Better Test Scores Don’t Lead To Success

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We shake our heads at the way standardized testing chews the heart out of real learning.   We know about the zombifying effect on schools, teachers, and kids.

Even in the best districts, the effort to attain those all-important numbers eliminates deeper, richer education. Less stellar districts see their schools under a test-heavy siege, charged with getting results or being taken over. This drive also shapes the kind of material students see, relentlessly preparing them to reach higher for the Almighty Score while giving them little time to build essential traits such as critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and persistence.

Parents and educators alike decry this approach, but it’s seen as a necessary pill to swallow (or actually, to make students swallow) in order to achieve some longer term goal. The goal, policy-makers tell us, is greater success for individual students and greater success in global competitiveness.

Do they have proof that boosting individual as well as overall test scores lead to success on either count?



National test scores

We’re told that national test score rankings are vitally important indicators of a country’s future. To improve those rankings, core standards are imposed with more frequent assessments to determine student achievement (meaning more testing, more oversight, more teaching to the test).

But do higher test scores actually make a difference to a nation’s future?

study by Christopher H. Tienken compared results from international mathematics and science tests from a fifty-year period to future economic competitiveness by those countries. Surely it showed that those countries with kids performing best on tests become high performing counties. Actually, no. Across all indicators there was minimal evidence that students’ high test scores produce value for their countries. Tienken concluded that higher student test scores were unrelated to any factors consistently predictive of a developed country’s growth and competitiveness.

In another such analysis, Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, examined achievement studies across the world to see if they reflected the success of participating nations. Using numerous comparisons including national wealth, degree of democracy, economic growth, even happiness, Baker found no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries. Merely average test scores were correlated with successful nations while top test scores were not.

Baker explains, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance…” He goes on to speculate whether testing [or forms of education emphasizing testing] itself may be damaging to a nation’s future.


Individual test scores

What about individual success?

Educational reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Why do we push standardized tests it has been demonstrated that the results are counterproductive? We’ve been told this is the price children must pay in order to achieve success. This is profound evidence of societal shallow thinking because the evidence doesn’t stack up.

Studies show that high test scores in school don’t correlate with adult accomplishments  (but do line up with interpersonal immaturity). We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?

The conclusion?

Not really.

The criteria for academic success isn’t a direct line to lifetime success. Studies show that grades and test scores do not necessarily correlate to later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. Grades and tests only do a good job of forecasting how well youth will perform in future grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in real life problems, relationships, or career advancement.

What can concerned parents do?

Let’s work toward a future where our children have more time to play, to dream, and to love learning.

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7 Ways To Make Your Day More Magical

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1. Head off to an interesting destination with your family or friends for an Alternative Identity Day. On the way, everyone makes up his or her own identity. Throughout the day make an effort to play along with that identity: call each other by the chosen faux names, enjoy elaborating on your character’s backstory, and interact with strangers through that identity. At the end of the experiment talk about how it felt to try on an alternative self. And if you’ve taken photos, check to see if anyone held their faces or bodies differently. The sense of observing yourself from the lens of another persona can be illuminating.

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2. Start your meal with a toast. It may be as simple as raising your glass of orange juice in the morning, saying “Here’s to a wonderful day ahead.” Or as heartfelt as an unexpected toast to a friend in thanks for all you’ve shared. A toast is a ritual for adding significance to the moment. Why not make more moments significant?

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3. Don’t let a day go by without generating some music. You might sing along with the radio or whistle to make a chore go faster. If you play an instrument, even if you haven’t practiced in a long time, get it out (suspending all judgment) and get reacquainted. If you’ve always hankered to play an instrument but never tried, sign up for some introductory lessons.

An easy way to incorporate music into your life is to make up lyrics to familiar tunes. This is particularly satisfying when you’re annoyed. (Whoever passed down the traditional “Rock A Bye Baby” lullaby knew that grumpy lyrics go quite nicely with a sweet tune.) To the tune of “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat” try singing,

Wait, wait, wait on hold
Till I want to scream
Knowing from experience
Service is a dream.

See what other experiences you can transform using music.

encouraging banner,

Image: L. Weldon

4. Make an encouraging banner. This project was inspired by the collaborative art project Learning To Love You More. Assignment number 63 was to make an encouraging banner and hang it.  Participants hung banners in their bedrooms, across overpasses, in junkyards, alongside roadways, in parking lots—all over the place. In all sorts of colors and shapes their banners announced:

Don’t forget you are beautiful
It’s okay to ask for help
Life is art
Let’s hear it for love
Lose track of “I”
This is the land of milk & honey
You are incomparable
Less do, more be
You can trust what you can’t explain
Farm magic

What phrase gives you hope? Make a banner, either one you plan to hang in your home or to share with the public. You might want to photograph it in various places. The phrase you love comes alive in different settings.

