When we define the success of a school based on its test scores, we are doing nothing less than commoditizing students at the expense of learning. Worse, we are perpetuating a system that is already outdated insofar as its entire reason for existence is to prepare students for the future, which it is failing to do. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require agility, problem-solving, networking, influencing, and imagination. All those things that make us human. When we rely on test scores to assess “learning” and the quality of a school (perhaps even ranking it), we are not preparing students for 2030. Worse, we are participating in—and therefore contributing to—a factory process, one in which school compete on the wrong metrics.
Let’s step back and look at the education industrial complex this way: For 12 years, institutions prepare students to take tests in the final and penultimate years of secondary school. Skills are taught, content is delivered, strategies are provided. Students then sit for tests and are given scores, based on their performance that day, the culmination of 12 years of their lives, all coming to a head during those two hours. The premise is that universities will see these scores as indicators of students’ true academic abilities (input of raw materials) and professional potential (output of finished goods).
Of course when employers today are screaming that higher education is not preparing their learners for the jobs of tomorrow, how long before universities are forced to reconsider how they take in raw materials to meet the demands of the labor force? Already many of the US’s top independent schools are coming together as part of the Mastery Transcript Consortium to present student learning in terms of mastery of hard and soft skills, rather than grades. Already more than 40% of accredited universities in the US no longer require SATs or ACTs, including more than 50% of the nations Top 100 colleges. Already top universities in the UK—where grades on A levels have traditionally determined where a student attends higher education—realize that companies are losing trust in diplomas, which is why universities are providing certificates and awards of employability to supplement (and soon supplant?) degrees.
When schools market students’ tests scores to universities, they are commoditizing students themselves, turning them into substitutable cogs, numbers 36 or 1270. They are selling the exact same product as all the other schools, with very little that showcases the uniqueness within all of us. When schools believe the quality of the service they provide is measured by the average of the graduating class’ scores, they are doing anything but preparing students for the future. In a world that requires agility and the ability to cope within the unknown, how is studying for a test, where the essence of the questions is by its very nature known and static, preparing students for the challenges of 2030, or even now?
Studying authoritarianism for a year to sit an exam is not preparing for the unknown. Learning about photosynthesis to get a high mark several months down the line is not developing agility.
We need to ask ourselves “Why school?” “What is learning?” “How do we know we are learning?”
We need to provide learners of all ages with contexts in which they can identify problems, be agile in teams (and individually—in spite of Agile being about teams!), and cultivate a spirit of entrepreneurialism that will allow them not only to thrive in the workforce, but provide joy and meaning in learning throughout their lives.
Let’s stop competing on test scores and think about the impact students have on the world, themselves, and others. Let’s provide students with the context for them to learn how to learn, when they need to learn, and in purposeful ways that feed confident refection and transfer. Let’s end the commoditizing of quantified results and create artisanal learning experiences to ensure happiness and success in whichever forms learners can imagine.