Easter Island is a remote volcanic island in Polynesia that is a territory of Chile and known worldwide for its colossal statues — more than 800 — that were created by early inhabitants during the 10th – 16th Centuries. The carved statues, known as moia, humans with huge heads, sometimes sitting on platforms of rock called ahus. What, you might ask, does this have to do with education reform (given that this is an education blog)? Read on and Yong Zhao will explain. Yong Zhao is presidential chairman and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. He is also a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership at the university.  He is the author of several books, recently co-authoring “Never Send a Human to do a Machine’s Job: Correcting the Top 5 Edtech Mistakes.” This post was adapted from the introductory chapter of a recent book co-authored/edited by Yong Zhao, titled “Counting What Counts: Reframing Educational Outcomes,” published by Solution Tree.

 By Yong Zhao

The stone statues on Easter Island (Diamond, 2005) have a lot to teach us about education. The hundreds of stone statues on Easter Island have been one of the greatest mysteries on earth. Located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is over 2,000 miles away from the closest land, Chile, and 1,400 miles away from the nearest island, which is uninhabited. It is also a very small island, only 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. Yet, on this remote and small island are more than  800 giant statues carved out of stone. They are large and heavy—ranging from 15 feet to 70 feet and from 10 to 270 tons. The largest ever erected weighed over 80 tons. Some of them have a separate headpiece, a cylinder of red scoria that weighs up to 12 tons. When the first European explorers discovered it in 1722, the island was almost uninhabited, with just a few thousand people living in poor conditions without any advanced technology. The explorers did not find any large animals or trees that could be used to help move and lift the statues.

How could the islanders have carved, transported, and erected the statues because “organizing the carving, transport, and erection of the statues required a complex populous society living in an environment rich enough to support it” (Diamond, 2005, p. 81) and such a society was apparently nonexistent when Easter Island was discovered?

Early Europeans did not believe that the “Polynesians, ‘mere savages,’ could have created the statues or the beautifully constructed stone platforms” (Diamond, 2005, p. 82). They attributed these grand works to other civilizations and even intelligent space aliens. Unless you believe in aliens, Pulitzer Prize–winning scientist Jared Diamond (2005), a professor of geography and physiology at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), provides a compelling and sobering account of how a civilization destroyed itself by diligently pursuing the wrong outcome in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” The giant statues were created by the Polynesians who began to occupy Easter Island about one thousand years ago, when it was covered with forests of big and tall trees, some of which reached to about one hundred feet in height and seven feet in diameter. These trees were used to make seafaring canoes that enabled more productive fishing. Coupled with a rather sophisticated agriculture, Easter Islanders developed a civilization that once had an estimated population of fifteen thousand. Such a population provided sufficient labor force to carve, transport, and raise the statues. The tall trees provided the necessary tools and materials to transport and raise the statues.

There are competing theories pointing out that human activities may not be the only cause of deforestation and ecosystem collapse on Easter Island (for example, some scientists suggest rats as another contributing factor), but Diamond (2005) provides a convincing “example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources” (p. 118). A significant driving force behind the over-exploitation was the race to erect bigger statues, and in fact, this ambition was one of the primary causes of the collapse of the Easter Island civilization. The island was divided into about a dozen territories, and each belonged to one clan. Diamond suggests the statues were raised to represent their ancestors, and there was a competition going on between rival clans. Each chief was trying to outdo his rivals by erecting larger and taller statues, and later adding the heavy headpiece on the statues. The statues became a symbol of status, power, and prestige to impress and intimidate rivals. Building bigger statues became a race among the clans. As a result, the statues got bigger, taller, and fancier.

The race was costly. It took tremendous resources to carve, transport, and erect these statues. It demanded surplus food to feed the people working on the statues and thus required more farming land. Trees were cut down to build vehicles for transporting and supporting the erection. Ropes used to pull the statues were made from barks of the tall trees. As more, bigger, and taller statues were built, more trees were cut down. Slowly, all tree species on Easter Island disappeared, resulting in dire consequences for the people living there: “Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields . . . The further consequences start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (Diamond, 2005, pp. 107, 109). Eventually, the Easter Island civilization collapsed, leaving hundreds of broken, fallen, and unfinished stone statues littered on a barren island.

