It’s gotten to the point where I shudder every time I hear people with plans to “increase student achievement” or “improve schools” because whenever I dig more deeply into what those phrases mean it always comes down to one thing: improving standardized test scores. And the reasons are clear:  they’re easy to give and to make sense of, they provide our competitive society with some way to rank what’s happening with schools and students, and because we’ve build a billion dollar industry on making sure every kid learns the same thing in the same way on the same day so he or she can pass the test.

Problem is, far too little of what those assessments “measure” is what I care about as a parent.

I read this fascinating article about a the recycling company TerraCycle yesterday. It called the company “The Google of Garbage,” and I couldn’t help but be  taken by the creativity that the founder Tom Szaky brings to his business approach. The company is located just down the road from me in Trenton, NJ, and my environmentalist author/wife Wendy actually did some work with Tom a few years back when the company was just getting started. Here’s the article’s description of the way he got his start:

Szaky’s novel business plan was to ‘make a tremendous amount of money’ out of the leftovers from the Princeton canteen. The scheme involved shovelling the food slops on to a Heath-Robinson-like conveyer belt, where worms would gobble up the leftovers and turn it into worm casts, which were then liquefied to form a rich fertiliser for the gardening industry. Apart from the labour, mostly provided by the worms, and the cost of running the machine, it was a zero-cost operation. Szaky decided to sell this home-brewed plant food, Earth Plant Fuel, in re-purposed soft-drinks bottles with spray-gun tops bought from a remainder company. In the two years it took for orders from shops to start trickling in, he dropped out of college and TerraCycle was born.

Now I know that this isn’t the usual story, but you can’t help but love it when someone has an idea and has the guts to pursue it. It’s passion, and as you read the rest of the article, you can see that almost his entire business is about solving problems, most of them other people’s, like how can we reuse used tea bags and make them into something useful.

May just be me, but in 20 years, I want to be reading that story about my kids, about their passions being fulfilled in ways that can earn them a living solving problems and helping to make the world a better place. And I want my kids’ schools to help them do that, not teach them to know the dates of the Second Continental Congress (which is what Tucker was looking up on Wikipedia last night because he knows it’s going to be “on the test.” Sigh.)

So when I was reading Douglas Reeves chapter “A Framework for Assessing 21st Century Skills” in the “21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Student Learn” book that I wrote about a few months back, I was really interested in the focus points he provides for assessment:

  • Learn (What did you know? What are you able to do?)
  • Understand (What is the evidence that you can apply learning in one domain to another?)
  • Share (How did you use what you have learned to help a person, the class, the community or the planet?)
  • Explore (What did you learn beyond the limits of the lesson? What mistakes did you make, and how did you learn from them?)
  • Create (What new ideas, knowledge, or understanding can you offer?)

These are not sequential, but ongoing, and in all of these, Reeves moves the conversation not only away from the standardized framework to a more fluid one, but advocates doing all of it transparently, and, importantly, focuses on group assessments not just individual ones. This type of learning and assessment should be shared widely and should be built upon by others. It gives a whole different picture of learning as an ongoing process, not an event, not something that can be summed up in the reporting back of a few facts and figures on a short answer test.

A couple of snips from the essay that stood out:

Students are not merely consumers of education laboring for their next reward. Their success is measured not just in terms of tests passed, but by the ways in which they apply their earning to help others. They measure their significance not by how they have distinguished themselves, but by the impact that they had on their communities and the world.

And:

Educational leaders cannot talk about the need for collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity and at the same time leave teachers and school administrators fenced in by obsolete assessment mechanisms, policies and assumptions.

Two depressing facts about assessment keep weighing me down in all of this. First we teach what we assess, and second, we get the assessments we can afford (both in time and in money.) Neither of those two facts gets us very close to a much needed, systemic upgrade of assessing learning. And as Reeves notes, a third depressing fact is that this will require us to be able to step out of our own school experience, to be willing to define success in ways that are unfamiliar and more nuanced. That may be the biggest barrier of all.

(Photo: “Taking a test at the Real Estate Investing College” by Casey Serin.)