August 2018
Volume XV Issue VIII


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School Should Be So Much More Than a Test Score


Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is the author of Points to Ponder and also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


As leaders establish priorities for the new school year, it is perhaps traditional to return to some of the same beliefs and practices that have been the guiding principles of a school or district. For several decades, standardized test scores have been the primary focus of plans and educational decisions. These numbers determined whether we had a good year or not, whether we were successful or not, whether our students met pre-established goals or not. In reality, what happens in schools should be so much greater than an annual score on a standardized test.

A new book, Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making, takes a completely different approach to how leaders (both administrators and teachers) can examine practices that are truly important in our schools.  Helen Ladd, one of the co-authors of the book, writes, “We can fall into the habit of thinking that building academic skills is the only educational outcome that matters and the only one that schools are in a position to promote.” She states the book’s premise in one clear statement:  The overall goal of education should be to equip children with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and disposition that they will need to flourish as adults in a democracy. 

Ladd further states,  “Decision makers need new language that goes beyond the narrow range of cognitive knowledge that standardized tests purport to measure.” She and her colleagues have identified six “capacities” they feel should be the focus of our attention as we think about our goals and plan our lessons:

  • Preparing our students for the labor market
  • Participating in the democratic process
  • Making their own individual judgments
  • Developing healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Experiencing personal fulfillment
  • Treating others with dignity and respect

Along with her co-authors, Harry Brighouse, Susanna Loeb and Adam Swift, Ladd also makes the case that the development of interpersonal relationships or treating others in a respectful way is just as important as academic achievement. Their overriding conclusion is that good education decision-making must start with values and not simply be reduced to successful test taking.

As leaders examine the school climate in their buildings, they may conclude that greater emphasis should be placed on lifelong character development. The beginning of a new school year may be the time to begin the dialogue among the school community to determine what the school stands for beyond numbers. A closer look at these six capacities can help schools determine which ones deserve the greatest attention in their environments.

Preparing students for the labor market may be a tricky proposition for educators.  Benjamin Herold examines the topic in his Education Week essay, “The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now.” He states, “When it comes to predicting the future of work, top economists and technologists are all over the map. Inside the schools, the result is tremendous uncertainty.” With the possibility that “robot apocalypse”” can replace working-and-middle class jobs, Herold writes, “In the crosshairs:  Anything that involves routine physical motion, operating machinery in predictable environments or identifying and processing data.”  Despite disagreements about what educators should do, one prediction is solid: Change will happen and standing still is not an option.

With the understanding that whatever today’s schools do in the future, students are going to need a new set of skills regardless of the field they enter. As schools mull over the options about what steps to take, consider the inclusion of the possibilities below:

  • Provide a solid grounding in statistics and data science
  • Cultivate the human qualities that robots still lack such as creativity, empathy, and abstract thinking
  • Help students to see change as inevitable and something to be embraced rather than to be feared
  • Include learning experiences that will help students think critically about how decisions will be made in a world filled with artificial intelligence
  • Devise lessons that will enable students to work in situations that may include uncertainty
  • Have students explore solutions to problems they see around them in their own world

Teachers must be savvy; they cannot create lessons in which the teacher dispenses knowledge while students quietly sit and listen or take notes. Without a moment’s hesitation, teachers must plan lessons that are challenging and student-centered; they must require students to think and problem solve; students must grapple with real world problems; there should be an audible “buzz” in all classrooms indicating that students are collaborating and exchanging ideas. “Sit and git” no longer has a place in any classroom.  In fact, it should have been extinguished decades ago.

As teachers deliberate about how they can ensure that students are learning about participating in the democratic process, they should heed the words of Harvard School of Education Professor Fernando Reimers: “Public schools were invented to prepare people for self-governance, and to work with others towards the improvement of their communities and for the betterment of society.” Some analysts and political scientists have written about the decline in democratic principles around the world. Reimers has identified four actions schools and universities can take to advance and strengthen democracy:

  • Educate students well by helping them to determine how, as citizens, they can be active participants in their communities. This important message cannot penetrate student thoughts if teachers simply concentrate on facts from a textbook or from a handout.
  • Place emphasis on opportunities for students to understand those who are unlike themselves, and to recognize similarities and appreciate differences. Additionally, include learning experiences that will build students’ collaborative skills that will contribute to a diverse democracy.
  • Move beyond surface knowledge about the institutions and beliefs that are embedded in a democracy, e.g, the constitution, checks and balances and duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
  • Involve students in discussions about the principles of active participation in a democracy that go beyond simply voting in elections.

In many locations, emphasis on English and math have occupied a predominant place in our schools while participating in a democratic society through social studies classes has taken a back seat.  Reamers addresses this concern by stating, “More schools, districts, and states should be debating what exactly this means as polarization and intolerance grow in American society.  Schools are certainly not doing their job in cultivating a democratic citizenry if students learn the basics, and perform well on tests, but bully each other over differences in their identities while adults turn a blind eye.”

Promoting and understanding democratic principles should not be the sole responsibility of social studies teachers. These ideas can be included in all types of lessons.  When adults set examples for students in their words, actions and lesson design, students will develop a deeper understanding of the future world they can create.

