“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

These are the words with which Charles Dickens began his 1854 novel, “Hard Times.” But the words might sound familiar to anyone who has followed our 21st-century debates about education reform.

I am not going to argue that our children don’t need to learn facts. Of course they do. And the kind of rote learning of facts that Dickens was protesting has largely been put aside (although there is a strain of it in “back-to-basics” arguments) in favor of curricula that emphasize critical thinking.

Critical thinking, while still a rather ambiguous term, incorporates contextualizing learning, applying concepts to real-world problems and looking at the ways in which concepts from one branch of knowledge can be applied in others. This movement has arisen largely in response to modern fast-paced businesses that need employees who can think and learn, rather than simply rely on a set of previously acquired facts and skills. Put another way, it represents a shift from knowledge acquisition to knowledge creation. This is all to the good.

Why, then, am I still talking about hard times in education? Because despite advances in curricula and pedagogy, we are still failing. And a large part of that failure has to do with assessment. Our ever-increasing reliance on testing to measure student, teacher and institutional achievement is a barrier, rather than a gateway, to fostering the kind of well-rounded, creative and innovative young people that we need.

“Teaching to the test” is a term that we’ve all heard. It describes a situation wherein a teacher, under pressure to produce students who get high scores on standardized tests, focuses on the kinds of things that those tests typically cover. And they typically cover the kinds of things that can be tested. Questions with right or wrong answers that are based on a set of facts that the test-taker is expected to have mastered. They don’t test — indeed they punish — creative thinking and cross-disciplinary application. They don’t test student responses to situations in which a range of “answers” might be correct, in which asking additional questions is important, or in which the thought/decision process is more important than the answer.

Furthermore, we are testing students with ever-increasing frequency. In responding to the mandate to Leave No Child Behind, we are constantly testing to make sure they are staying caught up. This impulse has carried through to the current Common Core Standards initiative (which has been adopted by 46 states to date), to the extent that we are confronting kindergartners with a computer-based test consisting of 114 items (57 English language arts and 57 math). Anecdotal evidence from kindergarten teachers I have heard from suggests that this results in confusion, frustration, tears, excessive time away from class activities and — I infer from all of this — a head start on nothing but life-long test anxiety.

There must be a better way.

The putative benefit of standardized testing, i.e., that all students are ideally being tested on the same things, thus eliminating certain kinds of bias, has been questioned in the past and should continue to be questioned. I would advocate for reintroducing bias of a different kind, and suggest that we return the task of assessment to teachers — to the people who see these students every day, who best understand their academic strengths and weaknesses, and who can see how they respond to situations and questions that standardized tests simply can’t capture: who can see beyond just the Facts.

Laskey is the director in Madison, Wis., for Progress through Business, a non-profit organization focused on sustaining and enhancing underserved communities through initiatives, research, writing, networking and creating strategic business partnerships. She is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has more than 25 years of experience in the private sector. She was director of human resources for Berkeley Policy Associates, a social policy research/program evaluation company, and served two terms as president of the California Employer Advisory Council. Her email address is flaskey@wisc.edu.

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