Measuring Student Achievement in the New Digital Landscape

You can get a good picture of a person’s health by measuring their height and weight. But as master animator Dave Masters suggests, would you go to a doctor who only took your height and weight and then said that this was a complete picture of your health?

Of course you wouldn’t! Everyone knows that a doctor can get a complete picture of a person’s health only after poking and prodding and doing a multitude of tests for things like blood pressure, chlorestrol level, kidney and liver function, heart rate, and so on.

Yet when it comes to getting a picture of a student’s achievement, this is the logic that standardized testing is playing in the current push to improve American education.

The school system operates much like the doctor who just measures height and weight. And even if every student in America satisfied traditional achievement metrics, they still would remain woefully under-prepared for success in life beyond high school graduation.

Just as the thinking is flawed by only looking at height and weight as the measure of a person’s health, the thinking behind No Child Left Untested is seriously flawed in its continued fixation on written standardized tests as the major—if not the only—instrument for measuring student achievement. Although it’s laudable that we hold schools, teachers, and administrators accountable, No Child has two significant problems:

Problem 1—The focus on text-based tests with mainly multiple-choice answers is far too narrow to give a complete picture of a student’s learning and skill development. A complete picture of student learning would include a portfolio of student work that would measure such things such as

  • skill in debating
  • skill in performing scientific experiments
  • the ability to see the meaning in information retrieved from various sources
  • the ability to use a variety of digital tools to accomplish real-world tasks effectively
  • the ability to evaluate the messages in images and videos
  • skill in solving real-world problems
  • skill in publishing information on the Web in an effective graphical format

There are these and a whole host of other skills that do not show up on the standardized tests that are used today. It’s presumptuous for us to say that current test scores are a complete indicator of student learning. In fact, they are only a small part of the learning a student should do in school.

Problem 2—The skills that are measured by the standardized tests like No Child are not the skills that students will need for success in 21st century life. These standardized tests overwhelmingly measure information recall and low-level understanding of concepts.

Low-level memorization skills are not nearly as important in the Information Age as they were in the late industrialized life of the 20th century. Given the ready access to powerful personal mobile technologies it’s not hard to find answers. It’s much harder to verify the accuracy of these answers. Students now need higher-level thinking skills if they are going to be successful in life after school. Things that critical and analytical thinking, problem solving,creativity, and 21st Century collaboration and communications skills. The things that we call the 21st Century Fluencies.

And if they don’t develop these skills in our schools and in our classrooms, where will the learn them? By osmosis?

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