(Mis)measurements: The Economy & Standardized Tests

The GNP [GDP] measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.  It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” — Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

In the book, Child Honouring* (a book I highly recommend), Ronald Colman questions what is actually measured in the economy and tells us that:

“all of us have been hooked on the illusion that economic growth equals well-being and prosperity. Indeed, there is probably no more pervasive and dangerous myth in our society than the materialist assumption that more is better.”

Colman goes on to describe the many things that can drive progress in the economy that actually degrade our quality of life (adapted from his chapter “What Matters Most”):

  • crime and imprisonment – one of the ‘fastest growing sectors’ in the American economy
  • production, sale and use of materials that are harmful to our world/environment
  • addictive gambling
  • depression and the sale of medications and services to help with depression
  • war and the production/sale of artillery/ammunition
  • divorce
  • over-consumption of food and resulting diet/weight-loss products/services.
  • consumer debt (my addition)

He also discusses the booming child-care industry in Canada and questions how this could possibly be a good thing as this means parents are spending less time with their children (thus the need for full day kindergarten in BC – my addition).  The chapter takes a hard look at the consumerist desire for (and perceived value of) economic growth; he brings to light the many costs of a growing economy that are detrimental to our children and society that go unnoticed and unmeasured.  Society believes that we are doing well when the economy is growing but fails to consider many other aspects of societal worth – time, natural resources, care, education, health – and other parts that “make life worthwhile”.   He questions the value of economic measures that do not take these other more important aspects into consideration.

Relate this to the use of standardized tests to measure learning in our classrooms and schools (tests in which every student in a particular province/state in a certain grade takes the same, often multiple choice, test at a mandated time of the year… and then results are often published and used to rank/compare schools).  People attempt to measure how our children are doing using these tests but, in fact, they often measure things like:

  • how motivated the child is to do the test
  • how much the class has been focusing on the test
  • how much the teacher has been teaching TO the test
  • if the parent has allowed the child to write the test (and how many children write the test)
  • how the child is feeling the day of the test
  • how much anxiety was the child feeling (also, add the pressure in the US that the resulting scores may impact the teacher’s employment)
  • how much the teacher(s) helped the students on the test
  • who marked the test
  • the family income and education background
  • (also) the assumption that every child progresses at the same rate

The following is a list of skills that we often say we value as a society but are not measured by standardized tests (those often measured with standardized tests are in brackets):

  • critical thinking (vs memorization)
  • creativity (vs fact telling)
  • collaboration (vs independent test-taking)
  • leadership (vs compliance)
  • care, empathy for others
  • understanding of other cultures (vs a euro-central model to learning)
  • care for our planet (vs just memorizing facts about environment)
  • respect
  • awareness of students’ strengths and challenges (vs ability to take tests)
  • communication skills (vs information telling)

If we have high test scores , does this mean our children are truly learning how to lead a worthwhile life? How many of us have been “hooked on the illusion” that good standardized test scores equal effective learning and a quality education system?

When we focus on the economy, we realize there are many ways that can drive growth that can unfortunately be harmful to society and, in particular, our children.  When we focus on standardized test scores, we realize that there many ways to increase these scores that can unfortunately be harmful to learning and, in particular, our children.

I am not saying we should ignore the economy nor should we ignore the results of standardized tests but we need to reflect on the actual meaning of these measurements. With regards to education, I understand we want to know how our children and schools are doing but we need to ask ourselves: how much time do we want to spend analyzing these (mis)measurements of learning?  How much time do we want our teachers and children spending on these tests? Can we place a numerical value on learning the skills needed to lead a flourishing life?

*Cavoukian, R. and Olfman, S., eds.  Child Honouring: How To Turn This World Around. Salt Spring Island, BC. Homeland Press, 2006

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

One Comment

  1. The saying goes, what we measure, we value. It is all about incentives. There is a lot of research into incentives and “nudges” (book: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein is a good one). Essentially misaligned incentives caused the recent (and ongoing, perhaps worsening) Great Recession. I wrote about this in my latest post: Greed, Economy, and Education: http://www.shift2future.com/2011/08/greed-economy-and-education.html

    Education or learning incentives (tests, grades, etc.) should be designed to cause the learning and knowledge acquisition that we value. I’m not saying it’s easy but it is essential. Schools, teachers, and parents will expect teaching and learning to align to the incentives so we better make sure they are the right ones for our future not the past and not what is necessarily easy.

    Great post Chris!

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