Test Scores as Education’s Stone Statue

Today’s education reform movement in many parts of the world resembles the Easter Islanders’ race to erect stone statues in many ways. The Finnish education scholar and author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?” Pasi Sahlberg (2011) has termed the movement the GERM, or Global Education Reform Movement. Those infected with the GERM or countries engaged in this reform movement have embarked on a race to produce students with excellent test scores in the belief that scores in a limited number of subjects on standardized tests accurately represent the quality of education a school provides, the performance of a teacher, and students’ ability to succeed in the future, not unlike the chiefs and priests on Easter Island who believed that the statues represented the health and power of their clans, the performance of their members, and promise for a more prosperous future.

Test scores have no doubt become the stone statue in education for many countries today. Countries examine their rankings on international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) with great joy or sorrow, admiration and agony, and a determination to outscore others in the next round, just like Easter Island’s rival clans wanted to outbuild each other. National accountability policies are made to force states, schools, and teachers to outscore each other. National education systems are judged according to their test scores; so are schools. Teachers are evaluated based on test scores their students produce. Students’ learning and progress are assessed with standardized tests as well. Achievement is equated with test scores, and the achievement gap becomes the test-score gap.

In their race to build bigger statues, Easter Islanders put increasingly more resources into carving, transporting, and erecting statues. Likewise, in the race to obtain higher test scores, schools have invested more resources in raising test scores. A large proportion of schools have spent significantly more time on the tested subjects (math and reading) and reduced time for other subjects and activities. Teachers have spent more time preparing students for standardized tests and focused more time on tested content. Millions of hours are spent each year for students to take the standardized tests. Billions of dollars are spent each year on testing (Chingos, 2012) or simply measuring whose statue is larger.

Just like the Easter Islanders’ obsession with building statues damaged their ecosystem, the obsession with test scores has already begun and will continue to damage the education ecosystem. The high stakes attached to test scores have already forced states, schools, and teachers to improve test scores at any cost—manipulating standards, cheating, teaching to the tests, and only focusing on those students who can bring the most gains in scores. Students who are talented and interested in things that do not contribute to improving scores are considered at risk and put in special sessions to improve their scores. Teachers’ professional autonomy is taken away so they can more easily be forced to raise test scores. Local education leaders are rendered assistants of the central government to raise test scores.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the failure to see the consequences such a single-minded focus may have. Easter Islanders perhaps did not realize their imminent collapse before it was too late. Blinded by the short-term glory of their magnificent statues, they were preoccupied with creating even more magnificent ones while the last palm tree was cut down. Equally blinded by the potential of common standards and testing programs to improve test scores, the current reform leaders are ignoring the real challenges facing our children: poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and unequal access to educational resources.

Ultimately, just like Easter Island ended up a barren island filled with big statues, countries may succeed in raising test scores, but they will likely end up as nations of great test takers in an intellectually barren land because test scores do not count nearly as much as reformers believe for the success of individuals or nations. Moreover, great test scores can come at a huge cost.

Problems With Current Measures

What is measured by today’s tests is “almost exclusively cognitive skills” (Brunello & Schlotter, 2010, p. 31). As practiced today,

World-class education is largely measured by the high test scores of students in one country relative to those in other countries. That is, in evaluating world-class performance, those countries and schools whose students earn the highest scores on common achievement tests set the benchmarks for other countries. In this respect, a world-class educational system is judged strictly by measures of cognitive achievement, rather than on any of the other types of human development that schools produce. (Levin, 2012, p. 270)

Judgments based solely upon measurement of cognitive achievement surely have their limitations. In five critical ways, the focus on assessing cognitive achievement fails to address the skills and competencies a world-class education must deliver.

