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How do standardized tests benefit children?

April 21, 2015

How do standardized tests benefit children?

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 21, 2015

Parenthood is filled with challenges. So when pressures mount I try to remember the desired outcome. I often do this by asking: What kind of adults do I hope our children, Zoe and Adam, will become?

Asking this question affects me in two ways. First, the crisis of the moment begins to feel smaller, less problematic and sometimes simply laughable. Second, as my tension ebbs, the big picture – what is most important – becomes clearer.

I found myself recently applying this strategy as I became activated by the ground swell of controversy over the mounting nationwide practice of administering standardized tests in public schools, including the local school attended by our kindergartner and second-grader.

Local commentary and bus-stop talk suggest that one impact of standardized testing is intense disagreement about its value and appropriateness, and another is increased stress for at least some students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Here in our hometown, the controversy seems to be prompted by the transition from the use of MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) testing to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) system.

Interestingly, a Massachusetts state education official reportedly stated that the PARCC system, which is aligned with the national Common Core Standards, is very reflective of what colleges and employers expect in high school graduates.

As both a former high school and college educator — and now as a parent — my feelings are mixed about the efficacy of standardized testing in schools. On the one hand, I find it a reasonable expectation that public schools be held accountable to both the local citizens who help fund the schools and the state board of education who oversees the schools. On the other hand, I find the mechanism imposed on schools for assessing their effectiveness — standardized testing — is increasingly dubious.

Two trends influence my evolving perspective on this.

One, it appears that an increasing number of colleges are moving away from the decades old use of standardized tests — principally the ACT and SAT — in the college admissions process, reportedly because student performance on these tests is a poor predictor of college success. This leaves me wondering how effective PARCC testing is at predicting college and career readiness.

Two, as an organizational consultant I read widely on the conditions that promote organizational and workplace success, including leadership and hiring practices. A trend that seems to be gaining momentum is priority being placed on social-emotional intelligence as an important predictor of leadership and success at work.

A recent article in the Education Life section of the New York Times, under the title ‘Leadership Checklist,’ cited the work of Daniel Goleman, global-thought leader and a resident of western Massachusetts. Goleman’s research indicates that social-emotional competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship skills are increasingly regarded as predictors of effective leadership, and therefore increasingly valued by hiring managers.

As a parent of 5 and 8 year-olds, I can attest that these are the same competencies that are at the center of most, if not all, preschool curricula and pedagogy. While, in our experience, local teachers at the elementary school level continue to support the development of these core skills, it is all too clear that as children age the focus of education is more and more on content-based achievement as assessed by standardized tests, and less and less on demonstrating social-emotional capacities that are key to success at work and contentment in life.

Next year, we — Zoe as a third-grader and my wife, Lori, and I as parents — will be presented with the opportunity for Zoe to participate in standardized testing. We are undecided about whether she will.

Anticipating that Lori and I will feel conflicted about this decision, I return to my question: What kind of adults do we hope our children will become?

My first answer is that they become socially and emotionally well-developed adults — competent in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship skills.

And second, that they have a basic academic foundation — probably including a college education — that positions them to both participate in making the world a better place as well as earn a fulfilling livelihood. I don’t see how standardized testing promotes either outcome.

John Engel is a father, husband, organizational consultant and the coordinator of the Healthy Men and Boys Network of western Massachusetts. He can be reached through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Raymond Paquette permalink
    April 21, 2015 2:51 pm

    John, your thoughts are (as usual) right on. I wish that your hopes for your children could become guiding standards for schooling:

    “they become socially and emotionally well-developed adults — competent in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship skills.

    And second, that they have a basic academic foundation — probably including a college education — that positions them to both participate in making the world a better place as well as earn a fulfilling livelihood”

    In these few sentences, you’ve captured what I believe school should be about.

    Thanks for your wisdom and insight.

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