind of careers and quality of life they will have long after they fill in the last bubble with a number-2 pencil.
While satisfying our desire to quantify what students know through testing, we need to think critically about the knowledge and skills being evaluated. If we want to have a test that predicts how well students will think in high-level courses and perform in their careers, why not give equal weight to a variety of potential indicators that are needed in the 21st century? Let’s design questions that reveal an ability to think creatively and work collaboratively. Let’s develop a test that evaluates emotional intelligence, empathy and the ability to serve others. Can questions be designed to quantify how well students can synthesize large amounts of information to form an original hypothesis? How about an appreciation of aesthetics and awareness of artistic meaning? For that matter, could we begin to evaluate wisdom and self-actualization?
Educators are not blind to developing these skills. For example, many schools offer opportunities to become involved in community service. In some of best scenarios, these programs are integrated into the academic curriculum. Students may be given the chance to communicate directly with individuals struggling in the aftermath of a natural disaster or those attempting to break a cycle of poverty. And if these initiatives are guided well by peers or teachers, they provide opportunities to solve complex problems collaboratively. They may also form life-long habits that foster positive social change and compassion.
Most of us would agree that providing these opportunities helps to form essential elements of character and that our society is a better place when there are channels for people to help others. But we don’t yet have ways to quantify how effective students are when learning these life lessons, let alone use these as evaluations for college admission or to demonstrate why one might be the best candidate for a job.
Our society needs tests with new sets of questions that evaluate more meaningful criteria. It is time to shift the focus from favoring the knowledge processors and instead reward the doers, thinkers, collaborators and synthesizers among us. Students should be understood, fostered, and appreciated as multi-faceted individuals who may help to shape the world in ways we can’t begin to predict or anticipate. We need to encourage them to think and act in positive ways by valuing and beginning to quantify the very qualities that will help them get there. This starts at the earliest ages with building and implementing curricula that focuses on these life lessons. It continues by providing hands-on learning experiences that may expand a traditional notion of a classroom. And at appropriate intervals, it includes tests, portfolios, presentations, exhibitions and other forms of making their work visible for evaluation so they may demonstrate the way they see the world. This knowledge and skill set doesn’t stop when the test is sent off and the results come back in the mail. If we are doing our job in schools, these tests are only the beginning of the development of a robust portrait of who students really are.
Brad Choyt is Head of School at Crossroads Academy in Lyme.