Jack has a new, thought- and blog post-provoking blogpost entitled Why Math & Reading are Overrated.
I read the post largely as a call for broader assessment of students, both in rating schools and college admissions. I understand Jack’s points, but I would like to suggest that there are good reasons for maintaining a narrow focus on math and reading in large-scale assessments.
Math and reading are fundamental, necessary if not sufficient for success in a broad range of academic pursuits. To deprive children of the opportunity to master reading and elementary mathematics is to severely limit their future options, both in school and in the workforce. To use Jack’s example, weak public speaking skills aren’t likely to prevent a person from successfully completing an engineering degree, but weak math skills certainly will.
I’m no longer sure that there are any other academic subjects or skills, except to some extent writing, for which this is more or less universally true. That is, for any other academic subject, we can identify many successful people with little knowledge of it–geography, history, government, science, art, music, literature, or foreign languages.
Moreover, if something is hard to measure well in a large-scale assessment, we certainly shouldn’t be measuring it poorly with high stakes attached to the results, no matter how highly we value the thing that is hard to measure well.
Consider the case of large-scale writing assessments and the unfortunate effect they have had on writing instruction. There is an inherent difficulty in ensuring consistent scoring for thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of writing samples (or extended constructed responses, if you prefer), necessitating a detailed scoring rubric, followed by teaching to the test (scoring rubric, really), with the horrible result of not excellence, but tedious and formulaic writing (see the five paragraph essay or the 3-5-3).
No doubt that attempts at large-scale assessments of 21st century skills would result in teaching students to produce similarly tedious and formulaic evidence of their capacities for “critical thinking”, “creativity”, “innovation”, “collaboration”, and public speaking.
Which means, I think, that a narrow focus on math and reading is preferable to more expansive large-scale, high stakes tests in order to allow local districts and individual students as much leeway as possible to shape school programs according to their own educational values and goals.
More than that, I think that a narrow focus on assessments of basic competency in math and reading is preferable to more expansive, high stakes tests that purport to be able to measure higher order thinking/depth of understanding or other 21st century skills. I think H. Wu offers a compelling argument for a driver’s license style, basic competency assessment for math and reading. His article is worth reading in its entirety, not just for the details of his suggested alternative, but also for his overview of the limitations of large-scale assessments.
Would the assessments measure all of the things that Jack thinks are important? Nope. But perhaps they could change the conversation we’re currently having about public education and mitigate the worst effects of large-scale, high stakes assessment.