Testing Destiny

As Pete Seeger sang years ago, “when will we ever learn?”  Yes, that dates me and gives me over 40 years of perspective in education.  So, my question is, knowing the results of the testing every child, when will we learn that this is not working?  We all know Einstein’s quote about continuing to do the same thing expecting different results is insanity.  So, how long do we stay on a path to nowhere?

For many years Art Costa and Bena Kallick have promoted the idea of Habits of Mind that encourage, support, and sustain learning.  All of these habits cost no money and can be developed.  David Berliner and Gene Glass, in their recent book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, have research citations that help answer some of the errors of thinking about our school system. Yong Zhao has been on the forefront of pushing back against the unrelenting testing culture. The newest book by Tony Wagner (Most Likely to Succeed) reasserts the need to move away from the testing culture and move toward a learning culture.  Wagner provides examples of existing schools.  Please note that Wagner’s last three books have built the case for what schools of the future could be.  Very few districts have seriously changed what they are doing.  We highly recommend all these books and are grateful for the good thinking that produces solid ideas for what can work.

I am not going to review the historical reasons for or the continuation of the testing culture in America.  Let’s just say, “follow the money” to corporate profits.  What we do want to question is, “What is the future, our destiny, by continuing to follow blindly testing as a way to the bottom in the world?”

I am reminded of another book by Mark Miller, Chess not Checkers.  With the focus on the testing culture, we are playing Checkers.  Move straight ahead (mostly), strict guidelines, and not very complicated when you know the limited moves.  HOWEVER, the world is playing Chess — multiple players with multiple moves, highly complex since there are many ways to play, and every move creates many more options than in Checkers.

What I see as our destiny with the testing frenzy is three fold. (Yes, there are assuredly many more).  First, what is the end point?  It seems there is no end point to the continuing developing tests.  Every time we say we want to assess skills, habits, etc., a new test appears which costs more money, sucking more resources out of the funding stream for kids. (Note: the political landscape has been complicit in this).  The end point that I would like to see is creating schools that reduce the focus, the blame and shame of test scores, and move toward skills and behavior that business says they want and are sustainable for constantly changing world.

The second thought I have is we need trial and error.  High stakes testing reduces the desire for trial and error and makes the right answer the goal.  Last week I needed a little help from the Apple Genius Bar.  I asked the very young man, who fixed my problem in 5 minutes, how he learned all of this knowledge and skills to be a Genius Bar representative.  He said he had been there 5 years and learned through trial and error. In addition, each week the Apple Store brought everyone together to find out how they had solved problems, sharing with all the others important information and success stories. I read mostly in the business literature to find successful models that could adapted to education.  Neither business nor education has THE answer.  Progress has usually been as a result of combinations from multiple sources.

Another example of useful practice from one area to another is Richard Sheridan at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He wrote the book, Joy, Inc.  Once a day the staff comes together in a circle and in 15 minutes, share what they are working on, what they are learning, and where they might need help from others in the group.  After the initial sharing people connect to share what they know to help their colleagues.  It is an amazing process to watch. It is the best PLC I have ever seen!

Third, what are we assessing? Lazlo Bock, HR director at Google, says he hires for learning ability, collaboration, and leadership.  Hmmmmmm, where are we assessing those skills on state or national tests?  Costa and Kallick have been suggesting for years we assess habits in addition to any content-based testing. Knowledge is important AND insufficient.  The key question employers are asking is what can you do, not, what do you know.  Ah, chess again! Maybe we should assess habits and skills that makes a person successful, not just content.  After all, I have a computer, iphone, etc., to help me find the content I need. I also have my own personal learning network which is the most valuable for my learning.

So the point to me in the end, is the why aren’t we using “both/and” thinking and doing rather than “either/or.”  I know there is not as much money in assessing skills for companies. Of course, that is not what I think education should be about. How about learning?  As Yong Zhao said, “what’s insignificant is easy to measure, what’s significant is hard to measure.”

Our destiny should not be testing.  Our goal should be ongoing learning to adapt to a changing world.  Let’s quit putting whipped cream on horse dung and get serious about preparing our youth for a world we don’t know about called “the future.”  They deserve it and we certainly need it.


Berliner, David & Glass, Gene. (2014). 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public    Schools.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Costa, Art & Kallick, Bena. (2009. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA:      ASCD Publications

Miller, Mark (2015). Chess Not Checkers.  Oakland:  Berrett-Koehler

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Wagner, Tony & Dintersmith, Ted. (2015). Most Likely to Succeed.  New York: Scribner

Zhao, Yong. (2016). Counting What Counts.  Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree