To raise test scores, plant a garden

Ignoring tests could be a great way to improve test scores, or so suggested a story in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. In response to pressure to raise achievement, administrators at a struggling New Jersey school planted a garden. They also added a peer-mediation program and invited “scholars to teach art, dance and music.” Over a decade, test scores rose dramatically.

Children from a D.C. elementary school help with the White House garden (photo courtesy of Joyce N. Boghosian)

Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor who developed the idea of multiple intelligences, was the inspiration for the unconventional approach taken at the school, Seth Boyden Elementary. He has been critical of the increasing reliance on standardized testing in public education; at a recent talk sponsored by the Spencer Foundation, Gardner said he worried “a great deal about the implicit or explicit messages in having such a focus on tests, data, failing kids, failing schools, rankings, rankings, and rankings.”

Yet the story of the New Jersey school reminds us that it may not be that  tests are necessarily bad — some are, some aren’t — but how they’re used and how they affect the learning environment in schools. Opposite Gardner at the Spencer talk was Richard Murnane, also a Harvard professor who co-edited the book Data Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching And Learning.  Murnane argued that reliance on tests and other data to measure performance need not necessarily come at the expense of children’s growth in other areas, such as critical thinking and social-emotional development, but that tests and data are key to increasing equity in the public school system.

It seems like the experience in New Jersey could support either side of this argument: Eschewing test prep at Seth Boyden appears ultimately to have helped student performance on tests. That’s not the whole story, however.

After embracing its broader approach to education, the school became more racially diverse. At the same time, New Jersey Department of Education data show that the percentage of poor children at the school dropped.

Research has shown that a higher percentage of higher-income students at a school has a positive effective on achievement, which means there could be a more complex explanation of what happened at Seth Boyden: the adoption of a more progressive approach to teaching and discipline might have led students to do better on tests even as more affluent children — who tend to have a positive influence on the achievement of their less advantaged peers — were drawn to the school.

This not a happy ending yet. Students at the school still lag behind others in the state on test scores. But the school is worthy of a closer look by educators and policymakers as they decide what the next round of school reforms should look like.

Sarah Garland