It’s that time of year when the weather warms up, hay fever allergies kick in, and we shut our students in auditoriums with endless rows of desks. It’s time for standardized tests.

Testing measures progress and is obviously is a very important part of learning. The problem occurs when acing the test in order to prove the health of the education system becomes the main provincial or national goal. A decade of standardized testing has not improved the rankings of U.S. students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates worldwide education systems.

Testing is now an international obsession, but I think we have lost sight of its purpose. The learner, rather than the system, should be at the heart of good measurement.

I had my own experience of standardized testing recently. As part of the process of becoming a Canadian, immigrants are required to sit a speaking, reading, writing, and listening test. I passed, but much to the amusement of my colleagues at Cardus, I failed to get full marks in writing. According to my editor, it is due to my atrocious punctuation and a “Virginia Woolf stream-of-consciousness thing” I’ve got going on.

I started out resentful of the whole experience. English is, after all, my first language; I am a citizen of Great Britain and I sound to most Canadians like the voice of the BBC. As I sat in an auditorium waiting for the test to begin, I tried to sort out my attitude. I sneaked a look at my fellow lab rats. For many of them, English was a second or third language and passing this test was high stakes for them and their families. The English test was a gatekeeper to economic freedom and a new start. I am not saying that they don’t need to be able to communicate or understand the culture in their new home, but beginning this process in total anonymity is a tough ask.

Standardized tests try to do two things at the same time: assess the individual progress of students within a group and measure attainment so that comparisons of attainment can be made between groups. These two goals are incompatible in one test. Parents, students, and probably most teachers care more about the first of these, while government and school boards appear to care far more about the second. There seems to be an inherent tension about what should be at the heart of the test: the learner or the system. We all instinctively say the learner but this does not seem to be what we have designed. In Reassessing the Culture of Assessment, Adrian Brown writes that “comparisons with others are not always helpful unless they are an intelligently and carefully managed spur to use the talents you have been given to the full.”

Assessment systems designed with the learner at the centre focus on the key outcomes of learning. They measure whether the learner has mastered capacity rather than whether they have retained content. Take, for instance, Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) programs. Research has shown the use of portfolio assessment to be particularly effective in language programs for newcomers to Canada. Or consider the Reese Program, based at the University of Chicago, which has proposed innovative computer based assessment alternatives to multiple choice tests, the traditional mechanism for testing in STEM education. In post-secondary education the focus is increasingly on the use of learning analytics as a new form of assessment. Learning analytics tracks student learning as demonstrated through their digital activity. This is particularly relevant as increasing numbers of students access courses online or via blended learning models.

We cannot test all the things that enable progress and good development towards a flourishing life, but perhaps we can measure some of them and actually gain helpful knowledge about the health of the education system as a whole.

After I finished that English test, I texted my friend Debbie, a public school teacher, who met me at Tim’s. Over coffee, I thought about how the system has enough data now to make a judgement about the standard of my language skills, but not enough to make a meaningful assessment of the nature of the contribution I might make to Canada. In fact, Debbie, whom I’ve known for sixteen years, could probably make a more informed judgement as to that. Her assessment of me would be far more significant in predicting my progress than the marks from any test.

Good teaching and learning is relational. Tests give you data and data is important, but it's not an end goal. Let’s create assessment tools that leave room for interpretation, context, and understanding.