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5. Sketch something you wanted as a child. The perfect treehouse, a fairy godmother, that toy Santa never brought, a first place trophy, a real best friend. Maybe make a few sketches to get the details just the way you want them. Add some labels if that helps. Now close your eyes, imagine yourself as a child, and give this earlier version of yourself that gift. You may scoff but the disappointed child in you just might appreciate the attention.

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6. Look for metaphors in the ordinary. Challenge yourself to discern a “message” in the first news item you hear in the day or the first visual that appears when you flick on the TV. Ask yourself why a certain song is playing in your head—does it remind you of something, perhaps a feeling or memory the music evokes? Ask yourself why you might have a certain ache, is your body is speaking to you the only way it can? Look for coincidences, synchronicity, and little delights—these can be signposts indicating you are exactly where you need to be.

In particular, pay attention to the messages found in your dreams. Before going to sleep tell yourself that you will remember your dreams. You may want to ask a question before drifting off. When you wake, don’t jump right out of bed. Instead lie quietly and let dreams rise to your awareness. Although their images and stories often make no logical sense dreams speak in symbols with meaning specific to you. Let those symbols linger with you through the day. Even last night’s giant parking meters demanding soup may start to make sense, metaphorically speaking.

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7. Heard of eyebombing? Very simply, it’s the act of putting sticky googly eyes on inanimate objects. As described on, “Ultimately the goal is to humanize the streets, and bring sunshine to people passing by.”

This is an inexpensive and intentionally silly exercise.  Buy a package or two of googly eyes and start looking for where they belong. For inspiration, check out the eyebombing flickr group.  Then enjoy your quest.  Anthropomorphizing a mustard bottle never seemed so right.


Peace Meeting Disrupted By Vegetation Attack

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I once worked for a peace organization headed by a man I regard as close to sainthood. I have no saintly aspirations of my own, but when I was anywhere near John I wanted to live up to his example or, at least behave myself.

John and I met at an eco-conscious lunch spot to discuss a new project. There I drank coffee stronger than I’d ever tasted in a mug larger than I’d ever seen. Too late I remembered that caffeine gives me the jitters.

A third person joined us for the meeting. John was effusive in his praise for my accomplishments as he introduced me to this older gentleman.  Way too effusive. It’s hard to live up to such superlatives, especially while trying to keep one’s hands from caffeine-related jitters.

The men ordered soup and sandwiches. I quickly ordered the first salad listed and turned my attention back to the meeting. When my meal arrived I was alarmed. Dark, unfamiliar vegetation loomed over the plate. The leaves looked quite a bit like invasive weeds. I dug in bravely, hoping that once I’d gotten some nourishment the coffee shakes would wear off.

My tablemates had charming manners. They took small bites, wiped their mouths carefully, and added wonderful insights to the conversation only after swallowing. In the meantime I discovered the giant plants on my plate couldn’t be cut in pieces with ordinary tableware. Instead I had to bend them in half with my fork and hope that dressing didn’t dribble on the table, my clothes, or chin as I drove each bite resolutely into my mouth. To cope, I listened intently and kept my comments to a minimum.

Just as I was inserting a neatly folded plant leaf in my mouth John addressed a question to me. A serious, lengthy reply sort of question. I was in trouble. Not because I had no response. No, because the process of shoveling in a huge bent leaf took longer than a sip of soup or bite of sandwich ever could.

Worse yet, the leaf was larger than my coffee-addled brain anticipated. As it headed toward my lips it seemed to grow. Because the food was already partway in my mouth it was too late to throw the whole action in reverse. So I shoved the rest of it in, afraid that I looked like one of those mulching machines grinding a tree branch.

A conversational pause developed around the table as my lunch companions politely waited for me to answer. I hurried, hoping after a few quick chewing motions I’d be able to respond.

No such luck. As I pulled the fork out of my mouth the unexpected happened.

That hulking leaf unfolded. Like an angry vegetable on a rampage it sprung fully open and leaped to the back of my throat, instantly triggering a gag reflex.

There was nothing I could do.  Reflexes do not respect politeness nor honor the presence of a saint. My eyes widened in horror as my mouth involuntarily flung open. The entire lettuce leaf emerged at top speed from my gaping maw right onto the plate.  Gag related tears sprung to my eyes and gag related saliva hovered with great drool potential on my lower lip.

