Soft Skills and Standardized Tests

The governor of New York recently proposed that 50% of teachers evaluations be based on the results of standardized tests. I’m not going to go into great detail about how much of fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of standardized tests that is. The short version is that standardized tests give the most useful information when disaggregated, so for example looking at a district by district sample, or by selecting randomized classrooms from the entire state/province to give an overall picture. Other people have explained what a problem it is to hold teachers responsible for things they don’t have full control over. I’m not going to go into that today. Instead I’m going to focus on the labour market.

Yep, my problem with this proposal has more to do with the needs of the labour market than the problem it poses for teachers.

Over the last while more and more studies have come out showing that employers feel those entering the workforce are lacking what are commonly called “soft skills”. The main skills that are lacking are oral communication, written communication, reading, basic math, working in teams, thinking skills, and computer use. Guess how many of those show up well on standardized tests? One. In another aside these skills the hallmarks of a properly done liberal arts education, think on that a while.

When one assessment becomes more and more important that is what is focused on. It’s why there’s a push to make final exams worth less and less because then it encourages students to focus on all of the parts of their education rather than just “will this be on my final test”. Similarly when an assessment becomes more and more part of a teachers evaluation the teachers will spend more and more time on that. Going back to New York, if 50% of your job evaluation is based on student test scores you’ll spend at least 50% of your time on test prep rather than other important things. And as I’ve already pointed out of the skills that employers say are lacking only one of them is easily assessed through a standardized test.

So what the governor is saying by proposing this is that instead of focusing on what will actually assess and improve the key soft skills (peer graded group projects, speeches and presentations, essays and reports, sustained individualized reading, etc) teachers will instead need to focus on skills that are becoming less and less important to our economy: memorization of facts, ability to understand standardized test questions, etc.

The end result of the proposal would be an increase in two things to the determent of all others: lecture time and test preparation. The fact that this is happening at the same time as those two things are being denigrated in the popular press makes this all the more flabbergasting.

I’ll leave you with one final question: why are we testing? If the purpose of secondary education to get into either the work force or post secondary education then soft skills are going to be much more important than the ability to take a computer graded test. If the purpose of the test is to make some politician feel better about himself then I think we have a problem.

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