Bookmark and ShareShare
Tuesday, July 9, 2013


By Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education

It’s time to end our obsession with standardized testing and grade point averages. We’ve spent the better part of the last two decades -- with an almost myopic focus -- trying to improve these measures across our educational system. Despite national efforts to raise test scores through initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, there has been little-to-no improvement in scores. We have also witnessed rampant grade inflation, with average college GPAs, for example, rising from 2.3 to 3.2 in the past few decades, making their value suspect. 

In the meantime, a mountain of evidence and sentiment is building that these measures may not be very strong predictors of success, and that other measures -- like student engagement and hope -- may be much better. 

Take, for example, the powerful results from a new survey of 2,586 superintendents: the leaders of our K-12 school districts just essentially voted “no confidence” on GPA and standardized tests as strong predictors of college success. In fact, only 6% of superintendents strongly agree that SAT and ACT scores are the best predictors of college success, and only 5% of them strongly agree GPA is the best predictor. Americans also say No Child Left Behind has hurt more than helped

Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed has shed light on other measures of success, like “grit” and “resilience.” Sir Ken Robinson has become a global force on education redesign by arguing that we have lost track of things like encouraging creativity in schools. And Google announced last week that they are no longer taking into account job candidates’ test scores and grades, because they found no relationship between those measures and performance on the job. This buzz around a new focus to affect student success is supported by some of Gallup’s best research, for example, that the three constructs of hope, engagement, and wellbeing account for as much as one-third of the variance in student success. Yet our nation’s school are not paying attention to these kinds of things. What we’re starting to learn is that “soft skills” and “social-emotional” learning are pretty important. There’s a case that the “soft stuff” may be the best measures of all.

The biggest problem with standardized testing is that it seeks standardized answers. We’re not just overinvesting in standardized testing, we’re actually testing standardization. That is to say, most standardized tests are designed to have students come up with the same answers. We’re teaching them how to be similar, not different. And although we need to test certain competencies and intelligence, it is becoming quite clear that there are many kinds of competencies and many forms of intelligence that we are not picking up on with our current testing approaches. 

Gallup’s work on strengths development has shown that every human on the planet has a unique talent signature -- like a fingerprint. And we’ve found that each person’s success is best determined by how well they leverage their unique talents on a daily basis. Not by trying to be the same as others. And not by trying to “fix their weaknesses.” 

As a parent, I want my kids to be uncommon, not common. I want them to be unique, not the same. I want them to discover different solutions to the problem, as opposed to the same answer. As an education expert, I want my country to espouse the same. America’s economy is fundamentally about entrepreneurship -- boldly and bravely striking out in new directions. But we have lost sight of that in our schools and colleges. We have a system that encourages the opposite -- working within narrowly defined rules, teaching to the test, and we are ultimately aiming at standardized answers and outcomes. 

To be clear, this is not to suggest that we wholesale abandon standardized testing. These tests should be part of a much more balanced scorecard that includes many other more important measures. But we do need to greatly deemphasize the role these assessments currently play. 

As scary as it may sound, we need to stop worrying about how America stacks up on PISA scores compared with other countries. Parents need to stop obsessing over their kids’ performance on tests and the grades they get. Teachers need to stop teaching to the test. And our educational leaders need to push into new frontiers where they can measure (and espouse) more of what matters the most. 

Based on decades of Gallup’s best science and research, we have a simple proposal for how we can get back on the path to winning again in education. And what the new Bill of Rights for all students should be. The path is much more about getting back to the basics than about doing something radically new. We need to care more about each student as a unique person. We need to help them discover what they like to do. We need to help them discover what they’re best at. None of that is helped by standardized testing. Time to put to rest our favorite acronyms of accountability in education. RIP SAT, ACT, and GPA!

July 18-19, 2013
Gallup Education Conference: Aiming at Career and Life Wellbeing.
Bringing together the best minds from K-12 and higher education to identify the ultimate outcomes for education.


Jones Loflin said...
July 9, 2013 at 1:47 PM  

Love the article and the research needs to be shared with anyone connected to education. One of my favorite lines in the post is "The biggest problem with standardized tests is that it seeks standardized answers." We simply don't teach students to think and solve problems-cornerstones of entrepreneurship and success.