As I considered two of Ladd’s capacities, making their own individual judgments and developing healthy, interpersonal relationships, my thoughts immediately turned to the writings of my Just ASK colleague, Heather Clayton.  In the recent past, Heather has eloquently addressed the two capacities in three of her installments of the Making the Standards Come Alive! e-newsletters: “Let’s Hear It For Empathy!,” “ Let’s Hear It For Civility!.” and,  “Let’s Hear It For Activism.”In each newsletter, Heather provides examples for embedding the topics into standards by including strategies, methodology, appropriate language, ways to raise student awareness, discussion topics, examples for student writing, and ways of helping students make emotional connections to the three topics. Specifically, her newsletters contain the following topics:

  • Strategies for teachings empathy
  • Understanding the language of empathy
  • Raising awareness of global issues
  • Asking open-ended questions to promote discussions
  • Providing opportunities for altruism
  • Teaching civility through courageous classroom conversations
  • Establishing ground rules for class discussions
  • Utilizing tools for engaging students in civil discourse
  • Facilitating dissension
  • Helping students create change through their actions
  • Inspiring students to use words to drive change
  • Including tools to help students understand social justice
  • Moving students to write for public audiences

It is well worth the investment of time to explore Heather’s newsletters. You will not be disappointed. They could well influence how you work with your students in the future.

All dedicated educators want to observe their students experiencing personal fulfillment. In her blog, “21st Century Learning: Preparing Students Today,” Sherrelle Walker stresses the importance of helping students strengthen their cognitive skills (critical thinking and analysis), interpersonal skills (teamwork and communication), and intrapersonal skills (reflection and contentiousness).

Walker recognizes that creating a 21st century classroom is no small order but, as she notes, it is achievable. She asks educators to envision a setting where schools are not defined by walls but instead are places that help students connect to the outside world. When teachers move from being “dispensers of knowledge” to facilitators of learning, “Learners are excited by flexible, open-ended, project-based, real-world learning situations that not only teach content skills but instill curiosity, and develop communication and teamwork skills, and responsibility that comes from changing their own learning.” In such settings, students can achieve personal fulfillment in numerous ways other than simply getting a “good grade” on a test or a piece of work. In her blog Walker also poses the question, “If you are an educator what one small change could you make that might transform the student experience?”

The final capacity stressed by Ladd and her colleagues is treating others with dignity and respect.  This ever-important concept permeates the previous five capacities.  In my 14 years of writing Just for the ASKing! the topic that is a thread that is woven through many of the newsletters is the importance of relationship building, not just in a teacher-student mode, but in a student-to-student mode as well. When teachers convey that the classroom is a safe, non-threatening environment early in the year, it sets a tone that is long lasting. As teachers explain their expectation, they can do so with concrete examples that children will understand. As well, when the teachers hear an unacceptable example, they can quickly correct it so students understand that dignity and respect will be the hallmark of the classroom setting. Teachers can help students learn about each other by orchestrating exercises that will promote understanding and goodwill.  Teacher Rebecca Alber includes the following examples in her article “Relationships Matter More Than Rules:”

  • Good Things: Students pair up and talk about good things that have happened to them or things they are looking forward to in the future
  • Just Like Me: This community-building activity helps students see things they have in common with other students
  • Artifact Sharing: Students bring artifacts – photos, books, keepsakes, souvenirs, etc. to share in small groups or with the whole class
  • Student Information Survey: The teacher administers an information survey (readily available online), which students complete; they are then given the opportunity to share several responses with a small group of peers or the whole class.

As Alber concludes, “Meaningful relationships matter for learning. The rules and policies you enforce are important or keeping well-managed class.  But rather than emphasizing control over your students, developing community and connection is a surefire ingredient for a good school year for all.”

 The book Educational Goods: Values, Evidence and Decision Making, advocates for the broadening of the language we use to talk about educational policy. When teachers combine “educational goods” and “childhood goods,” the result is “a reimagining of our decision making about schools, one that will sharpen our thinking on familiar debates and push us toward better outcomes.”



Resources and References


Alber, Rebecca. “Relationships Matter More Than Rules.” Edutopia. August 16, 2017.
Access at

Brighthouse, Harry, Helen Ladd, Suzanne Loeb, and Adam Swift. Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

Clayton, Heather. “Let’s Hear It For Activism!” Making Standards Come Alive! March 2018.
Access at

Clayton, Heather. “Let’s Hear It For Civility!” Making Standards Come Alive! January 2018.
Access at

Clayton, Heather. “Let’s Hear It For Empathy!” Making Standards Come Alive! November 2016.
Access at

Herold, Benjamin. “Automation and Article Intelligence Are Disrupting the Labor Market. What Do K-12 Educators and Policymakers Need to Know?” Education Week. September 9, 2017.
Access at

Mossman, Iain. “Dignity and Respect in the Classroom.” The Learning Hub, Cardiff University. February 17, 2017.
Access at 

Reimers, Fernando. “From a Nation at Risk to a Democracy at Risk: Educating Students for Democratic Renewal.” Educational Plus Development. The Brookings Institution. May 2, 2018.
Access at

Walker, Sherrelle. “21st Century Learning: Preparing Students Today.” The Science of Learning Blog. Fast ForWord. August 28, 2012.
Access at






Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “School Should Be So Much More Than a Test Score.”  Just for the ASKing! August 2018. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2018. All rights reserved. Available at