Posted by Charles Sampson on 3/7/2016

“Standardized,” like “rigor,” is one of those words that we sometimes use without really thinking about its dictionary meaning. “Standardized” usually means making or causing things to be the same size, weight, shape.

Public schools in New Jersey administer standardized assessments to our students at each grade level, 3-11. We are not looking to make all students the same. Rather, the purpose of the assessment program is to ensure fidelity to curriculum standards and gauge student achievement against those standards. Such assessments, when used properly, reveal equity issues in schools and districts, help teachers pinpoint individual student strengths and areas for growth, and inform the improvement of our instructional program. No single assessment can do all of these things in the context of a district’s local priorities. Districts use collections of assessments, some standardized and some not, to paint this picture.

I am growing increasingly concerned, however, that specific standardized assessments are becoming the only acceptable barometers. These specific assessments may not be the most appropriate measurements of mastery for all students. The time necessary to prepare for, administer, and monitor these assessments may not represent the best use of time for all classrooms. I am led to the unavoidable question: is there a better way?

From age 15, I’ve experienced workplaces that included individuals with widely divergent skills and interests. The same holds true of my college and graduate school experiences. People are not standardized. They are individuals.

If our standards are meant to provide only a foundation for the development of our local curriculum, and our goals for individual students, is it unreasonable to expect more flexibility in assessment, standardized or not? A typical high school student today now faces up to 30 hours of standardized assessments. Must we require 30 hours of testing to measure every student’s achievement of those standards? Our students deserve accountability that is balanced with the need for expanded classwork to develop modern skills. The day of more nuanced assessments that preserve validity but are more respectful of instructional time has arrived. Today’s world and today’s educational standards require a creativity that no standardized test can measure or foster in any student.

When we accept a monolithic assessment regime, we are embracing a paradigm that ignores the skills that students need to thrive in the modern age. I would welcome the opportunity for students to demonstrate skills such as cognitive flexibility, problem solving, creativity, collaboration and negotiation. These are exceptionally complex skills, but I am certain we can measure them in less than 30 hours.

The realities of modern life rarely require one best answer. Rather, we find ourselves exploring a host of possible answers, among which we must use our abilities to determine the most reasonable and effective choices. Indeed, our standards respect this reality by stressing the need for students to understand how to recognize, apply, and advocate for different approaches. Our determination of student achievement cannot remain so static as to be captured by a single standardized assessment. Nor can we allow the varied and effective measures that we know to be truer reflections of the real world to be crowded out by that standardized assessment.

Our charge as educational leaders is to open new avenues for students to find and develop their passions through challenging coursework, meeting standards along the way. I am not suggesting we jettison standardized assessments. However, such assessments are just threads in the complex tapestry of a student’s mastery of standards along the way to realizing passions.

Standardized assessments therefore have a place in our measurement. When their importance outweighs their utility, and when the investment of time, energy and money diverts from the true achievement of necessary skills, the assessments become an impediment rather than a measurement.

We are educational leaders. We commit to the mission of preparing all students to flourish in tomorrow’s world.

Shame on us if we are not fighting to ensure a more balanced approach to understanding our student strengths and needs in anticipation of that world.