Blog Post

Instead of Standardized Tests, Why Not Build the World Wide Web?

Everything we know about high-stakes, end-of-grade testing confirms that: (1) it only matches with and measures about 20% of the actual content a child learns in school;  (2) it really measures one's parents' income or education, not one's own achievement, knowledge, and intelligence; (3) you can boost a test result by taking extra prep work in "how to take this particular form of test"--which means that, in order to save their kids' future, their schools, and, in some states, their salaries and even their jobs, teachers have to "teach to the test" which means you are then teaching even content in a form geared to a test that is itself poor and content-poor; (4) the test measures a very narrow range not just of content but of thinking--no logical thinking, no inference, no experiential thinking, very little crossdisciplinary thinking:  "item response" really does mean learning by item and "one best answer" really means that the world shrinks to a few choices from which you choose the best:  nothing else in life works in such a way, with knowledge parsed into discreet bubbles and given to you as a series of simple options from which you select the best; (5) it leaves out so much about knowledge that is important--intuition, creativity, inspiration, originality so to make it the one end of all knowledge (even college entrance) is a disaster; and (6) the test itself de-motivates kids and teachers from real learning.  Oh, and (7): It isn't cheap anymore.  Making and grading and administering standardized tests costs each state tens and even hundreds of millions each year. 


Is there anything good about standardized testing?  Sure.  It's easy to grade.  And it lets you know in the broadest strokes which are your wealthiest, best educated school districts (which you could do more easily with census data or, perhaps, with a drive through the neighborhood)---and then it does sometimes highlight an anomaly, the one high-achieving school in a very poor area.    (How sad that "low income how achievers," given this one chance in life, would then be given such an impoverished form of learning to signal that something good is happening in that school!)


Okay.  Every good teacher I met in writing Now You See It said that it takes about two months of the school year to prep for the end-of-grade tests.  So I have a better idea with what to do with two intense months of every year . . .


(1) Abolish standardized testing (Finland did it, and still came out #1).  

(2) Put in its place real-time, incentivizing, problem-solving/testing where learning is constantly being organized around challenges.  I'm not at all against testing.   There are so many great ways to test and more and more of them are even being automated and developed with the content--I'll write about that another time.  When I learn Javascript on Code Academy, every thing I learn is presented as a test and, if I get it right, I get to go to the next hardest question and, if I get it wrong, then I go back a notch . . . and the test explains to me, in real time, what I did wrong and lets me try again and even gives me a digital pat on the back if I mastered it . . . and a harder question.   I'll write about that later.  We're getting better and better at such integrated, motivated, connected testing, including in complex subjects where "peer grading" is part of the testing and the learning.  But that's for another blog . . . for this I want to propose a content-based idea.

(3) With all that spare time not dedicated to prepping kids for a bubble test, why not teach them to code?   That's the fourth literacy.   Compulsory education for the last information age--the Industrial Age--was designed to instill basic literacy and numeracy, reading, writing, arithmetic.   Not every child who learned to read and write was intended to be a professional writer.  Not every child who learned to do math was intended to be a professional mathematician.  It was simply thought that, to be equipped to contribute to the great modernist Industrial post-Enlightment society, those three literacies were a requirement.   In our information age, the digital, learning basic coding skills should be our fourth literacy.  


If the equivalent of two months of every year were dedicated to coding, kids could be making websites, they could be interacting on line, they could be preparing for jobs of the future, and, even if they wanted a job that had nothing to do with the making the Web, the would understand what it feels like, not to have your world of learning shrink to the size of a bubble test, but expand to connection with anyone else on the World Wide Web.   They might even know to fight for keeping the Web a secure, private, safe, place, where you can be as creative as possible, connect with others with similar interests, and build future connections together, with as much skill, artistry, creativity, innovation, and design as you might desire. 


The thing about Webcraft is, like the other literacies, you learn a basic skill but, the more you learn, the more you can play and dream and make and do.   It's not just for geeks, but, if treated as a literacy, it is more like having a magic fountain pen that lets you create in movement, words (any language!), sociality, friendship, in global connection.  Nice.  It's also not just about code but about creativity, making new media, new narratives, new stories, new inventions, new websites, new mobile open source apps, and all kinds of things that use basic code to span the human, social, and computational sciences . . . that encourage creativity online for all kids (and may even help with the gender and racial gaps in current technology development by democratizing the knowledgeable voice saying what "we" all want).    What a great legacy to give to the next generation!


As Steve Jobs said, "technology is not enough."   We need the humanities and arts too to make the Web a lively place that is key to our lives, and that means we need as diverse a group of Webmakers as possible.  The Web's democratic possibilities are endless and that means literate citizens of this new global democratic force.


Just as the 3 R's helped citizens of the era of mass printing--when books were available to working and middle class people for the first time in human history--comfortable and confident in the medium of the age, so would the fourth literacy of coding make this era's kids comfortable with the technology and communication of our era.  Not just comfortable.  Creators.  Guardians.   Communicators of the World Wide Web.


Why not?  It's a big ambition but a pretty great one.   We giving some of those unemployed new college graduates the equivalent of Vista credits to go into schools to teach code or to teach their own subject areas so the school teachers could have the time to learn new ways of testing and new ways of teaching code themselves.  A great way to pay off student loans--a pay-it-forward for the next generation. 


Okay, enough dreaming for one day.   But what a creative and important world we'd win in if only we had the literacy to make it so.   We wouldn't need a standardized test.  We'd have a literate, informed, connected learning world . . .





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]











yes. let's.


I've had two responses to this piece that I want to share with readers.   One is from a friend who sent me this article  by Dale Dougherty, editor of Make magazine and one of the organizers of Maker Faires, who advocates getting rid of the standardized high-stakes testing in order, instead, to focus on kids using their knowledge to make things:


And another friend has sent this url for a discussion of "Smarterer," an international quizzing-as-learning-and-credentialing system, based on the system used to rank chess masters, that is an already existing and far more sophisticated form of assessment that happens in real time and inspires actual learning.  Check it out!


Anonymous (not verified)

Test Tube Baby The first IVF baby was Louise Brown, born at 11:47 p.m. on July 25, 1978 at Oldham General Hospital, Oldham, England through a planned caesarean section. She weighed 5 pounds, 12 ounces (2.608 kg) at birth. Dr. Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist at Oldham General Hospital, and Dr. Robert Edwards, a physiologist at Cambridge University, had been actively working on finding an alternative solution for conception since 1966.