An Alternative to Standardized Tests for School Accountability

What if we had a better choice than standardized test, that could tell educators useful information about what actions really needed to happen to help students learn better? What if we could focus on assessing what really matters in schools? I recently sent this email to Maine’s Commission and Deputy Commissioner of Education making just such a suggestion:

I’m writing to suggest the Hope Study (see resources below) as an alternative to standardized tests for accountability for Maine’s public schools.

Students learn better when they have more of each of the Hope Components.
Public schools are a public trust, so accountability is important. But, when it comes to standardized tests, to paraphrase the great philosophers in Princess Bride, I don’t think they measure what you think they measure! They may hint at where students are succeeding and where they have holes in their education, but the results don’t actually provide actionable data.

We suffer from the same problem with standardized tests that we suffer with poverty. With standardized tests we may say that a student needs more math, and with poverty we may say a person needs more revenue. Both are true. But both also really suggest very little about how we might make that happen.

In fact, with poverty, we rarely address the foundational components that need to be in place for economically disadvantaged persons to be able to pursue earning more revenue: job training; flexible day care; transportation; safe, reliable housing; adequate diet and nutrition; even access to an appropriate work/professional wardrobe.

To simply throw more math (or another subject) at a student is no different than simply demanding that someone living in poverty try to earn more money. In so doing, our interventions are likely focusing on the wrong thing, and we are working at cross purposes to our intended outcomes.

The Hope Study, on the other hand, has identified those foundational components for academic learning:

  • Hope
  • Engagement
  • Academic Press (a press for understanding, rather than for performance)
  • Goal Orientation
  • Belongingness
  • Autonomy (opportunity for self-management and choice)

Collectively, these components are called “Hope.”

When standardized test scores are low, too often the premise is that the problem lies in the performance of teachers and students. There is little, if any, attempt to address other factors that might be interfering with the ability, or motivation, of teachers to engage students and of students to work hard on the right things.

Not only do student perform better academically when they have a high level of Hope, but when educators work to improve students’ level of Hope, the students’ level of academic performance improves. In other words, at the core of the Hope Study are the questions: Is our educational environment developmentally healthier for adolescents, and, if so, how do they respond? And if not, how do we respond?

What if our school accountability efforts could address the issues that actually do make a difference?

(Note: The Hope Study was developed by Mark Van Ryzin, a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, and has been vetted for reliability and validity. The Hope Survey is based on the Hope Index developed by Dr. Rick Snyder at Kansas University. The Hope Survey is not related to the HOPE Teacher Rating Scale for identifying G/T students.)