School Without Scoreboards

Sports as Metaphor

Formative assessment and standards-based learning enthusiasts often seize on the metaphor of coaching to describe a better approach to feedback, assessment, and grading. I myself have employed this metaphor many times.

Here’s a post I wrote a few months ago:

This feedback cycle is not unlike the process used by coaches to prepare players for an upcoming game or meet. Coaches don’t put a score on the scoreboard during practices; that only happens during the game. Up until that “moment of truth,” coaches do everything they can to develop players in the skills and concepts they will need to succeed.

It seems true that a “coaching” approach to teaching — as opposed to one where everything, including practice, counts — leads to better results come “game time.” John Hattie and Helen Timperley argue that “it is the feedback information and interpretations from assessments, not the numbers or grades that matter.” Ruth Butler (1988) goes even further, explaining how students who receive comments alone — as opposed to scores alone or scores paired with comments — demonstrate the greatest improvement.

Thus, by turning off the scoreboard during practice and instead focusing on descriptive feedback and growth, teachers should be able to better prepare students for “the game.”

But more and more I’ve been asking myself: just what is “the game” in schools? Does it influence our pedagogy and curriculum for the better or for the worse? Who are its winners and losers? And how does it affect our students, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us?

The Scoreboard of Standardized Assessment

For most of us, “game time” in education means a standardized summative assessment. Whether that be an end-of-chapter exam, teacher-developed post-test, state- or district-mandated assessment, SAT, ACT, or AP exam, the question of “did they learn it?” is largely answered by the standardized test.

Defenders of standardized summative assessments claim they provide a scoreboard where we can evaluate the success of educational interventions, programs, students, teachers, principals, schools, and districts. Whereas the goal of norm-referenced tests was to produce a bell curve of winners and losers, modern-day, criterion-referenced tests hope that everyone can win. Progress!

In theory, these assessments allow teachers to differentiate instruction to fit the needs of learners. A scoreboard doesn’t micromanage. As we see in the coaching profession, there is no set “road map” to success on the field or court. Similarly, with this style of education, we don’t need to march mindlessly through a mandated curriculum map. As long as our learners arrive with the same skills and understandings, we leave our entrepreneurial spirit and rugged individualism intact.

Survival of the fittest. What works wins. Scoreboard.

Anquan Boldin tells a Raiders cornerback to look at the scoreboard

The Problems with a Scoreboard Mentality

Clearly, there’s more to it than this. One problem with co-opting the language of sport is how it reduces the multifaceted, complex reality of teaching and learning to numbers. The reason why that reality cannot be easily flattened, truncated, objectified, or quantified is because it is inhabited by multifaceted, complex beings — namely, people.

Too often, even the most progressive initiatives — including the ones mentioned earlier in this post — look to these reductive, often arbitrary scoreboards for justification. Student-directed learning, culturally responsive teaching, project-based learning — all of these are fine, as long as they “turn the dial” on the standardized assessment. A coach’s strategy is valued as long as it can “put points up on the board.”

Intuitively we know that teaching and learning is not merely an objective phenomenon, one that can be scrutinized by a replay official in a booth. We know that learners retain their agency to a much greater extent than do athletes, who submerge theirs in service of the game’s arbitrary ends. The reality of student learning and performance is much more complex than just practice and game time.

To what extent does measuring students miss who and what they are, the complexities and nuances of what they are becoming? To what extent are scoreboards incapable of registering a fundamentally subjective reality, namely, a human being? As Hamlet tells the spying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,

…how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

As it is with Hamlet, so it is with students. A reductive, empiricist, instrumentalist approach can never “pluck out the heart” of students and their learning. Like Hamlet, students will always have “that within which passeth show.” Advocates of standardized assessment would probably even grant this point, saying they only seek to observe the kinds of student achievement that can be demonstrated in this way.

David Tennant as Hamlet (2009)

But in spite of that seeming modesty of intent, standardized tests have a much greater impact on what happens in schools.

Even when we aren’t actually taking the tests, our curriculum predictably orients itself toward this end. The teacher evaluation at my school — 50% of which is based on student proficiency on the common assessment — ensures that we will devote the lion’s share of our time to success on this test. But as Linda McNeil (1986, as cited in Kohn) points out, measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.” And our tests are cluttered with measurable outcomes: vocabulary, terminology, lower-order cognitive processes, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy.

As my colleague Peter Anderson observes,

I can’t test to see how reading, analyzing, and writing poetry has affected a student. I can, however, test someone to see if they know what a simile is. Or how many times a poem uses alliteration. The system is set up to guarantee shallow teaching. In the age of accountability when teachers across the country struggle against unfair evaluation methods based on high-stakes tests, why would I do anything other than what gets the best scores? This has nothing to do with teachers and everything to do with the systems that define teaching and learning through a technocratic lens.

In other words, our formative activities take on the characteristics of a “scrimmage,” preparing our students to rack up points on the all-important exam. The widespread use of educational applications like QuizizzQuizlet Live, and Kahoot! suggest that we increasingly orient ourselves around the kinds of shallow recall, recognition, and algorithm use that will turn the dial or put points up on the board. It’s likely that the trend of gamification grows out of this same sense of school as scoreboard.

Some might say that designers of assessments — whether those be teachers or testing companies — are beginning to address this problem. At my school, we are moving toward requiring a writing portion on our post-tests. The College Board has revised several of its AP exams “to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.” Still, these tests, in order to create the supposedly fair and level playing field, use highly prescriptive scoring guides or rubrics, which as Alfie KohnLinda Mabry, and Maya Wilson have pointed out, do not lead to deep or original thinking. Thus, even these seemingly open-ended performance tasks result in the same formulaic, algorithmic teaching, learning, and performance. Regarding the use of rubrics to evaluate writing, Linda Mabry states,

The standardization of a skill that is fundamentally self-expressive and individualistic obstructs its assessment. And rubrics standardize the teaching of writing, which jeopardizes the learning and understanding of writing.

