Better test scores don’t make better lives

December 24, 2018 GMT

When it comes to education in New Mexico, there’s an elephant in the room. So let’s address it head on. Test scores are not a proxy for a better life for students. Instead, the focus on improving scores distracts us from the more foundational needs of our children.

In our 10 years of education research, innovation and partnerships with employers, Future Focused Education has learned that a young person’s determination, self-control, and ability to work collaboratively are real metrics for success. These are the characteristics that correlate to lifelong prosperity. And they’re the attributes that suffer first when we design schools to improve test scores.

In other words, increasing test scores does not improve the lives of students. University of Arkansas Professor Jay Greene is direct in his criticism, “If increasing test scores is a good indicator of improving later life outcomes, we should see roughly the same direction and magnitude in changes of scores and later outcomes in most rigorously identified studies. We do not.” Basically, we have an accountability system that reinforces the very things that don’t make us better off. So what do we do when the definition of “achievement” is disconnected to the health and prosperity of our communities?

Time to act

For the first time in a decade, the social, political, and financial landscapes are aligned for change. Beginning in January, we have money in the state budget, a new forward-thinking administration and an imperative with the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit to deliver on our promise to educate all students, especially special education and students of color. Finally, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act gives us the chance to rethink our accountability systems.

Recently, Edward Tabet-Cubero, executive director of the New Mexico Learning Alliance and former leader of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, wrote about the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit which will loom large over the incoming Lujan Grisham administration. Tabet-Cubero was clear in his article that, “We need to seize the opportunity for a wholesale transformation of our state’s education system in a way that fosters innovative, research-based practices that build on the unique assets that make us New Mexican.” I couldn’t agree more.

Ask the educators and employers

The first step is to reinvest in local communities: our parents, teachers, mentors, and businesses know young people the best. Future Focused Education has worked for 10 years across the state asking educators, employers, and business leaders what they’re looking for in students and future workers. Our research shows that success is determined not by test scores, but by measures of self-determination, cultural understanding, and collaboration — factors that aren’t captured by standardized tests.

Remodel the testing system

The second step is to remodel our assessment system. Math and reading always matter, but not at the detriment of the other skills students need in their future. We need a foundational shift that moves away from heavy-handed accountability, to a system that is responsive to communities’ needs and values teacher judgment to know if students are learning. We shouldn’t settle for something that is just a less offensive version of what we have now.

Re-empower the teachers

The third step is to invest in teachers. When we focus on standardized tests, teachers are forced to disconnect from the real needs of students. We have a shockingly high teacher shortage and turnover in New Mexico. When teacher evaluation is tied to test scores, classrooms suffer. According to research by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “In short, the teachers who produce improvements in student behavior and non-cognitive skills are not particularly likely to be the same teachers who improve test scores.”

If we make these three foundational shifts, we could transform our schools into highly collaborative and professional institutions. We could help lift our community out of poverty and into prosperity. We’ve done the research, we have the solutions. With this new administration, now is the time to take action.

Tony Monfiletto is executive director of Future Focused Education.