Schools moving away from standardized tests and online learning


Summit charter schools in California and Washington state are often included on the list of charter networks that are getting big urban student achievement gains. A common characteristic of these networks is their commitment that their students will graduate from college.

Another increasingly common characteristic is because they are committed to college success––not just enrollment––they are moving away from a focus on standardized tests. And in Summit’s case away from student’s learning primarily online. Both, of course, are the exact opposite of what too many policymakers are pushing here and around the country.

What Summit has found is that the skills students need to succeed in college are far broader than what is on the test and that many of those skills cannot be learned by students sitting in front of a computer. Two Hechinger Report articles explore how and why Summit has changed its approach to teaching and learning.

The first starts with:

Almost five years ago, Summit Public Schools decided that scoring high on standardized tests wasn’t enough to ensure success after high school. … The report comes a few years after the celebrated schools began work to reinvent themselves. Summit students had scored high on standardized tests of math and English, earning the school a national reputation for success with students who typically didn’t fare well. And almost all Summit graduates enrolled in college. But then the school’s leaders discovered that about half of those students were dropping out of college. They decided to do something about it.

What Summit moved to is laid out in a report entitled the Science of Summit. It details an approach to teaching and learning designed to build skills in four broad areas:

  • Cognitive Skills equip students with interdisciplinary 21st century competencies to navigate college and careers
  • Students must acquire and retain key Content Knowledge to support the development of Cognitive Skills
  • To succeed, students need Habits of Success — a set of skills, mindsets, dispositions and behaviors
  • Students who cultivate a Sense of Purpose are more likely to succeed in meeting their short- and long-term goals

So yes content knowledge––what standardized tests are attempting to measure––matters. But so do these other skill sets. The lesson from Summit and many other schools is that the almost exclusive focus on test results as the accountability measure for schools is not preparing college ready students.

The second Hechinger Report article is entitled Despite its high-tech profile, Summit charter network makes teachers, not computers, the heart of personalized learning. The subtitle is A surprise inside a school championed for its use of technology: Teachers are the stars. Long title, but it makes the point. Substituting computers for teachers is not good for students.

The reason from moving away from software-driven teaching and learning is the same reason they moved away from focusing on good test scores. The students weren’t developing the broad skills they needed to succeed in college. Online learning might––not for sure––be good at developing content knowledge and maybe some broader cognitive skills, but not habits of success or sense of purpose.

There are two broad lessons to be learned from Summit. The first is the most reliable way to get substantial gains in student outcomes is district or charter network management committed to student success after they graduate. And particularly a commitment to earning a college degree. That is what is driving schools away from an emphasis on the test and an over reliance on online learning.

The second lesson is look to how affluent parents are educating their own children, not what they are recommending for educating others’ children. Affluent parents overwhelmingly are sending their kids to schools that build broad skills, rather than narrow content skills that are on the tests, and to schools that are teacher centered not online-learning centered.

We need all Michigan kids––not just kids with affluent parents––attending schools that are designed to build broad 21st Century skills, from birth through college.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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