It is a testament to the training of those involved in the peace movement that my companions didn’t bolt from the table.  They didn’t even blink.

John looked at me kindly. As if his wording had caused me some discomfort, he said without a hint of irony, “Let me rephrase the question.”

How The “10,000 Hour” Rule Can Benefit Any Child

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If you haven’t heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule, you’re probably busy doing what people do, living life on your own terms. But what you may not realize is how this rule affects young people, whether they have one all-consuming interest or not.

Malcolm Gladwell identified the 10,000 hour maxim in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. The rule describes how to attain Big Time Success. Based on an analysis of people who reached the top of their fields, Gladwell claims that any of us can reach greatness by practicing tasks relevant to our chosen field for a total of 10,000 hours. He provides pretty compelling examples including the Beatles, Bill Gates, and Tiger Woods. These guys put in the hours, then rapidly pulled ahead of the competition.

Plenty of other circumstances factor into success but it’s worth taking a closer look at what the 10,000 hour rule means for today’s kids. Good news. Those who are homeschooling or attending Democratic schools benefit enormously from the 10,000 hour rule, although not in ways you might expect.

First and most obviously, they have more time to explore their interests. They don’t spend hours every day on the school bus, standing in line to change classes, listening to instructions/attendance/announcements, doing rote schoolwork, and then completing homework in the evening. Even highly academic homeschooling families find that a full load of “schoolwork” can be completed in substantially fewer hours than the average school day.

That leaves plenty of time to pursue real interests. Long hours every day can be lavished, if a child wishes, on building expertise through direct experience in video game design, creative writing, chemistry, speed skating, cello playing, sculpting, astronomy, cake decorating, computer animation, or any other area.

It’s not difficult for a young person, free from the time constraints of conventional schooling, to spend 10,000 hours in an area of passionate interest. Let’s look at the numbers. The average school year in the U.S. is 180 days (pretty similar in most of the world) with an average school day of 6.7 hours.  Thus children are unable to pursue their own interests and learn in wider ways for a minimum of 1,206 hours a year. Even if we don’t count kindergarten, that’s 14,472 hours by the time they’re 18. And we’re not even adding time necessarily spent on travel to and from school, prepping for the school day in the morning, and doing homework after school (although we know these obligations probably add another hour or two each school day).

Sure, school kids engage in all sorts of worthy pursuits in their spare time. But homeschoolers and students in Democratic schools have a lot morespare time. These young people can accumulate the requisite 10,000 hours quite easily by their mid-teens, putting them on the fast lane to Big Time Success in exactly the field that makes them feel most vibrant and alive. If they choose.

But what about the homeschooled kids and students in Democratic schools who don’t have a single all-consuming interest? A girl might like to read sci-fi, go horseback riding, play soccer, and teach the dog tricks. A boy might drift from one pursuit to another, avidly creating his own graphic novel, then becoming passionate about parkour. Should these kids choose one thing in order to accumulate the all-precious 10,000 hours?

Absolutely not. They’re already putting 10,000 hours into the exact skills that more widely define success.

That’s because their daily lives are filled with self-directed and meaningful learning. Of course, depending on the style of homeschooling, it’s obvious that many kids will spend time doing some rote educational tasks. But nothing approaching15,000 hours. Instead they’re accumulating more useful and accessible wisdom honed by experience. How?

~Thousands of hours spent feeding their own curiosity, becoming well acquainted with the pleasure of finding out more. This develops eager lifetime learners.

~Thousands of hours exploring, creating, building friendships, making mistakes, taking risks and accepting the consequences (what’s ordinarily called play).This develops innovative thinkers.

~Thousands of hours spent shouldering real responsibility and connecting with role models through chores, volunteer work, and spending time with people of all ages. This develops self-worth based on competence and meaning.

~Thousands of hours pursuing interests, in whatever direction they take, building proficiency through direct engagement. This develops mastery.

~Thousands of hours reading, contemplating, conversing, asking questions and searching for answers, looking at the bigger picture from different angles, and discovering how people they admire handle challenges. This develops maturity and strength of character.

Gladwell reminds us that 20 hours a week for 10 years adds up to 10,000 hours. Filling those hours meaningfully? That’s no problem for self-directed, endlessly curious learners. Chances are, they’ll grow up to redefine success. Who knows what today’s young people, raised to think deeply and freely, can bring to the future?

