Monday, June 08, 2009

Prof. Yong Zhao Has it Right About Education: Mistake Obsessing About Test Scores

Michigan State professor of education Yong Zhao has been speaking at a number of conferences about education, education reforms, achievement gaps, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), technology in education, and so on, and I could not agree more with one of the main points he consistently stresses: "The point of education is NOT to produce high test scores." He makes what is, in my opinion, a key observation about our national obsession of comparing American students scores in math and science with those students in other countries. When such comparisons are made, typically the U.S. is in the bottom half of the countries that take the test. He asks the question, "Does such an achievement gap, while real, really matter, except for national pride?" He, like I have for a number of years, argues this 'gap' is not so important. What's more important is summed up nicely in an article he wrote for Phi Delta Kappa's journal Edge:

"Instead,we are becoming obsessed with test scores
in a limited number of subjects, which in essence is
the adoption of a single criterion for judging the success
of students, teachers, and schools. Once we
adopt this single criterion, and we are well on our
way, we will kill the most important and soughtafter
commodity in the 21st century — creativity."

I firmly believe there are some key reasons as to why the U.S. is the only superpower in the world, and included in this set of reasons is our often publicly pummeled and criticized public education system. We have been, until recently (i.e. up until the NCLB era), using a system where children do not have to take tracking tests at young ages (such as around the 5th grade) that will determine their academic and professional lives, and where students can take electives in all subject areas, where the student determines what he or she is good at and enjoys, and then has the ability to go to college or a trade school or into the work force and pursue their self-selected area of concentration. Creativity is encouraged, children are taught to take risks on occasion, and there are normally support systems in place to allow individuals to learn from mistakes and still have chances to move on. There has been a lack of 'high stakes tests' that determine a person's future, with only SAT and/or ACT exams approaching this level of testing. For those who go to college, there are hundreds of majors, all of which are available to pursue if one wants to, and there are more opportunities to get practical experience in one's chosen field as well as to get involved as undergraduates in research, internships, study abroad, and so on. Variety, exposure to multiple points of view, discovery of interrelationships between disciplines, and opportunities and rewards for creative solutions to problems are all part of the educational process. But limiting subjects of study and putting in single-assessment structures dampen, if not eliminate, all that is good and different within our education system. The U.S. has dominated in innovation, technology, science and economic development for the last six or seven decades because of what and how our children learn in school.

I have argued this, too, in the past, ranging from the reality of 'late bloomers,' the need to avoid becoming an exam meritocracy, and even how other countries are rethinking their test-focused education systems to add features of the U.S. education system. I anxiously await how the Obama administration will modify NCLB, particularly with how education is assessed. Will we stay with limited, snapshot tests that further restrict other curricula and limits creativity, or will the focus be on student growth (which can be measured) and ability to continue to not only emphasize math and reading, but also the arts, social studies, science, business and languages, so children can see a variety of disciplines that all affect our society and allow for interactions that encourage collaboration and innovation? I suspect there will be a change towards the latter, which I feel is absolutely the right thing to do for individual students learning as well as for the continued advancement of our country.

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