Champions of standardized testing change their tunes

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’”

“Our single-minded focus on achievement gains has not improved the lives of our children.”

A former architect of school reform in Ontario, and a former Undersecretary of Education under George Bush are among those warning that current education policies are driving us in the wrong direction.

Andy Hargreaves, formerly of OISE, and American education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch have both raised concerns that a focus on test scores and narrow achievement goals has resulted in students who are less educated in history, literature, geography, the arts, civics, foreign languages, physical education and even in science.

Both Hargreaves and Ravitch agree that this narrow focus does little to improve the lives of children, and little to prepare students for their 21st century world. In a UNICEF survey of child well-being, the United States and the United Kingdom rank dead last. Both countries have focused their education policies primarily on test score targets, increased accountability measures and more school choice. Canada ranks 12th out of 21.

The United States, under President Obama, is now moving even farther into standardization. There are now federal standards for reading, writing and math and there is a new “Race to the Top” fund. To access the billions of dollars in the fund, states must remove restrictions on the number of privately-managed charter schools receiving public dollars and they must use test results to evaluate teachers.

Dean of Business school calls for greater focus on social intelligence

Even business leaders are now raising concerns about government policy that drives schools to concentrate on math and reading scores, while leaving out broader education. At a recent conference, Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, said it is young people’s social intelligence skills that will allow them to succeed in the 21st century. He says we should be looking at ways to ensure we graduate students who are confident, motivated, capable of collaborating and using deductive reasoning, and with great oral and writing skills.

Provincial conference to focus on targets

The province of Ontario has announced it is holding an education conference this fall. It appears to be focused on continuing down the testing track. One of the speakers is Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary.

Two of the main topics of the conference are “Standards and targets and “Assessments and use of data.”

In England and in the United States, students are spending more time on math, reading and writing and less time on the arts or the social sciences, but there is little evidence that this drive is actually improving students’ education. It may be possible to increase test scores (though in England, even those have plateaued), but the question remains, are the trade-offs worth it? If, as research from Roger Martin’s Centre for Prosperity shows, social intelligence skills are the most important attributes for success in the 21st century, perhaps Ontario should be re-thinking its use of test scores in two subjects as the measure of success of our education system.

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