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This article was first published in Life Learning Magazine, Sept/Oct 2011.

School ADD Isn’t Homeschool ADD

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I hesitated at the heavy glass doors of my son’s school. I’d cheerfully walked in these doors many times. I volunteered here, served on the PTA board, joked with the principal and teachers, even helped start an annual all-school tradition called Art Day. But now I fought the urge to grab him from his first grade classroom, never to return.

I’d come in that morning hoping to discuss the angry outbursts my son’s teacher directed at several students, including my little boy. But I entered no ordinary meeting. It was an ambush.  Sides had clearly been chosen. The principal, guidance counselor, and my son’s teacher sat in a clump together along one side of the table. Feeling oddly hollow, I pulled out a chair and sat down. Since I led conflict resolution workshops in my working life, I was confident that we could talk over any issues and come to an understanding.

I was wrong.

The counselor read aloud from a list of ADHD behavioral symptoms my son’s teacher had been tracking over the past few weeks. My little boy’s major transgressions were messy work, lack of organization, and distractibility. The teacher nodded with satisfaction and crossed her arms.

No one who spent time with him had ever mentioned ADHD before. I breathed deeply to calm myself. I knew it was best to repeat what I was hearing in order to clarify, but the counselor barreled ahead, saying they had a significant “ADHD population” in the school system who showed excellent results with medication.

After giving the teacher kudos for dealing with a classroom full of children and acknowledging the difficulty of meeting all their needs, I tried to stand up for my child (although I felt like a mother bear defending her cub from nicely dressed predators). I said the behaviors she noted actually seemed normal for a six-year-old boy, after all, children are in the process of maturing and are not naturally inclined to do paperwork. The teacher shook her head and whispered to the principal. The counselor said first grade children have had ample time to adapt to classroom standards.

I asked if any of my son’s behaviors had ever disrupted the class. The teacher didn’t answer the question. Instead she sighed and said, looking at the principal, “I’ve been teaching for 15 years. This doesn’t get better on its own. I’m telling you this child can be helped by medication.”

When I asked about alternatives such as modifying his diet the teacher actually rolled her eyes, saying, “Plenty of parents believe there are all sorts of things they can do on their own. But students on restricted diets don’t fit in too well in the lunchroom.”

There was no real discussion. No chance to bring up her teaching style. No opportunity  for better collaboration between home and school. A conclusion had been reached without consulting me, my husband, or a mental health professional. My son required one vital ingredient in order to flourish in school: pharmaceuticals.

As I stood at the door, my heart pounding in distress, I vowed to solve this problem rationally. I told myself such an approach would help my child and other misunderstood students. I made it all the way to the car without crying.

Over the next few weeks I took my child to all sorts of appointments. A psychologist diagnosed him with ADD (no H). Her report was tucked in a stack of handouts from a national non-profit organization known for its ties to the pharmaceutical industry. An allergist diagnosed our little boy with multiple food allergies including almost every fruit and grain he liked to eat (my research showed that diet can indeed affect behavior even for kids without allergies). A pediatric pulmonologist determined that his asthma was much worse than we’d known. In fact his oxygen intake was so poor the doctor said it was likely our son would change position frequently, lift his arms to expand his lungs, and have trouble concentrating. Right away I started the process of eliminating allergens in his life and following other advice given me by these professionals.

I also read about learning. I began to see childhood learning in a wider way as I studied authors such as Joseph Chilton PearceDavid Elkind , and John Taylor Gatto. I talked to other parents who described managing ADHD using star charts, privilege restriction, close communication with teachers, and immediate consequences for behavior. Many told me their child’s problems got worse during the teen years. Some described sons and daughters they’d “lost” to drug abuse, delinquency, chronic depression and dangerous rage. One woman told me her 14-year-old son was caught dealing. The boy sold amphetamines so strong they were regulated by the Controlled Substance Act—his own prescription for ADHD.

And I spent a lot of time observing my son’s behavior. Yes, he was disorganized with his schoolwork. His room was often a mess too, but only because he had so many interests. I saw no lack of focus as he drew designs for imaginary vehicles, pored over diagrams in adult reference books, or created elaborate make-believe scenarios. I knew that he was easily frustrated by flash cards and timed math tests, methods that did little to advance his understanding. But I also knew that he used math easily for projects such as designing his own models out of scrap wood. And of course he was distractible. He resisted rote tasks as most small children do. Their minds and bodies are naturally inclined toward more engaging ways to advance their natural gifts. Mostly I noticed how cooperative and cheerful he was. He didn’t whine, easily waited for his own turn, and loved to help with chores. As a biased observer I found him to be a marvelous six-year-old.

