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Our Very Own Hunger Games: How to Fix Standardized Assessments

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Every so often, a book comes along that reminds us that kids still love to read. Some are about wizards, others about vampires. And a few are even about post-apocalyptic civilizations infatuated with watching their youth murder each other in an annual televised national ritual.

Of course this last premise forms the foundation of The Hunger Games, the first novel of Suzanne Collins' celebrated trilogy, whose cinematic adaptation has given us 251 million reasons (to date) to believe that novels still matter to America's children. On the other hand, the box-office flop of Wrath of the Titans -- only $34.2 million in its opening weekend to Hunger Games' $155 million -- tells us we can't say the same of Greek mythology.

On the subject of mythology, it seems appropriate to me that The Hunger Games was released in March, the month of Mars, the Roman god of war, who would have been simply delighted by the gladiatorial death match at the heart of the story. However, now that March has come and gone, I recognize another link between The Hunger Games and those 31 violent days: March is the month during which most states put their students to the slaughter, more commonly known as standardized testing.

The similarities between standardized testing and The Hunger Games abound. Maybe we don't stop our lives to watch our kids bubble in answers at their desks for two epic weeks of reading passages and math problems. But it's undeniable that the nation anxiously awaits the results of those trials. Furthermore, the law requiring the administration of these tests comes from an unaccountable central authority, which I sincerely hope is the only comparison that I will ever make between the United States Congress and the oppressive Capitol of Panem. Moreover, just as the Games unfairly favor the children from the wealthier Districts of Panem, so too do the tests unfairly favor the children from the wealthier districts of our country. Finally, and most importantly, just as the Games serve only to glorify a repressive regime by leaving all but one child behind, so too do the tests serve only to glorify the grown-ups who claim to leave no children behind.

At the end of the day, when we look at scores, we look at schools. We look at school districts, we look at politicians, we look at principals, and we look at teachers. But we never look at students. What should be a celebration of their achievements has been bastardized into the veneration of anyone whose mere presence is correlated with better numbers and the vilification of anyone whose actions are associated with a decline. All because we have failed to pass a simple test with only one question on it: Why do we test in the first place?

We test because we want to determine what our kids know and are able to do. We don't test to figure out who the best teachers to are, to decide who has developed the best curriculum, or to conclude who has initiated the best reforms. We test for the sake of the children, not those in charge.

Yet our tests are about as friendly to the children of America as the Hunger Games are to the children of Panem -- only in America, no kid can escape the ordeal. So what are we to do to fix them?

You won't often find me agreeing with Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, but spending more money on them would be a good place to start. In his book, Common Sense School Reform, Hess reports that in 2003, the U. S. Government Accounting Office estimated that administering the best available tests would cost $5.3 billion for the period between 2002 and 2008. In 2011, that figure had risen to $2.7 billion for just the one year; however that's still a rounding error in the $500 billion-plus industry that is K-12 education. Hess argues that in any other business, they would consider this paltry expense a "show-stopping bargain," and that we should invest more. He's right: If we expect our kids to do their best on the tests, then their tests should be the best, no matter the cost.

But our tests aren't the best and will never be the best for a simple, yet counterintuitive reason -- they are tests. And tests are inherently limiting. They limit us to the knowledge of what one student with one pencil sitting at one desk bubbling in answers to one set of questions during one period of time knows and is able to do. Instead of thinking in terms of tests, we need to think as broadly as we hope our kids will, considering the whole range of possible assessments: essays, research papers, group projects, plays, songs, presentations, websites, blogs, programs, videos, posters, lab reports, oral exams, dioramas, sculptures, gardens, business plans, blueprints, games, the list goes on. These are things that our kids might actually have to -- and, more importantly, want to -- do some day.

Whatever the subject or skill demands should form the basis of the assessment. For example, if a teacher desired to measure a student's ability to survive under extreme conditions and to engage in mortal combat, he would find that the Hunger Games would be a perfectly appropriate means of doing so. Even though the cost of designing and grading this assessment would be taxing and grave, it would be well worth it. The investment of time and resources would show the students that the purpose of the assessment is to celebrate their achievements, not ours.

The truth is that the tests we have now are lazy and expedient -- we let machines do the dirty work. It's no wonder that our kids are failing them: We don't put any effort into creating and evaluating them, so why should they put any effort into passing them? If we were to recognize what our kids are actually hungry for, for glory, for the opportunity to succeed, for the opportunity to shine, for the opportunity to show the whole world what they know and are able to do, we would pursue a completely different approach to assessment.

We would end the Hunger Games, we would eliminate tests that don't test anything, and we would give our students the chance to demonstrate their brilliance in meaningful and authentic ways. Then, and only then, would we stop putting our kids to the slaughter every March. Then, and only then, would we leave no children behind.