Anonymous said...
July 10, 2013 at 5:43 PM  

Why are educators so resistant to standardized testing, to any objective measurements? Could it be that they don't want to be accountable for student success? Is it a sign that they've given up on the whole educational enterprise and are simply biding career time. The average Superintendent serves on three years at a school district. To find thousands of Superintendents have no faith in GPA is also discouraging. It means they have no faith their employees work or the institutional work standards. Good gravy, can you imagine Microsoft saying it doesn't trust the evaluation of computer programming done by its engineers or that the Army doesn't trust that infantry training will produce fighting soldiers? The military does testing and it works well as a predictor of success in various job ratings. Grad schools test, and unashamedly so. The SAT is solid predictor of success in college, the LSAT a solid predictor of success in Law Schools. Why then a bar exam, medical, nursing certification exams, or teacher certification? If they get along well with others and feel good, why bother.

Haven't our schools emphasized social engagement and hope for at least the past three decades with values clarification, self-esteem education, sex education, safe areas and special campaigns for oppressed groups (like gays, lesbians, transgendered students), busing, affirmative action, and magnet schools to provide a more diverse student social interaction, culture literacy curriculum, multi-cultural education, anti-bullying programs, alternative assessments (portfolios, videos, bi-lingual education, etc.), whole language reading instruction (bailing out on the slower more tedious phonics approach), abandonment of classic Western civilization oriented curriculum allowing students to choose various courses of interest to fulfill credits, medication and counseling services for dyslexia, ADHD, etc. Need I go on. How can you say with a straight face that we need more hope and social engagement.

The idea that we need K-12 students pursuing different answers like some sort of junior entrepreneurs is mostly nonsense, especially for the lower grades. It reminds me of the discredited idea of the teacher as facilitator, i.e. The wisdom is already in the student, if only the teacher can patiently nurse it out. If a student can't read, do basic math, and has a vocabulary of 500 slang words, an emphasis on higher level skills is silly. Consider school athletics, taking place in a parallel world to academics. Students learn the basics first, over and over through repetition, before they move on to more complex skills. Coaches are demanding, success is rewarded. Unskilled, unteachable, or low work ethic athletes are cut from the team. Yet students flock to sports, risking the possibility of failure.

I repeat, students who can't read, write, or do math are not ready to solve problems - no matter how hopeful or how good they feel about themselves.

Les Ismore said...
July 11, 2013 at 3:44 AM  

Teachers and professors and know this--and have for a long time-- but public policy wonks, politicians, and many (but far from all) education administrators force educators to focus on test scores, grades, and standardization.

So, how do we convince these misguided "leaders" to understand the true strengths of the US's education system? How do we change the conversation and focus from standardization to critical and creative thinking?

Suzanne Grenoble said...
July 11, 2013 at 5:52 AM  

Google no longer takes test scores or grades into account when hiring. But that's Google. It's not the State Department. It's not the New York Times. It's not MIT. It's not NASA. Success within a given field is partially predicted by a cluster of data, including but not limited to test scores. Soft skills - working in teams, accessing (other people's) research, curating knowledge - are very definitely in the foreground in the knowledge worker realm. However, Google is not the only employer out there, knowledge worker not the only job description, and knowledge has to come from somewhere. Hopefully, someone's kid will reinvent the internal combustion engine. Bye bye oil and.. There's more to that than soft skills.

Bob Gilvey said...
July 15, 2013 at 3:15 PM  

The fact that you have stated that ""The biggest problem with standardized tests is that it seeks standardized answers." indicates that you have little understanding of standardized testing. A Luddite comment.

Allison said...
November 13, 2013 at 12:29 PM  

The focus on grades and testing has frustrated me since high school.
For example, once in high school we were learning about an interesting subject but when I tried to ask about related information I was told that "it won't be on the test" and expected to move on.
Now in college I see it more in the form of people seeking classes that they've heard are "easier" and avoiding more difficult classes that could hurt their GPA.
I understand a need for objective measures of performance but what I object to is the view of such measures as the best - or even the only - indicators of academic performance.

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated by Gallup and may not appear on this blog until they have been reviewed and deemed appropriate for posting.

Copyright © 2010 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. | Terms of Use | Privacy Statement