Resolutely I tried to make school workable. I let the teacher know how my son’s allergies and asthma might impact his classroom abilities. I shared the psychologist’s report. And I tried to explain my son’s stressful home situation. In the past year our family had been victimized by crime, his father had been injured in a car accident and left unable to work, and several other loved ones had been hospitalized. His schoolwork may have reflected a life that suddenly seemed messy and disorganized.

The teacher, however, only told me what my son did wrong. She was particularly incensed that he rushed through his work or left it incomplete, only to spend time cleaning up scraps from the floor. She did not find his efforts helpful. In clipped tones she said, “Each student is supposed to pick up only his or her scraps. Nothing more.”

My son’s backpack sagged each day with 10 or more preprinted and vaguely educational papers, all with fussy instructions.  Cut out the flower on the dotted lines, cut two slits here, color the flower, cut and paste this face on the flower, insert the flower in the two slots, write three sentences about the flower using at least five words from the “st” list.  I’d have been looking for scraps on the floor to clean up too, anything to get away from a day filled with such assignments.

It took almost two years of watching my child try to please his teachers and be himself in two different school systems that were, by necessity, not designed to handle individual differences. His schoolwork habits deteriorated except when the project at hand intrigued him. He appreciated the cheerful demeanor of his third grade teacher even though she told me she didn’t expect much from him until his Iowa Test results came back with overall scores at the 99th percentile.  Then she deemed him an underachiever and pulled his desk next to hers, right in front of the whole class, to make sure he paid attention to his paperwork rather than look out the window or fiddle with odd and ends he’d found. That’s where he stayed.

When he was eight years old I took my children out of school forever.

Homeschooling didn’t “fix” everything for my son, at least right away. I made many of the same mistakes teachers made with him. I enthusiastically offered projects that meant nothing to him, expecting him to sit still and complete them. And I saw the same behaviors his teachers described. My son sat at the kitchen table, a few pages to finish before we headed off to the park or some other adventure. But every day he dropped his pencil so he could climb under the table after it, erased holes in his paper, found a focal spot out the window for his daydreams, complained as if math problems were mental thumbscrews. I used to lie awake at night afraid that he’d never be able to do long division.

Yet every time I stepped back, allowing him to pursue his own interests he picked up complicated concepts beautifully. I watched him design his own rockets. He figured out materials he needed, built them carefully and cheerfully started over with his own carefully considered improvements when he made mistakes. I realized his “problem” was my insistence he learn as I had done—from a static page. Homeschooling showed me that children don’t fare well as passive recipients of education. They want to take part in meaningful activities relevant to their own lives. They develop greater skills by building on their gifts, not focusing on abilities they lack.

The more I stepped back, the more I saw how much my son accomplished when fueled by his own curiosity. This little boy played chess, took apart broken appliances, carefully observed nature, helped on our farm, checked out piles of books at the library each week, memorized the names of historic aircraft and the scientific principles explaining flight, filled notebooks with cartoons and designs—-learning every moment.

Gradually I recognized that he learned in a complex, deeply focused and yes, apparently disorganized manner. It wasn’t the way I’d learned in school but it was the way he learned best. His whole life taught him in ways magnificently and perfectly structured to suit him and him alone. As I relaxed in our homeschooling life he flourished. Sometimes his intense interests fueled busy days. Sometimes it seemed he did very little— those were times that richer wells of understanding developed.

I sank back into worrying about academic topics during his last year at home before college. Although his homeschool years had been filled with a wealth of learning experiences I suddenly worried that he’d done too little writing, not enough math, minimal formal science. My anxiety about his success in college wasn’t helpful, but by then his confidence in himself wasn’t swayed.

His greatest surprise in college has been how disinterested his fellow students are in learning. Now in his sophomore year, my Renaissance man has knowledge and abilities spanning many fields. Of his own volition, he’s writing a scholarly article for a science publication (staying up late tonight to interview a researcher by phone in Chile). Self taught in acoustic design, he created an electronic component for amplifiers that he sells online. He also raises tarantulas, is restoring a vintage car, and plays the bagpipes. He’s still the wonderfully cooperative and cheerful boy I once knew, now with delightfully dry wit.

My son taught me that distractible, messy, disorganized children are perfectly suited to learn in their own way. It was my mistake keeping him in school as long as we did. I’m glad we finally walked away from those doors to enjoy free range learning.

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 Find out more about Free Range Learning here