Fighting for Equity in Education

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Education is More Than Test Scores

Monday October 22, 2012

All the weight now placed on NAPLAN scores and international test scores as the measure of education success ignores a fundamental dictum: education is more than test scores. Tests ignore much of what schools do that is highly valuable to children growing up and to society. The Prime Minister and her Education Minister do not appear to understand this.

A paper recently published by UNESCO provides a much-needed and valuable reminder that education should be about the all-round development of individuals. It suggests that the current emphasis on test scores as the measure of education achievement is in fact diminishing education. The paper was written by Henry Levin, Professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University and Emeritus Professor at Stanford University.

Levin argues that basing assessments of education success on test scores is a very limited approach. He says that knowledge and cognitive functioning are clearly an important goal of schools. They are important determinants of both educational outcomes and life chances. However, more is required of students and adults than just cognitive proficiencies as measured by test scores.

Non-cognitive or behavioural and social skills and attitudes are also crucial. They include social and emotional skills; attitudes towards self and others; positive social behaviour and emotional health. All these outcomes play a role in forming healthy character and contribute to productive relations in workplaces, communities, families, and politics.

Levin argues that conventional test scores have much less power than is commonly assumed to predict performance in these roles, and particularly to predict economic productivity. The practice of limiting the meaning of exemplary schools to the narrow criterion of achievement scores usually rests on the assumption that a nation’s economic productivity and national economic success are largely determined by the test performances of its children. He reviews an extensive literature which shows that the measured relationships between test scores and earnings or productivity are modest and explain a relatively small share of the larger link between educational attainment and economic outcomes.

Certainly, students performing below a reasonable test score threshold may find it difficult to gain and hold employment and benefit from training, and reducing these deficiencies should be an important focus in an educational system that aspires to a world-class rating. However, non-cognitive aspects of school outcomes are also at play and need to be considered.

There is extensive research evidence that non-cognitive skills can be taught through purposive interventions and that they can make a difference for many valuable social/behavioural outcomes and for student achievement. The latter is an important conclusion; not only are these outcomes important in themselves, but they also appear to have a positive impact on raising achievement. For example, the most extensive evaluation of teaching social and emotional skills and their impact has found that the average effect of socio-emotional interventions on achievement is equivalent to about a 30-point increase in PISA scores – nearly one year’s growth in learning.

Levin says that the focus on test scores and the omission of the non-cognitive impact of schools can create far-reaching damage. In the United States, the singular focus on test scores in reading, mathematics and science has led to schools narrowing their curriculum and focusing on test preparation as a major teaching strategy. Schools are pressed to use their time and resources to improve scores on these subjects at the expense of other activities and subjects including non-cognitive goals. The teaching strategies used to raise test results, such as test preparation, cramming, tutoring, and endless memorization, may have little effect on the broader cognitive and non-cognitive skills that people need if they are to perform as competent adults contributing to a dynamic economy.

Levin says that the quest for world-class schools must encompass a range of human development characteristics that extend considerably beyond test scores.

It is a message that Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett would do well to heed. They have set East Asian test scores as the benchmark for Australian education, but have ignored its limitations – the long hours of homework and private tutoring which dominate the lives of children from a very young age and the dominance of rote learning and memorization as teaching techniques. These limitations are the subject growing concern in these countries even as the Federal Government seeks to emulate them by placing ever more importance on test scores.

Trevor Cobbold


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