Beyond Tests: The Power of Student-Teacher Relationships

/ 22 August 2014 / Shawna
Tarsi Dunlop, Learning First Alliance, August 22, 2014

Our frequently stated goal is for all US students to graduate from high school prepared for college and career. The current emphasis on standards-based education reforms reflects our belief that there are things students should know and be able to do that will help them in that endeavor. While one of the main purposes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was to better identify and support struggling students, the law ultimately resulted in an overemphasis on high-stakes standardized testing and school performance (though fortunately, some policy leaders are beginning to take steps to reduce the emphasis on testing, particularly as many state transition to new academic standards). Ironically, educators, businesses and parents generally agree that test scores are a poor indicator of future success.

Tests may be part of our national education system, but not all assessments are equally useful for teaching and learning. Testing that produces useful data allows educators to assess individual learning progress and adjust instruction in response to student needs. However, high stakes testing can have significant drawbacks for student learning such as narrowing curriculum and instruction and overburdening teachers and students. We need to keep our focus on the broader purpose of public education and how we weigh different measurements and considerations while preparing our students for success. What indicators matter?

We know it’s important to foster student engagement and interest in learning; it’s a key aspect in keeping students in the school and on track to graduate. It’s a sad reality that student engagement levels decrease with each additional year they stay in school, beginning in elementary school. Gallup’s 2014 reportState of America’s Schools: The Path to Winning Again in Education, indicates that students who strongly agree with the statements “my school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” are thirty (yes thirty) times more likely to be engaged at school. Students want their learning to be meaningful, and they want to connect it to the real world and to real people. Standardized testing often fails to fulfill either of these desires.

Students that enroll in higher education are in a similar predicament when it comes to meaningful learning opportunities. According to a recent Gallup/Lumina Foundation report, only 11 percent of businesses strongly agree that today’s college graduates possess the skills and competencies their businesses need. In contrast, 96 percent of university provosts believe they are preparing their students properly for post-college work. Last year, Google – widely considered a top quality employer – examined their hiring process and shared what they learned. They found that GPA and test scores were worthless in predicting employee successwhy? Academia is inherently structured and controlled, often fairly distinctive from many work environments, particularly entrepreneurial ones like Google, and rarely do students get practical on the job experience.

This spring Gallup published a study with survey results highlighting how life in college, and the college experience, matters for life after school. The survey was based on the recently developed Gallup/Purdue Index, which identifies six aspects of the college experience – three related to the support that students receive and three related to the experiential nature of their learning – that correlate to great jobs and lives. Few of these correlating factors are academic in nature and only three percent of students surveyed experienced all six aspects that strongly correlate to great jobs and great lives, suggesting a greater likelihood they will be engaged at work and thrive overall. But this survey highlights – as with K-12 – the importance of a strong connection with at least one college professor. For students who recalled having a professor they felt cared about them, their level of work engagement doubled and their odds of thriving in all areas of well-being almost doubled.

In light of these experiences that correlate with long-term success, we should think about the true purpose and use of testing. First, we need to make sure we prioritize testing that serves an instructional purpose and that we are not administering duplicative tests. Second, student learning should not be solely measured by tests, and the definition of success should not be reduced to a test score. Furthermore, testing should not come at the detriment of other important activities and experiences students should have in school. Third, educators need a greater voice in determining what is taught, how it is taught and how we should assess student learning.

Finally, we can never forget that schools deal with human relationships and that the quality of the relationships between students and teachers matters – and this is almost impossible to measure on a standardized test.  One of our most ambitious goals should be to create environments where all teachers feel supported, prepared and encouraged to build those meaningful relationships with our children. They shape minds and they change lives.

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