In addition to curtailing classroom instruction and learning to a narrow range of measurable skills, many commentators argue these skills have little or no correspondence to ones students will need in the bigger “game” of life. In an editorial, Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner point out,

Well-intentioned national K-12 education goals are jeopardizing the futures of millions of kids. Our stated goal is making all kids “college and career ready.” The reality, though, is that we’ve turned schools into college prep factories, leaving the vast majority of kids ill-prepared for career or life.

If this is true, it is likely due to the influence of the scoreboard mentality, which privileges rudimentary cognitive skills and over deep and nuanced understandings.

But I’m not advocating we look to college or even the world of work to set a new agenda for schools. Instead, I worry about the way standardized testing submerges student self-expression and subjectivity in favor of objective ends. In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), Simone de Beauvoir remarks,

There are beings whose life slips by in an infantile world because, having been kept in a state of servitude and ignorance, they have no means of breaking the ceiling which is stretched over their heads. Like the child, they can exercise their freedom, but only within this universe which has been set up before them, without them.

Regardless of how creative we get in our day-to-day teaching, it’s the test that functions as our telos and target. There is a kind of terror, even among progressively minded teachers, as to what would happen were we to take the false scoreboard of tests away. Instead, we postpone that terror, letting our students discover it themselves when they walk out of our schools.

Beauvoir, herself a schoolteacher, advocated an “apprenticeship in freedom” as the ideal in education. In lieu of this, students are routinely measured, evaluated, and objectified — relegated to an infantile world, a state of servitude, a simulacrum of self-improvement and growth.

The Disparate Impact of a Scoreboard Mentality

Furthermore, this burden of constant measurement, assessment, and evaluation — we might even say surveillance — is not experienced equally by all segments of our population. In fact, its adverse impact is visited most severely on the most vulnerable members of our society.

In law, disparate impact is defined as a “discriminatory policy that adversely impacts an otherwise protected class of people.” The scoreboard mentality — where identity and individuality is submerged in favor of arbitrary, externally imposed evaluation — disproportionately burdens our most vulnerable students.

How does a scoreboard mentality tie into questions of inequality? In “The Case Against Standardized Testing,” Quinn Mulholland argues,

The schools that have been forced to devote the most time to test prep are those in the most disadvantaged communities, because they have to achieve the biggest increases in test scores…Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, explained in an interview with the HPR, “In those kinds of schools, the curriculum becomes test prep: doing worksheets and practice tests and getting ready for the big test.” A report from the Center for American Progress substantiates Schaeffer’s claim, demonstrating that urban high school students spend as much as 266 percent more time taking standardized tests than their suburban counterparts do.

Clearly, it is much easier to reduce vulnerable persons to the status of objects. It’s not just the standardized tests of course. It’s a system whereby whole communities are subjected to near-constant confinement, surveillance, objectification, neuroticization, criminalization, and dehumanization. As Dr. David Kirkland, executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, writes:

Such citizens find themselves perpetually locked into labels that, like their physical living conditions, reinforce their internment at all facets of confinement, from one institutional margin to another, from the brims of birth until the edges of death.

Although Kirkland’s observations extend far beyond questions of standardized testing, I can’t help but wonder what it does to a person to spend so much time—266% more time — under the objectifying gaze of measurement and evaluation. What does it do to a person when your only value is putting points up on that board? When your education needs to be narrowed to a “laser-like focus”? When your learning is limited to lower-order cognitive tasks?

You are turned into an object, a means to an end, a statistic.

What would be possible if we viewed and valued human beings as subjects, as persons who come to the table with their own interests, identities, aptitudes, and aspirations?

In Brian Mooney’s interview of David Kirkland, he states,

We tell young urban kids that their identities don’t matter. We tell them that the way they see the world doesn’t matter, the way they construct selves within the world doesn’t matter. But not only do we negate those identities, we criminalize them, we vilify those identities. So it’s more than just ignoring, it’s more than just discounting. It’s this other thing that happens, this transmogrification that happens. This vicious, nasty, ugly alchemy that happens. We twist their identities to the most deplorable things, we call them criminal. Not only do we call their identities criminal, we call them deficit…When I follow those same young people with burgeoning identities outside the classroom, they’re reading and writing in complicated and beautiful ways, yet in ways that we fail to recognize and value.


Our bubble sheets are blind to this complexity, this goodness, this beauty. Instead they contribute to an already ubiquitous experience of surveillance and confinement. Confining marginalized persons to the false playing field of standardized assessment recalls John Fiske’s Foucauldian inverted panopticon of sport where spectators (wardens) monitor and police the behavior of players on the field (inmates). Camika Royal notes how constant talk of “closing the achievement gap” can echo the rationalizations and rhetoric of colonization.

Panopticon at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. (credit)


Beyond Scoreboards

The question of what would replace the pervasive scoreboards dotting our educational horizons extends beyond the already protracted bounds of this blog post. Needless to say, once they are gone, educators will also have a hard time imagining clear hash marks, pylons, goal lines. The coaching metaphor may still work, but there will be nothing with the empty finality of winning a game or bringing home a trophy to collect dust in a display case. Nor will there be much use for the word rigor, the definitions of which should have aroused suspicions as to its value for the education of children.

Rigor is for dead things

All that will be left will be the human beings that populate our schools and the relationships between them. The human person will take his rightful place at the center of the educational enterprise — not as a solipsistic subject — but as Gert Biesta suggests, “in a social and intersubjective world, a world we share with others who are not like us.”

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