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Beyond the Scantron

In this installment of our Half-Baked Design Challenge, Chris Bosh, Mac Miller, and more redesign the standardized test.

During one particular late-night editorial meeting, when all of us here at GOOD HQ probably had a few too many, we came up with the idea to send briefs detailing global problems to some of our most creative friends with one simple instruction: to design a solution to the problem in less than 30 minutes, a time frame that would make them think about the problem, but limit the extent to which it might overwhelm them. Call it "The Half-Baked Design Challenge." Some of the solutions are comical. Some are super thoughtful. Some, to be perfectly frank, are mildly disturbing. But all of them engage creatively with a problem in search of a solution, and we think that's a good thing. In this installment, we redesign the standardized test.

Standardized tests aren’t a modern invention. Nearly two millennia ago, the Chinese began using them to assess which citizens had enough knowledge of Confucian philosophy to become government employees. In the late 1700s, the Prussians advocated a standardized education system and, pretty soon, the standardized test had spread everywhere from the United States to Japan. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, it became a way to assess whether a student should go to the field, the factory, or the university. Ellwood P. Cubberley, who went on to become the dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education wrote in the early 1900s that “Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” Standardized testing became the way to sort those products.

In recent years, the reigning international test has been the Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests critical thinking in math, science, and reading, and is administered every three years to 15-year-olds around the world. In 2001, under U.S. President George W. Bush, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was signed in 1965 by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty, became the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB mandated annual state testing in reading and math in the States. Proponents of the Bush ideology exported their vision of high-stakes testing and “accountability” across the globe. Pursuit of a “world-class” education system and high PISA scores, and fear of being left behind in the global economy, led education systems everywhere from the U.K. to Australia to adopt it.

Concerns are growing that test scores merely show how well a student memorizes and regurgitates information. Critics of testing in Finland, a country known for having one of the world’s top education systems, have those same worries. Finland merely sample-tests 10 percent of students in a specific grade every year, and uses the results to tweak its education system—a far cry from the way the global education reform movement uses scores to sort and rank students, teachers, and schools.

Despite the growing evidence, many governments persist in seeing standardized testing as the key to improving student achievement and students in virtually every developed nation continue to be measured by it. Advocates say tests are a fast, fair, and objective measure of student achievement. In the United States, a student can expect to spend 30 to 50 days per year either taking or prepping for tests. By the time high school graduation rolls around, they may have taken more than 70 standardized exams, not including the SAT or ACT. In China, pressure to pass the gaokao, the national college entrance exam, is so extreme that students have hooked themselves up to IV drips of amino acids so they can endure daily 15-hour study sessions.

Without a real redesign of the standardized test, we will continue to have educational systems that both tell us very little about an individual’s talents and rely on flawed test results to unduly shape and determine student’s future life choices.

Jessica Jackley: Co-founder of Kiva, the World's First P2P Microlending Website

Half-Baked Idea: 100 point test (50 points can be earned by what teachers design and 50 points can be earned by what students design).

Teachers will have parameters. There will be heavy emphasis on case studies that give students free reign to show the world that they have learned how to learn. Teachers must also state their philosophy and strategy for these tests up front. This should be on the first page of the test, for students to read and understand.

Students will create the other half. They, like their teachers, have to state their goals and philosophy. So, they’d need to answer questions like: How do you learn best? What are your learning goals in this class? How do you define success on this test? Some of the ways they could measure themselves include: efficiency, creativity, and speed.

So where are we? Seems like this idea meets requirements for being a valuable experience in and of itself—fair, personal, and a measurement of what’s important to teachers as well as to students.

But how do we make it efficient? This would be tough stuff to grade. Well, technology and crowdsourcing come to mind. I know these things. They make lots of things more efficient and cost effective. OK, what if these tests were done online, and answers were semipublic, meaning only qualified educators could see the answers? Instead of dumping money into some central entity to design standardized tests, pay teachers and qualified educators to read tests and get paid per grade. They’d build reputations and, somehow, we could track how thorough they each were in grading. Also, each test would have to be assessed by three people (is this crazy!?) to help with accountability among graders, so no one could just grade in a fast, half-assed sort of way. Over time, we would see what teachers value across different grades, schools, and subjects, and we’d see what students value for their learning as well. This could eventually lead to more standardization—but not too much to ruin it.

Shoot, I’m out of time. My 30 minutes are up and I promised I’d abide by the rules. Honor system. Hoping for an A :)

Lesley Arfin: Writer for Girls, Portlandia, Awkward, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine\n

Standardized testing is probably never going to go away, but part of the test should include one or all of the following: mandatory interpretive dancing, putting yourself in an embarrassing situation, having to apologize to someone without defending yourself in any way, writing a poem that includes baskets, eagles, the color blue, and an analogy about firewood, defining love, walking around for an entire week without using your left arm, practicing using your sixth sense and writing an essay about it, or smoking an entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting.

Chris Bosh: Professional Basketball Player, Miami Heat

I was just in India where kids don’t have any concept of how you can have time to both play basketball and be in school because they go so hard at their studies. They’re 24/7 about education. Kids need to know that it’s cool to read, it’s cool to code. They also need more art classes, like drawing. I think, from an earlier age, people should start thinking about what they really want to do. Like, if you want to be a lawyer, you need to know the basics of reading, so maybe they should start making and playing with these little, fake contracts. This way people can figure out earlier if they really want to do it. Once you hit 18 years old, you’re expected to be an adult. What do you know at 18? Nothing. Why not create your own system? I’m not saying be an outlaw. Of course, be an outstanding citizen, but it’s a big world out there, and we can make our own system and get people thinking in a different kind of way. Think about that.

Mac Miller: Rapper and Music Producer

Here’s my five-part solution to the standardized test:

1. Written: Let the student write as much or as little as they want. I think the questions should be very open-ended, with no specific right answers, and should be about issues that the student can relate to. There should be less focus on “facts.” That would relieve a lot of stress, and allow them to really show their intelligence. After those questions are complete, have a section of blank pages where the student is encouraged to write about ANYTHING.

2. Multiple Choice: When putting together the multiple choice questions, there should always be a funny option. I think the funny option, and obviously wrong answer, is always a good way to loosen things up. The brightest minds will never work to their full potential when constantly under an enormous amount of stress.

3. Private Vocal Section: Bring in a psychologist or some kind of specialist or even just “the cool teacher” to talk to each student individually. Give each of them an opportunity to express themselves. I remember being younger and having much better relationships with my teachers outside of the classroom than inside. After this portion, I would have the person having the conversation evaluate where the student’s mind is at.

4. Group: Put students in groups and send them out into the world. Have them interview people, maybe do some type of scavenger hunt. Get them interacting with people, but make sure it’s people from all different classes and walks of life. I think it’s important to show kids how similar all people really are.

5. Physical: A physical test would also be good. Physical health shouldn’t be treated as a joke. Students should know how to eat right, how to exercise, and especially how to get exercise even if they aren’t athletic. (HIKES!!!)

Grading: I don’t think a simple number grade is very good. It allows kids to put themselves into classes based on scores and can be very disheartening. At the end of the day, standardized testing is done to get statistics on schools, districts, cities, and so on. I think the main focus should be on the progressive potential of each student. We should be trying to groom kids to have the ability to change the world and see possibility. In closing, I have no idea if what I just said is possible, but this would be an awesome test.

For more fully-baked solutions, check out our companion piece about the future of the standardized test.

Illustrations by Kate Bingaman-Burt

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