Drop your standards

May 11, 2001

Education's obsession with standardised testing is at odds with the character of the new economy, argues Robert Reich.

The latest rage in education on both sides of the Atlantic is standardised tests. Young people are tested, re-tested a year or two later and then re-tested again and again. Our schools are morphing into test-taking factories. Politicians like tests because they do not cost much money and they reassure the public that its children are learning something .

Paradoxically, we are embracing standardised tests just when the new economy is eliminating standardised jobs. If there is one certainty about what today's schoolchildren will be doing a decade or two from now, it is that they will not all be doing the same things and they will not be drawing on the same knowledge.

The purpose of education is not only to train people to become productive participants in an economy. But the work that people do after they leave school has a necessary bearing on what and how they learn. Jobs in the old mass-production economy came in a few standard varieties - research, production, sales, clerical, managerial, professional. A system that depended on economies of scale did not need many specialised skills or much original thinking. Most people spent their working lives performing the same operations over and over.

But the old mass-production system is disappearing. Computers, the internet and digital commerce have exploded the old job categories into a vast array of new niches, creating a kaleidoscope of ways to make a living. Artists of all kinds are discovering multimedia outlets for their talents. Large numbers of people are starting their own web-based businesses and auction houses. Clerks and secretaries are turning into spreadsheet operators, desktop publishers and web-based inventory control managers. Salespeople are becoming specialty technicians, finding or creating unique products to meet particular customer needs.

There is also an increasing demand for people who provide personal attention and comfort - advisers, counsellors, coaches and trainers. Physical and occupational therapists are needed. Home healthcare workers, elder-care assistants and childcare workers are all in short supply. And we have a chronic need for teachers at all levels, who are able to improve peoples' skills throughout their lives.

Most of the work in the emerging economy requires an ability to learn on the job, to discover what needs to be known and to find and use it quickly. Many of the new jobs depend on creativity - out-of-the-box thinking, originality and flair. Almost by definition, standardised tests cannot measure these. They are best at measuring the ability to regurgitate facts and apply standard modes of analyses.

In the new economy, facts and standard analyses can be uncovered at the click of a mouse so it is less necessary to know a lot of particular things. It is more important to learn how to identify and solve problems, think critically and challenge assumptions.

Other jobs in the emerging economy depend on the ability to listen and to discern what other people feel or need. Advisers, counsellors and consultants must be able to hear beyond the words that other people are using and diagnose the truth. Empathy is becoming a crucial skill. Here again, standardised tests are often irrelevant.

The emerging economy still requires literacy and numeracy. Standardised tests can help here and can pinpoint where children need more guidance. But in many other ways, our obsession runs counter to the demands of the modern market. Training a generation of young people to become exquisitely competent at taking standardised tests and a generation of teachers to become exceedingly good at teaching how to take them, has little to do with preparing young people for what they will encounter when they leave school. And more disturbingly, the testing may have the opposite effect - dulling young people's interest in learning and dimming their creative sparks at just a time in history when learning and creativity are more important to the economy than ever.

Robert B. Reich, United States secretary of labour under Bill Clinton, is professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University. His latest book, The Future of Success , William Heinemann, £12.99, is published next week.

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