Thursday, February 21, 2013

Standardized Tests & Comparing Student Scores: Relics of 20th Century Ed Systems

“Developing better tests of student learning in the 21st century is as futile as attempting to find a faster horse and buggy would have been in the 20th century.” Douglas Reeves, “A Framework for Assessing 21st Century Skills”

After last night’s #ncadmin chat about “21st Century Teaching and Learning” I could not stop thinking about questions regarding 21st century skills and assessment.  One question continues to haunt me: "How can we devise an assessment for 21st century skills?" That question made me recall an essay I once read by Douglas Reeves entitled, “A Framework for Assessing 21st Century Skills.”

According to Reeves, It is “not possible to reconcile the demands of 21st century skills with the realities of the traditional testing environment.” The very conditions demanded by our current testing regimen is antithetical to the 21st century skills we want our students to have. As Reeves points out, our assessment practices lag behind “because they are bound by three destructive conditions: standardized conditions, secrecy of content, and individual results.”  These three testing conditions are destructive to our efforts to teach and assess 21st century skills because they were designed in a different era of education. To assess our students' 21st century skills we need an entirely different set of tools. I realize the new testing consortia are exploring "new generation assessments" but I fear they will not let go of those 20th century obsessions with student score comparisons and standardization that make current testing inadequate for assessing 21st century skills.

According to Reeves, there are three qualities of assessment that form a framework for any 21st century assessments we need.
  • We need assessment conditions that are variable rather than standardized. The whole idea behind the 20th century idea of standardization is having the ability to “compare students.” Policymakers and politicians, in their demands for accountability, consider the only way to have that accountability is by being able to compare students’ scores. So, in order to make those comparisons, students are herded into the same kind of room environment, given the same kind of pencils, the same scrap paper, the same bubble sheet, and the same amount of time to complete the test. Standardizing the test conditions take precedence over everything, even the needs of the kids. As Reeves points out, in these kinds of conditions “students are rewarded for memorization and following established rules,” not for being creative and being innovative. These standardized conditions worked well in 20th century assessments designed to sort and classify students, but 21st century assessments need to allow for the variability inherent in the messiness of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Students need to be able to demonstrate that they can solve problems, not in the “manufactured, controlled” environment of a standardized testing room. They need to be able to demonstrate they can solve problems not limited by the conditions standardized testing impose. Being able to draw a diagram, collaborate by speaking to experts, watching videos, read books, and access web databases are not possible in standardized testing conditions, but in the real world, those are the tools people use to solve problems. If we are going to assess students’ 21st century skills, we are going to have to give up the obsessions for comparison of student scores and standardized testing conditions to provide assessment conditions akin to the real-world environments that people use to solve problems.
  • We need assessment of students as teams rather than as individuals. Since collaboration is a cornerstone of 21st century skills, we need to stop testing students in isolated silos, and assess their skills the way real world people solve problems, through collaboration. If our students are asked to engage in creativity, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial thinking in the manner that real-world people do, our assessments may need to move from the individual to the collaborative. Instead of passing out bubble sheets to each student, cutting them off from the real world, and demanding they choose the "correct" answers to problems, 21st century assessments need to have students work in teams to analyze and devise solutions to multi-layered problems that do not fit in the confines of answers A,B,C, or D.  Once again, doing this means giving up the obsessions with comparing student scores and standardization.
  • We need assessments whose content is public rather than secret. I can’t speak for other states, but my own state of North Carolina protects test content almost obsessive-compulsively as Milton Waddams protects his stapler in the movie Office Space (See Photo Below). Teachers and students are kept totally in the dark about what is going to be on test, leaving them to scrounge around and make all kinds of wild speculations about that content. Teachers are forced to play a game of Concentration as they try to guess what the state is going to ask next. North Carolina testing experts claim their test is derived from the state’s curriculum, but that curriculum is so broad, it makes this kind of testing a game, trying to decide which part of the curriculum will be on the test. As Reeves points out, 21st century assessments require that the kinds of learning we want students to do, be public. Students must be able to study those assessment ideas, and they may even devise their own assessments, or demonstrations of learning. But once again, being open about test content means giving up this obsession with comparing student scores and standardization.

As Douglas Reeves argues, our insistence on comparing students test scores and standardization are serious obstacles to developing 21st century skills assessments. The old standardization model demands too many conditions that are antithetical to 21st century learning. School leaders need to have the courage to ask the tough questions of those who advocate for the “testing status quo.” As Reeves points out, “Educational leaders cannot talk about the need for collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity and at the same time leave teachers and school administrators fenced in by obsolete assessment mechanisms, policies, and assumptions.”

Too many politicians, policymakers, school leaders, and educators are protecting the “testing status quo” and refuse to relinquish those very conditions that keep us from fully transforming our schools. We have fenced ourselves into having 20th century schools by our own 20th century assessments and obsession for standardization and comparison of student test scores. Letting go of the “testing-status-quo” is an enormous step toward a 21st century education system.


  1. This gets right at the heart of the matter, Jon. I plan to discuss these questions with my colleagues and believe that perhaps long term change can occur if we indeed "think globally but act locally"...

    1. Glad you found it helpful. Assessment is quite a thorny issue.

  2. First question that has to be asked is what do we expect someone to be able to do at what age. Iasked my school board what a first grader could and should be able to accomplish before going to the next grade. There was no plan. Has a businessman I expsct my employees to be able to think. And yet I had a clerk who closed the store because he had no quarters. Thirty dollars in nickels and dimes and he could not make change. Another clerk could not add a bill up because the computer was down and no calculator was available. Both graduates of the local public schools. There are standards that should be determinded and tested on. The ability to build sentences can and should be measured. These are not group items these are individual requirement. Teachers should not be teaching to test but teaching to achieve standard goals. Instead teachers are teaching to the lowest standard hindering thier students from achieving maximum results.

  3. What a great article. Timely and appropriate. The collaboration on implementation of Common Core and the wholehearted push to integrate tech and 21stI century skills has made my classroom an exciting place to be again, and those ridiculous, boring test prep books have been collecting dust on the shelf! However, I know that this is not real life. It is a stolen season. As we creep ever closer to the Smarter Balance assessment, I fear that education will once again be shackled to the corporate testing machine, and all this innovation will be what begins collecting dust. I know the answer lies in parents and politicians recognizing teachers as professionals and relinquishing control back to the schools. I'm just afraid there will be no public education system left by the time they realize it. Collaboration, creativity, and innovation are the antithesis of conformity and standardization. It would require a master's degree in doublethink for schools to successfully accomplish what our "leaders" expect from us...high scores on standardized, multiple choice assessments taken individually in silence, accomplished by a noisy, messy, collaborative classroom for the school year. Things that make you go hmmmm.