Spoiler alert and “huge surprise”: the NY Times did NOT choose to print the following as a guest editorial. Well, let’s show ’em how K-12 educators can weigh in on big ideas without the popular press!
Amidst the seemingly endless list of polarizing arguments tearing at the American landscape, American K-12 education has high billing. On the one hand the media gives powerful, if generally shallow, coverage to the results of international tests that supposedly show American students trailing those of China, Singapore, Korea…and a substantial list of developing countries. In a reflexive response we double-down on the time and effort we spend preparing students to perform better on those tests. On the other hand are the growing shouts of business leaders, educators, futurists, parents of underemployed college graduates, and those graduates themselves who understand that doing well on bubble tests is precisely NOT what either American students or America needs to secure a place of global leadership in a rapidly changing world. We have built an existential conflict into K-12 education between the outcomes we want and a manic focus on testing something completely different. I propose an audacious, but very simple and doable, first step towards solving this conflict.
Over the last two years I have asked many hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers, administrators, parents, and students what our students need in order to be successful in their futures. They say overwhelmingly that our students need to graduate high school with proficiency in basic academic disciplines as well as a distinct set of skills and character traits. These include persistence, confidence, resilience, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, courage, perspective, empathy, self-control, and the ability to work on a team. They also say that learning should be built around broad trans-disciplinary themes as opposed to narrow subjects; student imagination and responsibility as opposed to teacher-as-preacher; and the higher-order thinking skills of creativity and syntheses as opposed to the lower-level acquisition and memorization of facts.
There are many tough obstacles to replacing our industrial-age, assembly line model of K-12 education with one that focuses on what stakeholders say they want and need. One of the biggest obstacles is actually one that we can do something about right now: the college admissions process and its reliance on standardized admissions testing scores, primarily the SAT, ACT, and AP tests. Much of the testing towards which we focus our K-12 education remains rooted in short-term content memorization and regurgitation. High school communities are frozen by the fear that innovation will disadvantage their graduating students in the college admissions process. They knowingly sacrifice profoundly deeper, richer, learning experiences to find a few more points on standardized tests. Many elementary and even middle schools offer curricula that build on the natural creativity, wide thinking, and imagination of children, only to have those elements, including the joy of learning, drained out of the schools and students as they move on to upper grades. By high school, the looming obstacle of college admissions exams places the focus squarely on learning facts and content, much of which students can easily find on their smart phones, and much of which we know they will forget as soon as the tests are behind them. Educators are thrust into a box that they know is not best at preparing our students for their futures.
I suggest a serious and remarkably simple proposal. I invite the Ivy League universities, Stanford, and other “highly selective” schools to be the first to pledge the following: “Each year in advance of the admissions season, we will, without collusion with other colleges, publish the minimum scores we will accept on the SAT and ACT. Once an applicant is deemed to have met the minimum standard score, those scores will play no further role in determining an offer of admission.”
Some very thoughtful educators will rightly see this proposal as a half measure. They argue with compelling evidence that any set of standardized tests is biased and that a focus on these standards takes away from the basics of deeper learning; they want to get rid of these exams altogether. But someone has to take the first step, and this would be a large first step. Should all colleges and universities take this pledge? Of course; but I call on those with the strongest admissions demand to take the lead. American higher education has been trapped for decades in an admissions test arms race, and it is up to colleges with overwhelming admissions demand to begin the process of “disarmament”.
The downside for colleges is minimal. They each have detailed data to determine these acceptable minimum scores, and may adjust them over time. They know the predictive role that admissions exam scores do, and do not, play in the success of students at their respective schools. They already accept students with a significant range of SAT/ACT scores, and many no longer give credit for high scores on the Advanced Placement exams.
The positive impact of this pledge from a group of “leading” colleges and universities would be seismic. Others will quickly follow. Most importantly, by decreasing the emphasis on standardized admissions tests, K-12 education can focus less on creating “standardized” students, which is precisely what we don’t need. Admission to college will focus a bit more on who a student is, what they have done, and their hopes, passions, imagination, and dreams, and a bit less on a student’s ability to cram for an exam.
Is this a comprehensive solution to the dilemma of an outdated industrial-age model of education in a knowledge-age world? No; we have a long way to go. But we have to start chipping away at the problem, and someone has to say that the “emperor” of college admissions exams just has no clothes, or at best skimpy undergarments. The best American colleges and universities, arguably the best in the world, have the opportunity to lead, to take a small risk, and help break the inertia that is unnecessarily trapping K-12 education in a learning model that is already decades out of phase with the critical needs of our students, and who America needs those students to become. The bottom line is that America does not need students who outperform China and other countries on standardized exams (Yong Zhao: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon). We need students who love learning so much that they dedicate their lives to creatively solving the incredibly complex problems that the future holds.