Another recent addition to the New York Times’ extensive literature on 21st century innovation needs is Dana Goldstein’s review of Anya Kamenetz's The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be.
Goldstein begins by laying out Kamenetz's arguments against standardized testing:
...Kamenetz probes psychometry, or the science of testing, demonstrating its roots in the deeply held racism of the early-20th-century I.Q. movement. She shows why today’s achievement tests, designed to evaluate ability on a specific day, typically at the end of the school year, are poor tools for helping either teachers or students improve their practices in real time. “They conceptualize proficiency as a fixed quantity in a world where what’s important is your capacity to learn and grow,” she writes. “They are a 20th-century technology in a 21st-century world.”In this brave new world, we learn, current skills and knowledge are no longer important; instead what's important are the future skills that people are capable of eventually acquiring. So, for example, when I’m hiring a programmer, or choosing a doctor or lawyer or accountant or music teacher, I shouldn’t consider their “fixed” proficiencies in programming, medicine, law, accountancy, or music pedagogy, but only how much they seem capable of learning and growing down the line.
Given these compelling conclusions:
…the book’s most urgent contribution is its exploration of how we might hold our schools, teachers and students accountable if we were to scrap high-stakes standardized testing entirely. As in her previous book, “DIY U,” Kamenetz is open to seemingly radical, technology-driven solutions. She reports on artificial-intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, Kamenetz advocates the kind of approach she observes in action at Bate Middle School in Danville, Ky., and the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City. These schools assess students using long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking. Their practices hark back to the “exhibitions” of early Republic schools, in which parents and the community observed children as they demonstrated newfound knowledge. Kamenetz shows how fundamentally American it would be to turn toward a more holistic system of evaluating educational outcomes.It doesn’t seem to occur to Goldstein, or to Kamenetz, that "addictive" gaming software might detract from "learning and growing." Or that “student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity” and “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” might be just as stressful, just as time-wasting, and just as unreliable as “tools for helping teachers or students improve their practices in real time,” as standardized tests are.
Regardless of which particular century we happen to be living in, there is a much better way to hold schools accountable. Imagine if all parents had real school choice. Imagine if all the programs currently beset with impossibly long waiting lists--Montesseri, KIPP, and language-immersion, for example--could expand to meet parental demand. Imagine, further, if parents could request specific teachers--with popular teachers getting larger classrooms and extra support staff.
Of course, because it empowers the amateurs, who supposedly have much less sense than the experts do of whether their kids are learning anything useful, this sort of accountability will never be advocated by the experts. Especially by those who suspect, deep down, that most parents don't want what they are offering.