More Than Just Test Scores: The Importance of Noncognitive Skills

One primary purpose of education is to prepare students to become productive citizens. What makes one productive, however, is much more than the cognitive proficiencies measured in test scores. There is growing evidence from international longitudinal studies (Brunello & Schlotter, 2010; Heckman, 2008; Levin, 2012) that clearly suggest non-cognitive factors play a critical role in one’s success as a citizen. Non-cognitive factors such as personality traits, motivation, interpersonal skills, and intra-personal skills have been found to correlate significantly with educational attainment, workplace productivity, and life earnings. As a result, among the most highly valued personal qualities, academic achievement ranked lower than communication skills, motivation/initiative, teamwork skills, and leadership skills (Kuhn & Weinberger, 2005).

The importance of non-cognitive qualities is also partially evidenced by the relatively inadequate explanatory power of international test scores and economic development. For example, despite the long history of poor performance on international assessments of the United States and some other Western nations in comparison to Eastern Asian countries, their economic performance remains strong and competitive (Baker, 2007; Tienken, 2008; Zhao, 2009, 2012, 2014). The lack of a direct link between nations’ long-term economic performance and international test scores suggests that what is measured by these assessments—mainly cognitive proficiencies in math, science, and reading—may not be as critical as the non-cognitive skills that have been ignored.

The Rise of the Undervalued: The Importance of Diversity

The second limitation of the current definition and measure of quality lies with its tendency to exclude competencies in domains outside the primary academic subjects—math, science, and literacy. As practiced now, test scores reflect the effectiveness of a teacher, a school, or an educational system in producing a homogeneous population of students in the tested subjects. They say little about a teacher, school, or system’s capacity in fostering a diversity of talents. But research has shown that diverse talents, skills, knowledge, and perspectives are powerful assets to create better societies, groups, and businesses (Page, 2007). Moreover, as technology and globalization drastically transformed our world from a mass production industrial society into a society that is more personal, customizable, and hyper-specialized, traditional undervalued talents become highly valuable (Pink, 2005). Thus a world-class education may be one that enhances diversity rather than reduces it.

Job Creators, Not Job Seekers: The Importance of Creativity and Entrepreneurship

The third limitation is that the current definition and measure of quality has little to do with creativity and other entrepreneurial qualities required of every citizen in the 21st century. Due to globalization and technological advancement, jobs that require routine knowledge and skills can be easily outsourced to other countries or replaced by technology (Friedman, 2005; Goldin & Katz, 2008). Consequently, the future world needs creative and entrepreneurial talents (Auerswald, 2012; Barber, Donnelly, & Rizvi, 2012; Florida, 2012; Wagner, 2012; Zhao, 2012). However, the current assessments measure students’ abilities to solve existing problems and give answers to predefined questions. Such assessments are antithetical to challenging, encouraging, and measuring students’ abilities to create new solutions, identify new problems, and ask new questions.

Globalized World, Globalized Economy: The Need for Global Competency

The fourth limitation with the current definition and measure of quality of education is its failure to consider the fact that in the globalized world, the ability to interact across cultural, linguistic, and political boundaries has become essential (Ang & Dyne, 2008; Hunter, White, & Godbey, 2006; Reimers, 2010; Suarez-Orozco & Qin-Hilliard, 2004). One’s perspective of, attitude toward, and ability to work with people from different cultures and different nations, have direct impacts on one’s own success as well as the well-being of the world as a whole. Australia’s emphasis on Asia literacy is but one compelling example of the importance of global competency. Recognizing the vital importance of Asia to Australia’s economic, social, and cultural development, Australia has been working on developing Asia literacy. For example, the Australian Curriculum includes Asia Literacy as a priority. Asia literacy includes knowledge and understanding of Asia cultures and diversity as well as the ability to communicate and interact with the diverse populations in Asia (Australia Curriculum, 2015).

When the Floor Becomes the Ceiling: Mediocrity vs. Greatness

The fifth problem with the practice of using scores as the measure of educational quality is that it encourages mediocrity in students and schools. Standardized tests do not measure how great and exceptional students can be in their own way. Rather, it measures the extent to which the student meets the expectations of the test maker. The best a child can do on a test is to get 100 percent of the questions correct. Since there is nothing beyond that, it discourages students to exert more effort than getting the required or desired scores.

The Costs of High Scores: Side Effects of Improving Test Performances

There is abundant evidence to show that actions to improve scores on standardized tests can damage the development of other important skills such as non-cognitive skills, creativity, and entrepreneurship. This is akin to the side effects of medicine. All medicine has side effects. When it cures, it can harm the body as well. To put it another way, there is no free lunch. Everything comes at a cost.

