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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Robert Sternberg is frustrated. Really frustrated.

As a professor of psychology at Cornell University, Sternberg has long studied standardized tests, and concluded they don’t provide much useful information on whether students are learning to think critically and creatively, enabling them to be successful in college, careers and life in general.

“The way we test students on typical standardized tests has little or nothing to do with the way real world problems present themselves,” said Sternberg, a psychometrician who’s developed several theories related to creativity, intelligence and testing.

“We’re leaving this awful world for our kids and grandkids, where the temperatures are going up, the illnesses are spreading, the hurricanes are getting worse, the water is disappearing,” he said. “And we’re worried about multiple choice tests on trivial information.”

Sternberg is not the only one who thinks standardized testing as we do it now isn’t working. Before the pandemic, a growing number of parents, educators and advocates criticized how students were tested and the importance placed on statewide tests. An opt-out movement to protest the tests was gaining steam.

In one of a series of reports last year from the Center for American Progress (CAP), researchers Laura Jimenez and Ulrich Boser say that some of that criticism is valid: “The costs and time associated with assessments, delayed results, and failure of tests alone to improve students’ academic results leave many to wonder if they are worth the effort.”

They argue the solution isn’t to get rid of assessments, however, but to redesign them to be more effective. Over the past two years — when almost all state standardized tests were suspended — periodic assessments provided educators with some data to understand what kids learned — or didn’t. This month, as many states resume their regular standardized testing schedule, experts on both sides of the debate say now is the moment to reconsider how tests are developed and what we test for.

“There’s no question that this is an opportunity to reimagine testing,” said Boser, a senior fellow at CAP. “There are lots of ways to think about tests in ways that can better support teaching and learning.”

In addition to Sternberg and CAP’s Boser, I spoke to Jamil Modaffari, a K-12 education research assistant. Modaffari and Boser are the authors — along with Jimenez — of the CAP’s series on the future of testing. Here’s what they had to say.

State testing in its current format is outdated:

“State assessments … they’re still just incredibly antiquated,” said Boser, who is also founder of the Learning Agency. “It’s remarkable the degree to which assessments really have managed to stay totally oblivious to just some of the innovations that you see in many other fields … in which there’s still a lot of just outdated practices.”

Sternberg said the answer is to push the testing industry, which “has been so uncreative and doing the same thing for over a century,” to use “problems that look anything at all like the problems we face in our lives.”

Schools should also use this opportunity to develop “holistic” assessment systems:

Modaffari has a unique perspective on testing — he’s a former fifth grade teacher who worked mainly with students of color. He remembers the stress and anxiety students face when all the focus is on one assessment. “As states begin to rethink their approach to testing and decide where to spend their funds to recover from the pandemic, it’s critical they use holistic assessment systems to better understand student’s academic and social emotional needs and to inform their recovery efforts,” Modaffari said.

Holistic assessments can include little things, Modaffari said. “‘How are you doing today?’ is an assessment of my students. I’m assessing their well-being and what supports they may need from me just to get through the day.”

End-of-year tests vs. periodic tests throughout the year:

“We need to better understand what students actually know or didn’t learn. Formative assessments [periodic tests] can be very helpful in this regard,” Boser said.

Modaffari added that periodic check-ins can give states and educators a better understanding of what support students need academically and otherwise, especially after pandemic disruptions.

 “I would like to see less reliance on the end-of-year test and more into a comprehensive assessment system throughout the year that provides better information to caregivers, to educators, to school leaders, so they can make decisions on a more day-to-day basis to drive teaching and learning,” Modaffari said.

Tests should support high-quality instruction in the classroom:

Modaffari said that well-designed tests do one of three things: “predict student performance, inform instruction, or evaluate learning, and they should be aligned to the state’s academic standards.”

High-quality instructional materials, whether curriculum or classroom environment, play a role in how a student performs on these assessments. “The implications of if you have a negative classroom culture [and] what that could do to students in their ability to learn and be engaged in the class itself – that is going to come out [on the] test,” Modaffari said.

Boser added that in many cases the tests students take now are “just not very good … They are asking very low-level questions instead of richer types of questions that might engage real richer cognitive thinking.”

Modaffari said to remember testing is so much more “than just the test itself.”

The internet and misinformation have made critical thinking an imperative:

“It’s not the format of the testing, or how often we give it, it’s that when you go on the internet, you can find the information you need, and you know ways of asserting whether it’s good information or bad information,” said Sternberg. “So, you present some scientific conspiracies and you ask the students, Do you believe this claim? Why do you believe it? Why do you not believe it? What’s the evidence for it? What’s the evidence against it? The goal ought to be to see whether students can think critically, creatively, practically and wisely about real-world content.”

Multiple choice vs. the real world:

So how do you design a test to measure whether kids are learning how to approach real-world problems? Sternberg said multiple-choice questions checking for memorized answers are not enough. There’s a need to look at the real problems kids are facing in today’s society — climate change, pandemics, misinformation, propaganda — and develop test questions that ask kids to think critically about these issues.

“Real-world problems usually don’t have a single answer,” said Sternberg. “They aren’t multiple choice. They are emotionally fraught. They take a long time to solve. They change as you solve them. They are ill-structured, there isn’t a clear path to a solution. Often you don’t even know what the exact problem is. You have real consequences for failing to solve the problem. They are usually solved in groups. They usually have content that is meaningful to the individual.”

This story about testing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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  1. 95% of students, including those with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences, can learn to read, yet we are far from such literacy rates. We need assessments that are diagnostic and prescriptive. Assessment results should not be filed in a file cabinet. They should show teachers what skills individual students might not have mastered and show principals what knowledge teachers may not have mastered. Teachers can address the students with appropriate instruction and principals can offer the teachers coaching and professional development. If the assessments show schoolwide issues, principals can address that by diagnosing whether staff needs more professional development, or if the curriculum does not address what the students need. Let’s help teachers and principals understand how to use the data good assessments provide.

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