Are Test Scores Good Indicators of Learning?

Education today is dominated by the test. Standardized state tests are everywhere, teacher-created tests dot the scholastic calendar, and high-stakes tests, like the SAT and AP tests, can make or break students’ hopes of getting into the college of their choice. But are these tests true indicators of student learning? Are they good benchmarks for the quality of the schools? Or are they something else entirely?

As a teacher, I have always used tests to get a good idea of what my students know. The tests give me validation, they point out areas that are generally misunderstood by students, and they incentivize my students to do their homework, pay attention, take notes, and study. Or so I have always told myself.

Tests are a snapshot. That’s the reality. They are an indication of what a student knows at a moment in time, but they are also indicators of a vast number of outside factors. Teachers know that students, as people, will occasionally be sick, tired (or sick and tired), distracted, and unmotivated at various times throughout the year. So, if a student can’t sleep the night before a high-stakes test, they may not perform as students who do, even if the tired student knows more about the subject than the well-rested one. Falling asleep during an exam doesn’t lead to good scores.

Another problem with testing is it doesn’t mirror the “real world,” that place we are supposed to prepare our students to thrive in. Certainly, there are professions that require tests for certification and so forth, but once in the job, it’s all about performance. And that performance is more often based on interpersonal relations, team-based projects, and long hours at work. But in all those areas of work, the necessary resources are available for use, resources that are absent during a test.

Increasingly in this day and age, teacher evaluations are tied to test scores. Now, I fully agree that great teachers will tend to get higher scores than poor teachers. And I also understand the desire to have measurable data to evaluate teacher performance. Teachers spend countless hours preparing to educate and nurture young minds, and the results of our public education system are evident in the society around us. The modern standard of living in America would not have been possible without education.

However, the reality is that teachers have very little control over many of the most important factors in student success on tests. Students that perform better on tests tend to have more prior knowledge, a more stable home environment, a support network that values education, and a host of other factors that allow them to score better, even with less preparation. Students living in environments without these influences have a much more difficult time competing academically, even with the help of great teachers.

This is not to say that great, or even good, teaching can’t overcome some of the obstacles faced by students with low test scores. But to expect everything to happen in the classroom is a fantasy.

So what’s the solution to this? Well, I don’t think there is one. And our constant pursuit of “the answer” to education is fundamentally flawed by focusing the search on a solution that will work for every student from every background in every part of this country. The real answer is that students are people, and they all need different supports and approaches to succeed. They all have different goals and aspirations. They all have different obligations outside the classroom. And no single solution will help them all.

As a runner and running coach, I understand this concept. The reality is that I won’t ever win a large race. I might do well, finish in the top 8-10% of runners, but I’m not going home with a medal. Likewise, I coach some runners who won’t win a race, because they enter the season significantly slower than the fastest team members. My focus with them, as with myself, is to set attainable goals that they can meet with some hard work and perseverance. If a runner drops 30 seconds off his mile time over the course of a season, that’s something to be celebrated. And that doesn’t only apply to the fast ones.

Education needs to take a similar approach. We should celebrate intellectual growth in students. We should motivate them to improve their dedication and motivation. We should teach them how to perform in a way that will translate well into future success. That means moving away from one-shot testing and focusing more on rigorous project-based assessment. It means encouraging and fostering curiosity and individualism. It means understanding our students and tailoring an educational approach that allows them to find their strengths and hone them, while still working to improve their weaknesses.

This is a tough model, especially in schools with growing class sizes. It’s hard to measure, with little concrete data to back up its success. It doesn’t work well with legislatures trying to gain votes by touting their educational progress. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

We just need to test it.