Education cannot escape this simple and obvious law of nature for a number of reasons. First, time is a constant. When one spends it on one thing, it cannot be spent on others. Thus when all time is spent on studying and preparing for exams, it cannot be spent on visiting museums. By the same token, when time is spent on activities not necessarily related to academic subjects, less time is available for studying the school subjects and preparing for exams. Second, certain human qualities may be antithetical to each other. When one is taught to conform, it will be difficult for him to be creative. When one is punished for making mistakes, it will be hard for her to take risks. When one is told she is wrong or inadequate all the time, it will be difficult for her to maintain confidence. In contrast, when students are allowed freedom to explore, they may question what they are asked to learn and may decide not to comply. Finally, resources are finite as well. When a school or society devotes all resources to certain things, it doesn’t have them for others. For example, when all resources are devoted to teaching math and language, schools will have to cut out other programs. When more money is spent on testing students, less will be available for actually helping them grow.

Evidence suggests that students in countries with high scores on TIMSS and PISA show lower confidence, enjoyment, and interest in the subjects than those with lower test scores (Loveless, 2006; Zhao, 2014). The damage is best evidenced by China, a country that has often been praised for its students’ outstanding performance on tests. China’s imperial testing system, keju, enticed generations of Chinese to study for the test so as to earn a position in government and bring glory to the family. But it has been blamed as a cause of China’s failure to develop modern science, technology, and enterprises as well as for China’s repeated failures in wars with foreign powers because good test takers are just that: good at taking tests and nothing else. Even today, China is still working hard to move away from a test-oriented education in order to have the talents to build a knowledge-based economy (Zhao, 2014).

Seeking the Alternative

As destructive as using scores to judge the quality of teaching and learning is, we cannot just get rid of it. Governments and the public need measures to hold schools and teachers accountable and know how their schools are doing. Parents need to know if their children are making progress and are on target. Schools and teachers need a way to know if their students are learning and progressing. Finally, universities and employers need to determine how well students are qualified. Thus, we have to seek alternative tools to supplant the presently dominating standardized tests as measures of educational quality.

There is a large and growing body of literature in a variety of fields that can serve as the foundation for building the alternative measures. This body of literature includes both theoretical postulations and empirical evidence about the various noncognitive factors that matter to individual productivity as well as various measurement tools. It also includes new constructs that have been proposed in the 21st Century skills movement. Additionally there is a long history of research and measurement of creativity and multiple intelligences. Research on entrepreneurship has been growing in recent years as well.

But the research and development work has typically been conducted and published in different fields independent of each other, with each focusing on its own set of factors. Rarely have these factors been placed in a unifying framework to be examined together. Moreover, although some of these factors have been considered in education, often separately in different contexts, most of them have not been examined carefully in the context of student and teacher evaluation or treated as important educational outcomes.

The book  “Counting What Counts: Reframing Educational Outcomes,” attempts to bring the literature together under a unifying framework for the purpose of expanding the definition of educational quality. It presents a synthesis of qualities and constructs that have been hypothesized or identified as important contributors to the success of individuals and organizations with analysis of their supporting empirical evidence.

Following the synthesis, the book discusses its implications for education evaluation and raise questions related to developing high-quality education. Chapter One presents further evidence of the limitations of test scores as indicators of quality of education. Chapter Two discusses how the changed economy and society due to rising productivity have created opportunities for the whole spectrum of human talents and proposes that education should no longer aim to homogenize individuals. Chapter Three discusses the value of personality traits for success. Chapter Four focuses on motivational factors. Chapter Five is devoted to the discussion of the importance of creativity and the entrepreneurial mindset. Chapter Six reviews the literature on global competencies. Chapter Seven discusses qualities related to social intelligence and social capital as well as their impact on life’s success. Chapter Eight reviews research concerning the development of non-cognitive qualities. The final chapter, Chapter Nine summarizes the book and presents a new framework for thinking about high-quality education.

References and Resources

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Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world. San Francisco: Jos