As the scale of formal education has increased, so too has the scale of testing, to the point where it has become a giant business. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on traditional testing of core skills such as numeracy and literacy, and just a few industry giants dominate the field. Annual testing expenditure in just some of the more populous US states, in fact, is far more than it is in the largest international testing programs combined (TIMSS/PIRLS and PISA).
That’s OK. This testing, focused as it is on core skills, is important. Failing to test such skills would have higher economic costs and significant detrimental effects because, at an aggregate or systems level (say, across countries or regions), such assessment data have an important role in setting sensible educational policy.
But there is also much room for improvement, because using traditional testing methods (for example, multiple-choice-format standardized tests) to measure the kinds of complex cognitive abilities that students will increasingly need in the work environments of the future is, in effect, like using a bathroom scale to measure cardiovascular health. We lose too much information when our measurement tools cannot capture complex data.
Solutions are available: there are increasingly more effective ways of assessing complex skills. Alternative testing methods, such as authentic assessments, can have substantial benefits through increased student engagement and learning as the environments where learning and assessment take place come into alignment.
However, the pace at which the approach to assessment is shifting is troublingly slow, even within the education sector. And why isn’t the economics sector more interested in the future direction of learning, and even less in the future of educational assessment? In 2015, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report proposing a new vision for education as an industry agenda. That is a step toward the right direction. But at the January 2017 WEF meeting in Davos, not a single session focused primarily on education—this despite the fact that education and economic growth are inextricably linked.
What’s going on here? It seems to us that both the education (including educational assessment) and economics fields face two primary barriers to focusing more intensely and immediately on how assessments need to evolve to keep pace with learning needs for the future. Those barriers are:
- The status quo is more profitable for those with vested interests (environmentalists and climate scientists face a similar hurdle when it comes to shifting practices to offset climate change); and
- There’s not enough of an impetus to drive change. Essentially, the public does not see that there’s reason enough to bring the necessary pressure to bear to cause the shift. People may think the status quo is “good enough,” or that changing it involves too much effort. Think seatbelts: It took decades from the publication of studies showing the importance of seat belts until their use was mandated by law. There are many issues for which there is more than enough science but not enough public will to effect change.
Philanthropy and aid funding can have a significant impact in kick-starting initiatives toward richer assessment approaches. In the early stages of exploring and developing new assessment approaches, when economic viability is less clear, funding entities that are not concerned with profit are an important source of support. But philanthropy alone is not enough, which is why aid-dependent educational programs in the developing world often becomes unsustainable once funding runs out.
What’s needed is a combined effort. Philanthropy does need to support new and more relevant assessments. However, to break down the first barrier, we need to make the case to commercial players that moving to a richer measurement environment and developing new ways to measure learning is not a zero-sum game. We need to convince the commercial testing industry that broadening the scope and purpose of assessment will enrich the entire field of educational assessment, potentially resulting in more diverse and larger markets.
Overcoming the second barrier requires more diverse and comprehensive strategies. The inertia of the status quo is massive, so at the same time as we’re making the business case to the commercial testing industry, the education sector itself needs to become more involved in the development and implementation of more effective testing methods. For example, the sector (including especially the very influential state boards of education) collectively needs to demand new approaches from the testing industry (where big money can overcome the inertia). However, as commercial players are demand-driven, it is also important that any proposed changes align with other (non-commercial) vested interests from the education sector.
Because we can only improve what we can measure, there is inherent motivation for primary stakeholders to explore methods to measure complex skillsets. These are the breadth of skills that are most likely to continue to be relevant well into the future. Improving assessment approaches can have benefits that extend beyond the basic education sectors. Assessments that can tackle complex skillsets can be even more useful in advanced settings such as universities or research-oriented institutions, where outcomes have even stronger links to economic growth.
If assessment spending in the United States is big money—$1.7 billion according to a 2012 study by Brookings—that is still a “drop in the bucket” compared to more than $600 billion spent annually by the public education system. If an increasing proportion of educational expenditure is to be focused on the development of complex skillsets essential for tomorrow’s world, we need to convince the education system that a shift towards new approaches in assessment is also needed.