Henry G. Brzycki | Why standardized testing and our current education model keeps us stuck in the 19th century

May 13, 2014 

What parents do not know and our local educational leaders do not want you to know is that standardized testing actually hurts children; it does more harm than good to their emotional, psychological and physical well-being.

In the 21st century, can’t we do better, can’t we come up with a new vision of a system of education that actually empowers the full and unique potentials of each child — the whole child?

This is what is very wrong about the U.S. Department of Education’s policies on standards and testing. It is not the model or prism of thinking that will allow the U.S. to flourish in the 21st century and beyond, in that it keeps us stuck in 19th century thinking about our society, schools and ourselves.

As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), numerous educational leaders have taken both sides of the standardized testing issue, and now with a whole new set of standards known as the Common Core, the debate has been heightened; this is as it should be because our children’s future well-being is at stake.

I hope to place an exclamation point on those voices locally and around the country that are against such outdated practices. I have consulted recently to the U.S. Department of Education on the Race to the Top initiative, where there is a strong chorus nationwide against NCLB-type testing requirements. In all but a few of the states, waivers have been granted holding schools and districts accountable using archaic methods.

Very forward, visionary, 21st century thinking has emerged nationwide, and many school districts will need to play catch-up. Can’t we do better than the black-and-white debate about whether standards-based education is the best way forward?

Many school board leaders and school superintendents share the view that because they have put so much into the existing model — i.e., testing — it would be easier to maintain it so as to realize the return on that investment. Still other leaders ask for input from key stakeholders —i.e., parents — inquiring into better ways to spend our money? Experienced educators and concerned parents already know that our model of education and required curricula foci does not support the whole child.

Compare this view with one of the most dynamic and visionary school leaders in Maryland, Joshua Starr, who is attempting to be a model disrupter by sponsoring the Gallup organization to survey students’ dreams. The thinking is that if educators can know and understand young people’s dreams for their futures, the curriculum and instruction provided through schooling can be designed to support their manifestation. Now that is 21st century thinking!

This is a 21st century schooling model because it teaches young people to learn how to inquire inward, into their deepest selves, to know what is important to them, their futures, and then to connect their knowledge more deeply.

Substantive academic studies demonstrate that when standards guide the pedagogy, students cannot and do not transfer this learning to other areas of their life, and even to other academic subjects, thus risking the potential for future success. Most directly and importantly, numerous research studies demonstrate that the most important protective factor and key indicator of a positive life course trajectory for children is self-knowledge, not how well one performs on a test.

Standardized testing reflects a 19th century education model in that it rests upon the psychological assumption that cold cognition, or thoughts and information, should be rationally processed. Whereas a 21st century education model is built upon “hot cognition,” or where intrinsic motivation, emotions, interests, life purpose in service to others, self-direction and self-regulation, personal choice and individually designed futures are the priority when designing and evaluating curriculum and instruction, not facts and information simply. The field of psychology has evolved dramatically, but these models have not influenced educational schooling best practices.

Our system of education is meant to impart societal values and a vision for the greater good, what we consciously or unconsciously want life to be like and feel like, our experiences in daily living.

Doesn’t it make sense to create a system that is learning-based, giving priority to the person’s individual needs instead of the standardized scale of learning?

Shouldn’t we be imparting competencies that develop the strengths of each person and dedicate resources to make certain that students are learning in accordance with who they are, their sense of their own purpose and their dreams for their lives? All this and more is possible, yet the current paradigm of education does not allow for us to create new methods that place students and their potential at the center of schooling.

What is often missing when standardized tests are the measure of educational effectiveness is the ability to take a deeper look at the inner self of the learner, to know who they are and want to become. Therefore, the focus of modern education should be on each student’s needs across all domains: social, emotional, physical, psychological and academic. A more forward thinking model that is available now should enable students to do the following:

•  Maintain high standards of mental and physical health and well-being, learning lifelong methods to further develop this well-being;

•  Become ready for college, career and life, demonstrating numerous competencies in each domain;

•  Become self-confident members of their community, contributing to the greater societal good;

•  Know themselves and their strengths, weaknesses, and future hopes and dreams; and

•  Have the flexibility to learn in both traditional and nontraditional ways, in and outside of the classroom, to support their unique strengths and needs.

A true modern education teaches students’ understanding of their own hopes and dreams in life, to enable them academically, professionally and socially to become the types of people they aspire to be with all the self-attributions they have and would like to develop.

We need to envision a transformed system of education that can support learners in gaining self-knowledge for personal and professional potential so they can demonstrate real competencies to succeed in life, rather than curricula based upon standardized knowledge and common core academic standards, a primary focus in education today.

Our policymakers have not done their homework to research 21st century best practices; therefore, our communities and society will remain stuck in the 19th century, producing people who are not well and not flourishing to the level of their God-given potentials. We can do better! Parents, let’s demand more from our educational leaders so that our children are happier, healthier and more able to flourish from their schooling experiences.

Henry G. Brzycki is president of The Brzycki Group, a human development and learning organization based in State College, and the author of a new book, “The Self in Schooling: Theory and Practice — How to Create Happy, Healthy, Flourishing Children in the 21st Century.” He can be contacted at henry@brzyckigroup.com.

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