No. Test Scores Can’t Validate OR Invalidate New Measures of Success.

As a developer of tools that measure traditionally “hard-to-measure” learning outcomes, I’m frequently asked the same question by educators:

“Why don’t you compare students’ new measures data with their standardized test results?”

If you did, they continue . . .

“Then you could prove what you’re doing is working.”

This line of reasoning carries the weight of decades of global education. The success of whatever we’re doing, be it at state or district levels or with students in the classroom, has long been determined by standardized test scores.

Even amid the increasing number of movements focused on a more complete set of learning outcomes (e.g. competency-based learning, social and emotional learning, deeper learning, etc.), those involved will often cite test scores as a reason to get engaged:

“If students develop these additional outcomes, they’ll do better on standardized tests.”

That may be the case. A focus on all of the deeper learning outcomes – self-understanding, competency, and connection, in addition to traditional academic knowledge – opens the door for learning design that’s more engaging for students and, therefore, for content learning that’s more likely to stick. It’s also likely that students’ development of key competencies or soft skills (e.g. collaboration, creativity, perseverance) will further support their acquisition of knowledge.

But let me be the first to say: If students develop these additional outcomes, they may not do better on standardized tests. And, most importantly of all – that’s okay.

Here are three of the main reasons why.

  1. Deeper learning is a paradigm shift. In a traditional education system, what you’re doing is working if test scores are high. In a deeper learning system, what you’re doing is working if students are knowledgeable, competent, connected, and brimming with self-understanding. That’s a fundamental change in how we think about education, and so requires a fundamental shift in how we measure its success. With the introduction of new, equitable measures of success, the importance of test scores is rightfully lessened.
  2. Single-narrative thinking is harmful. Consider this: There are learners who (a) excel on standardized tests but demonstrate low levels of self-understanding, competency, and connection, and learners who (b) test poorly but know who they are as a person, think creatively and communicate and collaborate effectively, and feel a connection with others and the world. Testing tells only a part of each learner’s story. And if it’s the only narrative that we focus on, equally important parts will be missed – to the detriment of learners on both ends of the score spectrum.
  3. Contribution is king. The notion that standardized test scores should be compared to measures of students’ self-understanding, competency, and connection assumes testing success is the ultimate outcome – that toward which all student learning is focused. Traditionally, it has been. But, in reality, we don’t want students to learn deeply so that they’ll perform well on standardized tests. We want everyone, everywhere, to learn deeply together so that they contribute to others’ lives and to the world. Since that’s what gives us meaning and fulfillment, it’s time for education to crown a new king.

A measure of connection, just like measures of self-understanding or of deeper learning competencies, can’t be validated or invalidated on the basis of test scores. Each measure, in its own way, tells us whether what we’re doing is working, and each tells a part of a much bigger story.

When schools truly work for every one of their students, their success won’t be measured by a standardized test but by all that they do to contribute to the world. The world doesn’t need higher standardized test scores. What it needs are more people who make it a better place.