What a Standardized Test Can’t Predict is What our Students Need to Learn

The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, World Economic Forum, and Scientific America run stories routinely about what students need to learn and do to be successful in the future. An endless stream of studies, counter-studies, information, and partial information about education, and the future of the economy, contained in these articles can be interpreted to fit almost any bias. I should know: I am sometimes accused of sharing studies that support my biases while ignoring contrary data.  Researchers call this confirmation bias. I, of course, believe that when I am perceived by others to be pushing a “progressive” education agenda, it is really about the discomfort of those whose own confirmation bias toward traditional models of school and learning is being upended.

For instance, I have been a critic of the limited value of the ACT and SAT. In previous blogs I have cited studies in my argument that they don’t really measure future success, and I’ve recommended Frank Bruni’s Book, “Where you Go is not Who You will Be,” which is about the college admissions mania. This past weekend I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that challenges some of my arguments.

The WSJ’s article on the SAT and ACT sheds light on several myths that these tests are not indicators for success in college or in careers. In fact, it uses longitudinal studies to demonstrate the association between higher test scores and the level of college courses one will pursue, and major life accomplishments such as patenting a technology or publishing a novel. And those who score in the top 1% are associated with higher incomes, and major awards.

But who are these smart test takers? Traditionally, they have been those students who do school well and can memorize, take tests, and score well on standardized tests. They get into competitive colleges and do well in their careers. Valedictorians tend to fall into this category.  What these types of “successful” people share in common, as studies have pointed out, is that they tend to follow the rules of school, are generally compliant and they work hard and succeed at “doing school.”  To be clear, I am not putting them down or undervaluing the importance of what they’ve achieved. The traditional format of education has served many of us, and our children well, for more than two generations.

Many of our parents and students still believe this is the (only) way to go, but narrowly embracing this path to future preparedness presents challenges: it assumes there is only one way to achieve future professional and economic success, defined by a student’s ability to perform very well on standardized college entrance tests that measure only a small slice of a person’s ability – language arts and math. It also assumes that entrance into a small number of elite colleges points the way to economic success and security.  And that has its pitfalls. College admissions mania, such as Bruni describes in his book, drives many parents and students in our communities to depression and anxiety disorders.

Attaining a high test score to gain admission to a top tier university may have been a great strategy for the 20th century. But we are well into the 21st century, and the changes taking place all around us are real, not theoretical. So, while it is still important to learn and become proficient in math, and to read and analyze literature, and to spell and use grammar correctly – these skills are no longer enough. They may earn a student a high score on the SAT or ACT, but that alone will not prepare our children for the world they will enter as adults.

The researchers of the study published in the WSJ have been funded in the past by the College Board, which writes and administers the SAT and ACT tests. The testing industry is worth over three billion dollars, so imagine their vested interest in this kind of data. As Tony Wagner of Harvard University recently pointed out, when Google studied its own employees, Google found that their test scores did not predict success at Google because these tests can’t measure critical thinking, and the ability to collaborate and to learn from failure – skills Google values and needs.

And that is a crucial point. Many of the jobs and careers our traditional schooling prepares for are either being eliminated, or will be by the time this generation of students enters the workforce. In addition, it is an accepted fact that today’s jobs, and certainly the jobs of tomorrow, require skills that are still not taught widely enough to best prepare our children, let alone be measured by standardized tests.  And while many school districts are finally developing a growth mindset and catching on, our educational system nationwide is not changing fast enough. Even here at Hillel, where we have been discussing the need for educational change, and have been on this change journey, for 13 years, I still must continually speak with parents and colleagues about the imperative to go well above the schooling of the last century if we are to serve our students well.

Hillel is right to prioritize creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, curiosity, communication, problem-solving and learning how to learn, as much as it does math, reading and writing. The challenge, of course, is how to get it all done each school day!  The answer? We do it. It may take longer, and it also requires our general and Jewish studies teachers to learn to effectively integrate subjects and skills into learning opportunities for their students.  We are not all the way there yet, but every year we get closer. Meanwhile, our children are learning increasingly relevant skills while they continue to be well-prepared for high school, college and beyond. As high schools begin to shift, and some in our community are, what we have been espousing and doing at Hillel will become even more apparent and recognized.

An interesting and worthwhile video:

The Future of Work: Will Our Children Be Prepared? 

Here are some interesting articles to read and think about:

Automation and the Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market

Employers Find Soft Skills like Critical Thinking in Short Supply

Is the US Education System Producing a Society of Smart Fools?

The 3 Education Trends Preparing the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs




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