Tag Archives: Yong Zhao

It’s Past Time to Eliminate Standardized Testing

circa 2014

I have been against standardization for a long time. Standardized testing is a billion dollar industry in this country. So apparently it won’t go away anytime soon, which is a pathetic shame. The companies that run the tests and create all of the test prep materials have strong lobbyists who spend millions to influence policy at both the state and federal level. So as usual, business pursuits have a larger influence on policy than the viewpoints of experts, the educators in the field.

Mandated, high stakes testing shouldn’t just be skipped this year, but permanently replaced with authentic projects.

Therefore I am deeply disappointed in the Biden administration’s mandate for states to test students this spring. But I am not surprised. Poor education policy is one of the few consistently bi-partisan agendas in the United States. Going back to Reagan, every president and their Department of Education, has looked on public schools negatively, needing to be fixed. Republicans, exemplified by Betsy DeVos, seek to demonstrate public education’s failures to advocate for charters or vouchers for private schools. They also hate teacher unions. Democrats, while saying they want to improve failing schools, hold schools accountable through rigid, biased testing.

“Accountability is a word used in the field of education to scare educators into spirit-murdering dark children.”

Dr. Bettina Love

Think about it. We just went from Bush’s utopian nonsense of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Obama’s Race to the Top. Until we fix all of society’s ills and inequality there will be children left behind. The major reason that children are left behind is the caste system in the United States that divides people into different classes with different benefits. Education alone cannot fix this societal problem.

Obama’s analogy of Race to the Top is antithetical to equity. Every race that I know of has winners and losers. So Democrats are hypocritical when they want to use testing for equity. Let’s not forget that Biden was part of the Obama team and seems reluctant to find a new path. There are definitely equity issues in public education, particularly in funding structures that favor wealthy suburban districts over rural and urban areas in many states.

It’s not that public education is perfect. It’s that the government solutions of standardized curriculum, testing, and accountability don’t work.

It’s been 20 years since NCLB launched the profitable obsession with standardized testing. At best it identified inequity between different learners in schools, but offered no solutions. We now understand the problems in education and continued testing will have zero effect on solutions. Instead we need to shift pedagogy.

I recently read Dr. Yong Zhao’s An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste. He expounds on the need for schools to shift to:

  • Relevant learning
  • Student agency and autonomy
  • Personalized learning
  • Product-oriented entrepreneurial schooling
  • Globalized learning beyond the classroom

Basically PBL done at a high level, seated in the community with tons of student autonomy. The book gives many examples of what this looks like in different settings around the world. And all of this was written before Covid-19 shocked the world and radically challenged the system by forcing virtual, hybrid, or socially distant learning. Many others have written about how unethical, unhealthy, and unfair standardized testing is during a global pandemic. It is stressful for educators and students alike with no positive benefits. While agreeing, I want to go further and get rid of it all together.

What if we took the time and money wasted on testing and test prep and used it to radically shift schools to student-centered Project Based Learning?

At the same time that Biden was announcing that states must continue testing, Edutopia released new research supporting PBL as a better way forward. Covid-19 is a chance to re-evaluate everything about the education system. We know what’s broke. We know testing won’t fix it. PBL offers a better path for all students. True leadership would take this opportunity to make a major shift in the pedagogy of schools in this country. All students deserve the opportunity to pursue their own passions in meaningful ways. The best way for them to learn the skills that they need to be successful is by doing authentic tasks in their community and beyond.

While educators obviously cannot depend on the federal government to make the right decisions regarding testing and pedagogy, we are not powerless. We can choose to ignore test scores and shift to meaningful learning experiences with our students. When parents are brought into conversations about pedagogical shifts to Project Based Learning, they will be supportive and students will thrive. It’s on us to make this happen!

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

LOVE, B. (2020). We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon.


How do we move to student centered learning?

Yong Zhao wrote an incredible, research based piece arguing the way that schools should be. It is a lengthy piece but you should read it in its entirety right now! No really, go do it.

Now that you have finished I want to respond to his recommendations at the end with some questions. I want to make it clear that my questions do not come from a perspective of disagreement, but rather that I find his writing to be a strong theoretical argument that I agree with. My questions come as a practicing teacher wondering how to implement his recommendations and from the challenges that I see in my classroom. Although I am a skeptical person, these questions are in the spirit of how to make this shift happen on the ground level.

My main question is how do we structure this kind of learning environment? I am going to explore this from two perspectives. First from an elementary point of view and next from middle and high school.

If we start students out in a school that is entirely student driven than I think it could work naturally. Students would never be “poisoned” by motivation killing things like forced AR reading logs, boring worksheets, and other adult proscribed manipulation. I do believe that humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning things that they choose to learn.

I truly can see this approach working and I believe that it has been done in systems such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools.

Developmentally students change in middle and high school and I have harder questions about Yao’s approach there. First of all, if students were in this kind of environment their whole lives and never experienced “traditional,” controlled schooling then maybe it would keep working for all students. I have never seen this in action, so I don’t know. Part of being a teenager is finding one’s identity and I wonder if “fighting” against schooling would happen for some children no matter what the environment?

In my PBL school we have lots of voice and choice (but not the level of freedom that Zhao recommends of no classes or curriculum. We still teach to the standards). I see some students thrive when given the chance to explore their passions in class. I see other students whose default choice is to hang out and not do much when given the opportunity. They would rather play games, watch videos, or text/talk to their friends.

How do we handle this in Zhao’s recommendations? Do we allow students to “detox” from being forced to learn for a period of time? (this question deserves its own post). Is this a result of years of boredom in schooling that had no purpose to them personally? How do we shift students from a traditional, adult controlled model to a student centered one? How do we deal with students with little motivation? How do we deal with students who have personal and family issues that are much more important and often overwhelming to them than anything at school?

I would love to see a follow up to this theory piece dealing with how we should structure, if at all, student centered learning and how to successfully shift classrooms to it.