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Opinion: Outcomes-based education reveals a fault in the U.S. education system

Thousands of students of Chicago-area high school students found themselves back in a physical school for the first time since March to take the SAT exam Sept. 23, a makeup from the one they should have taken as juniors in April. Despite many top colleges — including Harvard University and Cornell University — waiving standardized testing requirements for applicants, the Illinois State Board of Education is still requiring the SAT for graduation.

In the middle of a global pandemic, the Illinois State Board of Education should throw out this graduation requirement.  If we have deemed our schools unsafe spaces for students to learn, it is counterproductive to turn around and allow students into these spaces just to test that learning.

It just goes to show how deeply testing is entrenched in the culture of our education system — one molded by the No Child Left Behind Act, in effect from 2002 to 2015.  To ensure students weren’t falling behind, this Bush-era policy effectively enacted a game of catch-up with mandatory testing for grades 3-8. Now, teachers are evaluated based on students’ outcomes, achievements and ability to reach standards.  

The effects of a system of education focused chiefly on outcomes are especially evident as students age. In a 2016 white paper, Christina Simpson at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education said this system “contributes to a culture of stress” for students.  A 2019 study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine designated students in high-achievement schools an “at-risk” group because of the stress level.  

And when it comes time to leave the academic system, young adults can feel especially daunted by the lack of achievement structure in most workplaces. Harvard Business Review interviewed over 50 recent college grads in 2019, and some feel adrift in a system without benchmarks to show they’re on the right track.  How do they know they’re doing well if there’s no feedback system to show it?

It’s clear why this is the case:  For the overwhelming majority of their lives, these students have chased straight-A’s, 100%’s, “above average” markers and top-percentile standardized test scores — achievements that not only felt like a high when obtained, but served also as markers of intelligence. They know how to take a test, but now, faced with a world that doesn’t come with built-in assessors of one’s progress, these students struggle to find their place in it.

The problem is deeper than simply that students are expected to meet certain standards as guideposts for their education — it’s that these standards themselves are flawed.

Research from a January 2020 study out of the University of Chicago shows that the standardized ACT exam is not as accurate of a predictor of college completion as a high schooler’s grade-point average.  According to ACT — which used to stand for “American College Test” — the exam is a “curriculum-based education and career planning tool for high school students that assesses the mastery of college readiness standards.”  But, it doesn’t appear to be the best system for assessing college readiness.

The University of Chicago study looked specifically at the ACT, but students begin standardized testing in third grade with the annual Illinois Assessment of Readiness. The system of standardized testing is ingrained in them from the beginning.

But ages-old letter grades aren’t an appropriate method of assessment, either.  The letter circled in red at the top of the page only represents a percentage of points a student scored out of a predetermined total.  The simplistic nature of the system looks clean on a report card, but cannot, by design, tell the whole story.

According to a 2014 Atlantic article, letter grades can foster competition and decrease cooperation among students.  The scale looks like a hierarchy, which appears to represent levels of intelligence.  It can also encourage cheating to get ahead. Once again: It leaves students chasing the metric that is supposed to measure their learning rather than the knowledge itself. 

It boils down to this: If neither letter grades nor standardized test scores have turned out to be proper benchmarks to assess student learning, the basis of the United States education system is flawed. We want an easy way to know whether students are learning, but in the process, the system has taken learning out of the equation. And without a reliable rubric against which to measure what material students have a grasp on, there is also no real way to know whether this system is working at all.  We may just be teaching students how to take a test.

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