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Why Am I Disagreeing With Someone Who Doesn’t Like Standardized Tests?

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Jonah Lehrer is a very talented writer who creatively applies research from the human sciences to real-life problems. I’ve often linked to his columns from this blog.

Today, though, he wrote an odd column about the somewhat odd column that appeared in the New York Times earlier this week about testing (which I wrote about in “Scientifically Tested Tests”).

My summary of what he wrote is that the standardized tests we use now don’t really measure knowledge. Instead, what it really measures — less than perfectly — is grit, self control, and perseverance. Those are the qualities schools should really be focusing on, and we should develop tests to more accurately measure those kinds of qualities, particularly because those are what are most valued by employers (let me know if you think that’s an inaccurate representation).

I’m certainly in agreement that the standardized tests we use today do not accurately measure knowledge. And I’m also in agreement that we should help students develop grit, self-control and perseverance. In fact, as regular readers know, I’ve written a lot about how do just that in the classroom, and will be writing more in my upcoming book.

But I get frustrated whenever I see people (who tend to either be school “reformers” or columnists who have little background in education — like Lehrer and David Brooks (though I wouldn’t put Lehrer in the same category — Brooks becomes almost incoherent whenever he writes about schools) portray needed school changes in a black/white view.

Yes, we need to help students develop those what I call “life skills” qualities. And, yes, we need to develop useful assessments for them (though I wouldn’t look to KIPP Schools as a model like Lehrer does in his article).

But we also need to help our students, particularly those in many of our schools with limited background knowledge, learn facts and, despite Mr. Lehrer’s criticism of helping our students develop the skills of “critical thinking, or the “ability to think about a situation in several different ways,” we need to teach those, too.

And I think both can be done in a lot more creative, useful, and effective ways than Lehrer’s anecdotes of cramming facts down students throat. I also don’t agree with Lehrer’s definition that this kind of cramming is “learning to learn.” And, despite what many of my colleagues are saying, I’m not entirely dismissive of the potential of a new generation of tests being helpful in that effort.

It doesn’t have to be either/or. How about both/and?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. I so agree Larry. I think what most lingers with me is this either approach to the issues. Remember the days when standardized tests were used as diagnostic tools in our support of kids?

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