Standardized Test Scores Don’t Really Measure Learning

There are ways to raise a child’s test scores that have nothing to with helping that child learn. In the past 10 years I have seen far more students — even the most capable, most brilliant students — paralyzed with fear about grades. In high school, you got good grades if you followed instructions and did exactly what the teacher told you to do.

At the college level, I don’t give step-by-step instructions that tell students exactly what meaning they should get out a literary work, or exactly whom they should interview and what questions they should ask while covering a breaking news story, or what topic they should choose for their multimedia presentation.

I have, in recent years, started taking more time to clarify to students that when I report *grades* I am responding to what boxes they ticked on the assignment, but much of the real teaching comes from the *feedback* I give in marginal notes, which is designed to help them know what they’ll need to do in order to level up for the next step.

I also introduce students to research that demonstrates that students are not always very good at identifying which methods actually help them to learn; in one study, students were given a pretest, shown one of two lectures, and then given a post-test. Students who watched one lecture got no higher scores on the pre-test, but they reported liking the lesson and praised it as “clear.” Students who watched a different lecture doubled their scores on the pre-test, but they complained the effective lecture was “confusing.” (The reason is the effective lecture forced them to re-examine their assumptions, rather than confirming what they thought they already knew about the topic.)

If I’ve designed the sequence of assignments well enough, the students automatically learn by going through the process, but students who are too focused on the short-term reward of a grade can lose track of the whole reason they are in college.

Students in a clasIn fact, the research shows that programs that improve “attainment” don’t raise test scores, and programs that raise test scores don’t affect “attainment.” Test scores can be raised with several techniques, and most of those techniques have nothing to do with providing students with a better education. Drill the test prep. Take at-risk students out of electives and make them take test-related courses instead. And have teachers learn, over the years, how to teach more directly to the test. But do you want higher test scores or better education? Because those are two unrelated things.


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