Yesterday we learned that the new Every Student Succeeds Act, signed last week into law by President Obama to replace the long-maligned No Child Left Behind legislation of his predecessor, mandates less standardized testing for students and less time teaching and preparing students to take those tests. Developmental psychologist Susan Engel writes in the Boston Globe that we should be testing kids on things that teachers and parents value most:

I have reviewed more than 300 studies of K–12 academic tests. What I have discovered is startling. Most tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and school districts predict almost nothing except the likelihood of achieving similar scores on subsequent tests. I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes.


Less standardized testing means leaving more time for teachers to teach the “7 Things Every Kid Should Master,” beginning with reading:

When children can and do read, their language and thinking are different. One way to measure reading, then, is to take a close look at their language and thinking. For example, using recordings of children’s everyday speech, developmental psychologists can calculate two important indicators of intellectual functioning: the grammatical complexity of their sentences and the size of their working vocabularies. Why not do the same in schools?


Engel, who teaches at Williams College, isn’t talking about merely knowing how to read. Instead, children need to rely on reading for both pleasure and gathering information. This means they need to be reading regularly from the time they learn how.

Perhaps the best predictor of academic success is how well and how much a child reads. Children who have no obstacles in their language-learning brain pathways tend to master reading earlier than those children who find learning to read more difficult. As a result, these children are typically the ones who love being read to as toddlers and preschoolers, and who love to read for pleasure in grade school and beyond. If parents share their love of reading, it is even more likely their kids will gravitate toward books. Whenever a child says they don’t like to read, that often indicates that reading fluency and/or comprehension is difficult for them. Not having adult role models who value reading for pleasure or knowledge can also be a hinderance.

Engel gives schools poor marks in nurturing children’s natural curiosity by encouraging the mastery of inquiry:

Children are born wanting to find things out. But schools have, by and large, done little to build on this valuable impulse. In fact, when children get to school, they ask fewer questions, explore less often and with less intensity, and become less curious. One of the great ironies of our educational system is that it seems to squelch the impulse most essential to learning new things and to pursuing scientific discovery and invention.


The art of conversation should be valued, taught, and mastered by students in school, especially when they may not be building conversational skills at home. Engel says progress shouldn’t be difficult to measure:

It’s not always easy to help a child expand his or her linguistic or narrative repertoire, especially when the teacher and child come from different oral traditions. Teachers are given scant training about how to encourage, expand, and deepen children’s conversations. Schools of education offer lots of courses on curriculum planning, reading strategies, assessment, and classroom management, but I have seen few places where teachers deliberately reflect on or practice ways to have real conversations with their students.

If teachers knew that their students’ conversations were valuable and that they and their students were being measured by their conversations, they might get more help learning how to scaffold or enrich children’s talk. And unlike the kinds of “teaching to the test” we have come to know, which diminish a child’s educational experience, this kind of “teaching to the test” would improve children’s educational experiences day in and day out.


Engel also thinks teaching kids to assess their own well-being is simple: just ask them:

I have argued that first and foremost children should be acquiring a sense of well-being in school. So why not ask them periodically how they feel? Questions might probe what they are working on that they care about, how often they like being there, whether they feel known by adults in the school, and how much of the time they feel interested in at least some of what they are doing. Economists and psychologists have shown that people are pretty reliable when it comes to telling us how happy they are. Why not use this metric in evaluating our schools?


Read the rest of Professor Engel’s ideas ” to free up students and teachers to do more meaningful work” here.