Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Tyranny of the One Right Answer

My son was a bit of an outside of the box thinker; a type that has never been very welcome in the American public high school. So, we were resigned to the fact that he would often struggle in school, particularly in math, which he hated. Our concern came to a head, though, when it became apparent that the boy might not graduate from high school because he could not pass algebra. Dutifully, I sat down with him and asked what we could possibly do to make sure he passed this time. My son, never one to answer a direct question with a direct answer, responded, “You know what the problem with math is, Dad?”

“No, what is it?”

“It’s this obsession with the one right answer.”

I laughed in spite of myself. I, of course, explained that sometimes in life you need that one right answer. If you are building a bridge or balancing a check book or trying to locate a place on a map, you need that one right answer. But I also took some pride in the response. After all, I had become a social studies teacher, in part, because I enjoyed the give and take of a good discussion about issues that had many possible, and no absolutely correct, answers.

I am reminded of this story today, because I am reading about the impact of the country’s current obsession with standardized tests on creativity, innovation and divergent thinking. By far the most important book on this topic is Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the Best (And Worst) Educational System in the World by Yong Zhao. Zhao was born and educated in China. He came to the United States to attend graduate school and is currently a professor at the University of Oregon. He says that China has achieved preeminence in the world in student performance on standardized tests, but has done so at the cost of creativity, originality and individualism.

Zhao believes the United States government's obsession with test scores and international comparisons like the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) that show the United States students lagging behind students in East Asian countries and Finland is misplaced. In an interview with the New York Times he says

[E]xcessive focus on test scores hinders a real education, which is more about helping each and every child grow rather than forcing them to achieve high test scores. In other words, PISA and other tests measure something very different from the quality of education...

What are the possible costs to a country like China that relies on a standardized test driven educational system focused on accountability and higher test scores?

[A] narrow education experience that is centrally dictated, uniformly programmed and constantly monitored by standardized tests is unlikely to value individual talents, respect students’ interest and passion, cultivate creativity or entrepreneurial thinking, or foster the development of non cognitive capacities. But it is the diversity of talents, passion-driven creativity and entrepreneurship, and social-emotional well-being of individuals that are needed for the future economy.

And what kind of education should we be focused on in the United States?

The education we need is actually quite simply “follow the child.” We need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards

The danger that the American educational system faces is palpable and real. By focusing on standardized test score comparisons with countries that do not match our culture or our children we risk destroying all that is good in this country's educational system. A world class educational system is one that focuses on the academic, social, emotional and physical development of every individual child. 

As I talk to teachers, parents and students in our schools today, I hear their concern. Many are aware that something is being lost. For teachers it is often the opportunity to follow students interests when an interesting question occurs. For parents it is concern over time devoted to test preparation that could be spent on art, music or physical education. For students it is the anxiety produced by having to take tests with ill defined consequences and heightened expectations. 

When students take a standardized test, they usually face a multiple choice question with four choices. Often several choices could be correct, but students know that only one answer will be considered correct. Standardized tests do not leave room for alternatives. They embody the tyranny of the one right answer.

Educational policy makers on the national and state level have bought into standardized tests as the one right answer. They are wrong and the tyranny of that one right answer may very well come to haunt us in the future when we begin to ask, "Where has American innovation and creativity gone?"

This is not a multiple choice question. We may find that American innovation and creative thought has gone the way of the dodo bird, driven to extinction by an environment that holds test scores to be the route to improved learning.

Last week, 70% of the students at Princeton High School in New Jersey opted out of taking the Common Core aligned PARCC standardized test. Apparently, they determined that after weighing all the variables, they were better off not taking it. Now that is in the grand tradition of American innovation, creativity and independence.