by Brandon Busteed

It's time to end our obsession with standardized testing and grade point averages. We've spent the better part of the last two decades -- with an almost myopic focus -- trying to improve these measures across our educational system. Despite national efforts to raise test scores through initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, there has been little-to-no improvement in scores. We have also witnessed rampant grade inflation, with average college GPAs, for example, rising from 2.3 to 3.2 in the past few decades, making their value suspect.

In the meantime, a mountain of evidence and sentiment is building that these measures may not be very strong predictors of success, and that other measures -- like student engagement and hope -- may be much better.

Take, for example, the powerful results from a new survey of 2,586 superintendents: the leaders of our K-12 school districts just essentially voted "no confidence" on GPA and standardized tests as strong predictors of college success. In fact, only 6% of superintendents strongly agree that SAT and ACT scores are the best predictors of college success, and only 5% of them strongly agree GPA is the best predictor. Americans also say No Child Left Behind has hurt more than helped.

Paul Tough's book How Children Succeed has shed light on other measures of success, like "grit" and "resilience." Sir Ken Robinson has become a global force on education redesign by arguing that we have lost track of things like encouraging creativity in schools. And Google announced last week that they are no longer taking into account job candidates' test scores and grades, because they found no relationship between those measures and performance on the job. This buzz around a new focus to affect student success is supported by some of Gallup's best research, for example, that the three constructs of hope, engagement, and wellbeing account for as much as one-third of the variance in student success. Yet our nation's school are not paying attention to these kinds of things. What we're starting to learn is that "soft skills" and "social-emotional" learning are pretty important. There's a case that the "soft stuff" may be the best measures of all.

The biggest problem with standardized testing is that it seeks standardized answers. We're not just overinvesting in standardized testing, we're actually testing standardization. That is to say, most standardized tests are designed to have students come up with the same answers. We're teaching them how to be similar, not different. And although we need to test certain competencies and intelligence, it is becoming quite clear that there are many kinds of competencies and many forms of intelligence that we are not picking up on with our current testing approaches.

Gallup's work on strengths development has shown that every human on the planet has a unique talent signature -- like a fingerprint. And we've found that each person's success is best determined by how well they leverage their unique talents on a daily basis. Not by trying to be the same as others. And not by trying to "fix their weaknesses."

As a parent, I want my kids to be uncommon, not common. I want them to be unique, not the same. I want them to discover different solutions to the problem, as opposed to the same answer. As an education expert, I want my country to espouse the same. America's economy is fundamentally about entrepreneurship -- boldly and bravely striking out in new directions. But we have lost sight of that in our schools and colleges. We have a system that encourages the opposite -- working within narrowly defined rules, teaching to the test, and we are ultimately aiming at standardized answers and outcomes.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that we wholesale abandon standardized testing. These tests should be part of a much more balanced scorecard that includes many other more important measures. But we do need to greatly deemphasize the role these assessments currently play.

As scary as it may sound, we need to stop worrying about how America stacks up on PISA scores compared with other countries. Parents need to stop obsessing over their kids' performance on tests and the grades they get. Teachers need to stop teaching to the test. And our educational leaders need to push into new frontiers where they can measure (and espouse) more of what matters the most.

Based on decades of Gallup's best science and research, we have a simple proposal for how we can get back on the path to winning again in education. And what the new Bill of Rights for all students should be. The path is much more about getting back to the basics than about doing something radically new. We need to care more about each student as a unique person. We need to help them discover what they like to do. We need to help them discover what they're best at. None of that is helped by standardized testing. Time to put to rest our favorite acronyms of accountability in education. RIP SAT, ACT, and GPA!

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