Worlds of Education

Credits: Asian Development Bank Photo Collection
Credits: Asian Development Bank Photo Collection

#WDR2018 Reality Check #5: "Improving Education Requires Much More Than Testing" by Diane Ravitch

published 28 November 2017 updated 25 March 2019
written by:

The World Development Report on Education, "Learning to Realize Education's Promise," contains both promise and peril.

It accurately describes the importance of education in human and social development. It acknowledges that education is key to realizing the goals of individuals and societies to achieve a better life. But, it says, the learning crisis of our time is that the quality of education in many nations is so poor that many children are not learning much of anything. The report eloquently describes the many goals of education. When schooling is effective, it "cures a host of societal ills. For individuals, it promotes employment, earnings, health, and poverty reduction. For societies, it spurs innovation, strengthens institutions, and fosters social cohesion." It goes on to say that "these benefits depend largely on learning. Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice: the children whom society is failing most are the ones who most need a good education to succeed in life." (p.3).

The report statesthat“Education should equip students with the skills they need to lead healthy, productive, meaningful lives. Different countries define skills differently, but all share some core aspirations, embodied in their curriculums”. (p.4)  These skills include literacy, numeracy, higher-order reasoning, creativity and socio-emotional skills. However, many countries are not yet reaching these goals.

More than 260 million children receive no schooling at all. That in itself is a crisis.

But the report is especially concerned about the children who attend school and learn very little.

The report documents this "learning crisis." In some nations, teachers are poorly educated, poorly trained, and poorly paid. Teaching is not a profession. Education is not a priority. The report urges that learning must become a priority in order for individuals and societies to see its benefits. The report is correct. It is a travesty when children are expected to sit in a classroom, listen to an ill-prepared teacher, and learn nothing at all. This is not education. When teachers are frequently absent and lack any sense of professionalism, children are indeed cheated.

The report offers a few very general solutions to these complex problems.

It says, first, nations must "set learning as a clearly articulated goal and measure it." In most nations, it asserts, there is too little testing, not too much.

Second, build coalitions to emphasize the importance of education.

Third, be open to innovations that strengthen the system of education, relying on evidence to seek improvements.

Fourth, review evidence of success and adjust the system to build on success. Use measures of learning and other metrics of delivery to determine whether innovations are working.

There are many recommendations in the report that are indeed worthy. Teachers must be far better prepared, motivated to teach, and compensated as professionals.

Children need an early start to their education.

Communities must prioritize schooling and education.

Years of schooling must not be confused with successful learning.

However, I must call attention to what I see as the single most important flaw in their analysis.

Its deep faith in measurement is problematic.

Certainly measurement matters. It is often said that what is measured is what matters. But it is also true that what matters most--be it character, citizenship, aesthetic development, curiosity, creativity--cannot be measured by traditional school tests.

Measurement can guide policymakers at the lowest possible levels of learning, such as the examples in the report of whether children can read simple language or compute simple figures.

As learning becomes more complex, standardized tests become less useful.

What is worse, the use of standardized tests as the measure of learning will become the antithesis of learning as test results are tied to incentives and sanctions. Campbell's Law, the axiom framed by social scientist Donald Campbell in the 1970s, says that"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." Campbell also wrote: " Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways."

From the experience of the United States, we have learned that the pressure to raise test scores in order to win a reward or avoid a punishment produces predictable outcomes: cheating; teaching to the test; reduction of time allocated to non-tested subjects, such as the arts and civics; and gaming the system to give the appearance of progress.

Certainly the report should be widely read. It should stimulate discussion at the highest levels in every country about how best to turn schooling into education. It should be read with the caution that high test scores do not necessarily represent high levels of learning. They may only represent diligent teaching to the test.

Educators and policymakers should also be aware of the dangers of standardized testing. Such tests may be used for diagnostic purposes. But using them to rank schools, teachers, and students threatens the risks embodied in Campbell's Law. Genuine learning requires more sophisticated measures, such as essays, projects that demonstrate understanding, research papers, scientific and technological displays, and other evidences of student learning that represent deeper learning than standardized tests ever measure.

Standardized tests also have inherent problems. Nothing about them is standardized other than the scoring of them. Fallible humans write the questions, and sometimes the questions are poorly written. Fallible humans choose the "correct" answer, and the "correct" answer may be wrong. Wise children often choose the "wrong" answer because they thought too much or they knew too much. Sometimes, such tests don't have a "right" answer. There is also a risk in teaching masses of children that every problem has a right answer, and that it is their job to choose from one of four possible choices. This is a way to elicit low-level information. But the lessons that children learn from being subjected to standardized tests over many years are counter-productive to the spirit of learning.

So, yes, read the report, and use it as a tool for discussion. The questions it raises includes not only how to measure learning, but how to recruit and retain dedicated teachers; how to convince government officials to invest in education; and how to assure that the benefits of education are widely and universally shared.

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at [email protected]. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Howard Stevenson: #WDR2018 Reality Check #4: Realizing education’s promise: teachers are the solution, not the problem.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.