Some of Your Questions on Education, Answered

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Is standardized testing a useful measure of evaluation? Are teacher strikes worth educators’ effort? What are schools doing to deal with students’ dwindling attention spans?

These are just a handful of the questions you sent in when we put out the call last week (we’re still taking questions, by the way). I found some useful answers within the archives, which I’ve highlighted below.

Does standardized testing predict student success?

This is one of the larger existential crises facing the American education system today, but it’s by no means a new problem.

Studies over the past several years have found that standardized tests don’t foretell a student’s success long after “pencils down.” Check out this one, cited by Psychology Today in 2011, which showed that scoring well on the LSAT didn’t mean someone had it in them to become a decent lawyer. And then there’s this study, cited on Inside Higher Ed last year, which found that high school grades were a better indicator of college students’ success while on campus. (That study was led by William C. Hiss of Bates College, my alma mater, and I can’t for the life of me remember whether SAT scores were required for my admittance in 2006.)

The problems with standardized testing are many, according to the education experts and observers looking to dismantle this system. For one, there’s the reinforced gap in achievement among socioeconomic groups. The new SAT will address that when it’s rolled out next year.

And worsening performance on the tests themselves might be a strong indicator that they aren’t serving students. Meredith Broussard, a data journalism professor in Philadelphia, took a six-month dive into the Pennsylvania state school assessment and found that students and schools could, in theory, game the system, as long as they had access to the textbooks that held all the answers (which urban districts often couldn’t afford).

Earlier this year, education writer Anya Kamenetz and author Maurice Sykes highlighted some core problems:

Kamenetz diagnoses two major flaws in America’s testing boom: the lack of transparency about the content of the tests themselves (which she says stifles a robust public discussion about their efficacy) and the punitive dimensions of high-stakes testing. As she put it, “There are some carrots in the No Child Left Behind law, but mostly there are sticks.” ...

Sykes also raised the thorny issue of the purported “achievement gap,” or persistent disparity of educational measures across race, class, and gender lines. For Kamenetz, this disparity is a “tautology masquerading as a problem.” Citing a study of students in North Carolina that indicated 85 percent of variation in test scores could be predicted by family income, she asked, why—if income is such a strong predictor—do “we need to administer a test to define what’s happening to these children?”

What are the alternatives? Under the assumption that it’s unrealistic to try to do away with standardized testing altogether, Kamenetz proposed the “Team Unicorn” approach—combining the existing tests with more individual measures, like portfolios and performance-based assessments. Last year, Henry L. Roediger III, a researcher and cognitive psychologist at Washington University, made the case for more frequent testing in the classroom: “Formative assessments” give students and teachers a chance to identify gaps in knowledge on any one subject before the term is over and the window for learning closes.
Readers who responded to our call for questions also asked about the origin of widespread standardized testing in the U.S.  It’s actually a pretty fascinating story: Check out this 1995 piece from our archives. In developing the principles of standardized testing in the 1920s and ‘30s, the thinkers behind the exams had only the best intentions. Their goal was to improve upon the old system, where professors “declared students educated merely because they had spent a certain number of hours in class,” Nicholas Leman wrote.
Jump ahead nearly a full century, tack on compounding frustration with the model and many a standardized cheating scandal, and parents are taking matters into their own hands. But the growing opt out movement isn’t without critics of its own.
Does any good come from teacher strikes?
We saw tensions between teachers and schools flare most recently in Seattle. Pay increases and teaching conditions were at the center of that strike, which ended last month. But teachers framed their demonstration as one focused on students. Sarah Jaffe, who has written for us about strikes, drew parallels between that strike and the 2012 strike in Chicago that shut down public schools:

Their working conditions, they noted, were their students’ learning conditions. In Seattle, the teachers have been able to explicitly make issues like recess or racist suspension policies part of the bargaining process.

The circumstances feel even more desperate in countries outside of the U.S. “Indeed, most of the world’s teacher protests probably amount to something much deeper than a call for fair pay,” Alia wrote earlier this year in a powerful, photo-heavy piece highlighting protests in places like Brazil, Mexico, and Taiwan. “They’re a desperate effort to salvage education when it feels like the government is abandoning it.”
I did a little digging in the archives to see what we’ve written on the effectiveness of strikes. This piece from 1946 focused on a spate of protests within the industrial sector, not education, but it struck me as interesting nonetheless:

Furthermore, the public does not seem to be impressed with the need for protecting its interests. A few short strikes have caused grave inconvenience -- the New York elevator operators' strike, the tugboatmen's strike, the telephone strikes and threats of strikes, the Philadelphia transit strike, the Pittsburgh power strike, and others -- but none of these stoppages or near-strikes aroused the public.

Our situation with the teacher strikes is a bit different; the public does seem to be riled up. Many parents spoke in support of Seattle’s teachers, echoing the idea that their issues in the classroom were the students’ issues as well.
Seattle teachers were ultimately successful in negotiating new contracts, including planned pay hikes over the next couple years (though not as high as some had hoped). But it’s worth considering whether this will continue to be an effective strategy, especially if sympathy starts to wane from parents burdened by an unanticipated need to find last-minute childcare during future strikes.
How are schools dealing with kids’ reliance on (or addiction to) technology?
Educators have long been aware of the inherent risk that students will lose the ability to do simple mental tasks as they learn to outsource them to devices. In The Atlantic last year, Nick Romeo articulated it like this: “Something meant to expedite a task winds up being an indispensable technology.” (Though Romeo also points out this anxiety cropped up in Plato’s Phaedrus, regarding the phonetic alphabet.) Kids are pushing screen time to new limits, and it’s having some impact on conversation and critical discussion.
Here’s Daniel Willingham, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, on the abstract appeal of technology for students:

“When you think about digital technology—and videogames, social media—there’s something they have in common: Something interesting happens with very little effort from me,” Willingham said. “And there’s always something else to choose from. This leads kids to think that being a little bored is not normal.” He referred to a 2012 study from the Pew Research Center in which 87 percent of teachers surveyed think that technology is creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” Willingham is concerned because “kids can pay attention but they just don’t want to. They have the expectation that everything should always be interesting.”

We don’t yet have evidence of the long-term impact that screen-induced stress might have on what’s called “executive function”—essentially the root of our memory abilities.  In the meantime, instead of trying to break students of their tech additions, schools are getting on their level. There are efforts under way to improve connectivity in schools and help students learn to focus alongside the allure of mobile tech.
There’s some handwringing on the intrusion of the Internet when it comes to instruction. But teachers are also working to incorporate programs like Minecraft into learning for younger grade level, and more eye-catching experiments include one school’s idea to loan out drones for students’ multimedia projects. To be sure, there are smart and not-so-smart ways to go about these endeavors; see these figures on misspent technology funding for schools from earlier this year.
Tech alone won’t fix the education system, but these examples don’t suggest that administrators are under that impression in the first place. Even for those of us outside of the classroom, the experimentation is fun to watch.