Blog Post

smacking down the Boston Globe: What they got wrong about standardized tests, 21st Century Skills, and the value of assessment

Cross-posted from my blog, sleeping alone and starting out early :


Thank goodness the Boston Globe is shutting down anyway, or I'd have to smack it down big-time for this editorial arguing that we shouldn't standardize and measure achievement on so-called 21st-century skills. The op-ed offers further proof--as if we needed it--that the Globe's editorial board has no idea how the playing field has been utterly transformed by participatory culture. The impetus behind the op-ed is a move by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to put its money where its mouth is. The department recently awarded a $146 million contract to the designer of the MCAS, the standardized test mandated in the commonwealth of Massachusetts by No Child Left Behind, and part of that money is earmarked for integration of 21st-century skills assessment. This is a problem, as the Globe's editorial board will point out momentarily.But first, it uses state MCAS scores as proof of public school rigor. As it explains,

Massachusetts stands apart in public education precisely because it created high academic standards, developed an objective measure of student performance and progress through the MCAS test, and required a passing grade in order to graduate. Students, as a result, rank at or near the top of standardized testing not just nationally but on tough international achievement tests in math and science. Any retreat from this strategy would be a profound mistake.

So to summarize: Massachusetts students are among the top in the nation because their achievement on standardized tests prepares them to...score well on standardized tests. It's like the iconic example of circular reasoning: The MCAS is useful because it prepares them for future learning. How do you know? Because Massachusetts students do well on other standardized tests. What prepares them to do well on those tests? Doing well on standardized tests, of course. Given the Globe's wholehearted genuflection at the altar of bubble tests, one wonders why this editorial might oppose integrating assessment of 21st-century skills in addition to traditional subjects. It turns their concern is less about whether we should measure 21st century skills than it is about how doing so on the MCAS will affect test scores in general. As the editorial points out,

[s]tate education officials have done a generally poor job of defining 21st-century skills - which can include interdisciplinary thinking and media literacy - or explaining how to test them statewide.

The problem for the Globe, it turns out, is that if we develop mediocre assessment strategies it'll ruin the MCAS for all of us. Because 21st-century skills can only be measured subjectively, the Globe argues, an "objective" test like the MCAS is an inappropriate place to assess achievement. Instead,

MCAS testers should concentrate on accurately measuring math ability and reading comprehension, which surely correlate with a student's success in the workplace.

Let's leave, just for now, the outrageous assumption that a standardized test could conceivably be considered "objective." Let's leave the assumption that a standardized test could "accurately" measure student ability in anything other than the ability to engage in the weird and peculiar game of test-taking. Which leaves just one last question:In what world can anybody make the argument that achievement in math and reading without the accompanying facility with 21st-century proficiencies prepares any learning for any workplace worth the energy of applying for employment in the first place?

It's such a weird argument to make, that literacy practices like reading, writing, and doing math can be somehow isolated from the 21st-century contexts that make them meaningful. It's like asking someone if she knows how to tie her shoe, then making her prove it by writing a detailed step-by-step description of how to do it. It's like asking someone to prove he can build a fire: But is the fire for warmth, for signaling for help, or for burning the whole house down?

Same with math: Knowing how to "do" fractions doesn't mean a learner is equipped to, say, resize a .jpg for a blogpost. Arguing that we should keep 21st-century skills out of standardized tests in order to keep the tests objectives is as lame as the argument that standardized tests are objective in the first place. Neither one makes any logical sense. Neither one gets you anywhere.



There is so much wrong in this editorial I hardly know where to begin. To think standardized testing tests anything other than what the test was designed to test shows naivete beyond comprehension. To think testing twenty-first century skills leads to a "softening" and is equal to (horrors) interdisciplinary thinking and an understanding of new media . . . well, we can't have that, not as the whole Boston Globe and all other newspapers are in jeopardy.


Thanks for posting this. You could just about put this editorial in a test-tube with the label "Why 'Formal Public Education' does not equal 'Learning'" . . . and why "newspapers" don't have to equal "journalism" either . . .


Then again, the folks who might be misguided enough to support this editorial stance may well be the ones who want to save the Boston Globe as we know it rather than rethink (and we ALL need to do this, seriously) what a newspaper is and can do in the 21st century. I'm not at all in favor of the Boston Globe or the NY Times failing. But I am in favor of rethinking what they are. Like GM and Chrysler, it is time to think about intellectual and journalistic fuel efficiency and not simply nostalgia for a form that obviously needs to change to survive and compete and contribute.


[Btw, how do you think about complex issues like that by taking a standardized test? Shouldn't we be teaching our kids complexity, not multiple choice where only one choice is the right answer? Now more than ever!]


Times they are a'changin . . .



Thanks for your response! I completely agree with you, and it just so happens that I published a blogpost on exactly the issues you raise on my blog today! I'd love for you to take a look, if you get a chance:


Jenna McWilliams
Curriculum Specialist
Project New Media Literacies
MIT Comparative Media Studies