Sunday, December 11, 2016

5 Reasons to Look Beyond Test Scores as the Measure of School Success

Are you beating the state average? The teacher down the hall? The school down the road? How about the Fins or the Singaporeans? How do your scores measure up? Is your school keeping up with the Joneses?

Lately, I've seen lots of comparisons of achievement data. Including the PISA international benchmark results that were just released. Once again, U.S. scores were not stellar in comparison to some of the best test takers in the world.

While reading Linchpin by Seth Godin, I was challenged to think about how we define success. And where we spend our energy to develop world class schools. Godin illustrates how difficult it is to be the best by any statistical comparison.

❝Donald Bradman was an Australian cricket player. He was also the best athlete who ever lived. By any statistical measure, he was comparatively the best at what he did. He was far better at cricket than Michael Jordan was at basketball or Jack Nicklaus was at golf.
It's very difficult to be as good as Donald Bradman. In fact, it's impossible. Here's a chart of Bradman's batting average compared with the other all-time cricket leaders. 
Bradman's Test batting average was 99.94. In cricket, a player's batting average is the
total number of runs scored by the number of times they have been out.

Everyone else is quite grouped near sixty. Bradman was in a league of his own, not even close to the others. 
The challenge of becoming a linchpin solely based on your skill at plying a craft or doing a task or playing a sport is that the market can find other people with the skill with surprising ease. Plenty of people can play the flute as well as you can, clean a house as well as you can, program in Python as well as you can. If all you can do is the task and you're not in a league of your own at doing the task, you're not indispensable. 
Statistics are a dangerous deal, because statistics make it strikingly clear that you're only a little better than the other guy. Or perhaps not better at all.
When you start down the path of beating the competition based on something that can be easily measured, you're betting that with practice and determination, you can do better than Len Hutton or Jack Hobbs did at cricket. Not a little better, but Don Bradman better.
And you can't. 

And this demonstrates the problem with measuring school performance based on standardized tests. To clarify...

1. Someone is always statistically better. 

You cannot be the best just on your effort or the effort of the students in your classroom or school. You cannot measure up. Even your best will not be enough. There will always be a Don Bradman. So when we accept this measure as judge and jury of our effectiveness, we are setting ourselves up for frustration and inadequacy.

2. More achievement is not always better.

A recent article about the learning culture in Singapore shows just how unhealthy a culture of over-achievement can be. Even in our own schools, we should not celebrate unhealthy attitudes toward achievement. How many ulcers, headaches, and mental health issues are a result of students, and educators, who are placing too much emphasis on achievement results? Being an effective human being involves a healthy attitude toward achievement, not high achievement no matter what it takes.

3. What can be measured doesn't always count the most.

And what counts the most can't always be measured. There are so many things about being an effective learner, a well-educated person beyond test scores. In fact, there are many people in our communities who are incredibly successful and lifelong learners, but who did not excel as test takers. Their success is attributable to many intangibles that cannot be easily measured. As Godin points out, "The easier it is to quantify the less it's worth." The most valuable things are often hard to measure.

4. High test scores are not a vision for learning.

When raising test scores becomes a chief aim of a school or district, it can easily become the vision of the school. And raising test scores is not a vision for learning. This approach marginalizes the individual and their learning needs in favor of data objectives that may not even be meaningful to the individual. In a sense, it dehumanizes learning. A vision for learning should always focus on the individual learner and create a culture that helps each student reach his or her goals. 

5. A school's identity should not be contingent on achievement.

The identity of a school, or individual, should not be contingent on achievement. It should be comprised of the way the school seeks to fulfill its mission. We should seek to have a high level of commitment, collaboration, and care. We should strive to help our students achieve, but also to fully engage, to be more excited about learning, to gain hope, to learn more about who they are, and to fulfill their potential in the broadest sense. We control our identity, but we can't always control our scores. Any teacher knows this, but sometimes we do our best work with students who DO NOT demonstrate achievement on tests.

So what's the alternative to playing the test score game? Godin suggests using emotional labor to make yourself indispensable. I think this principle can be applied to schools, too. The idea is to focus energy on connecting, supporting, reaching out, lifting up, and offering hope better than anyone else. It is always teaching students first, then curriculum.

Even though many educators realize how important emotional labor is, it is rarely included in strategic plans, teacher evaluations, or educator standards. It is not considered a strategic advantage. In my review of my state's principal standards, the word data was found 15 times. By contrast, the word relationships was not to be found. The era of accountability has created an assembly line approach to schooling. It seems to almost eliminate the human element. 

But the truth is the human element is everything in education and in most every profession. Once you have achieved a measure of expertise in polishing your craft, you become a game-changer only through your interaction with each child. Your emotional labor is what makes you able to do your job unlike anyone else on the planet. And if your school collectively does it's emotional labor better than anyone else, it will indeed be world class. And I'm betting your test scores will improve as an added bonus.

Question: How do you view the role of emotional labor in your classroom and school? Is it a measure of success? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

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