In this chapter, I look at the relationship between games and assessment—and more broadly at what that tells us about the relationship between educational reform and technological change. Research already shows that with their ability to provide rich, complex, and compelling virtual worlds, well-designed computer games can teach players innovative and creative ways of thinking, deep understanding of complex academic content, and valuable forms of real-world skills. But, in the end, even effective games can only take students as far as the tests will let them go. If we want to use games to prepare young people for life in a changing world, we need to change how we think about assessment first. To address this challenge, in what follows I examine one way to think about assessing the development of innovative and creative thinking through game-play.
Good education has always been about good testing.
—U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings1Top
In this chapter, I look at the relationship between games and assessment—and more broadly at what tells us about the relationship between educational reform and technological change.
The central issue is straightforward. Research already shows that with their ability to provide rich, complex, and compelling virtual worlds, well-designed computer games can teach players innovative and creative ways of thinking, deep understanding of complex academic content, and valuable forms of real-world skills (Adams, 1998; Barab, Hay, Barnett, & Squire, 2001; Gee, 2003, 2004; Shaffer, 2005, 2007; Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005; Starr, 1994). But in the end, even effective games can only take students as far as the tests will let them go.2 Because in the deepest sense, Ms. Spellings is right: assessment drives instruction. Tests tell students and teachers what we value in education, and thus what they need to do to be rewarded for their efforts (Strickland & Strickland, 1998). Assessment is the proverbial tail that wags the dog of instruction.3 There is nothing wrong in principle with this kind of educational accountability, as long as the assessment that drives teaching and learning drives them in the right direction. But today, in practice, our tests are taking us in anything but the right direction.
The problem is by now well known. Technology now allows companies to send any job overseas that can be done by a skilled worker according to some well-established process (Antráas, Garicano, Rossi-Hansberg, & National Bureau of Economic Research., 2005; Blunden, 2004; Burgess & Connell, 2006, 2005; Hagel & Brown, 2005; Hunter, 2006; Kanter, 2001; Kehal & Singh, 2006; Markusen, 2005). As a result, young people today need to learn to deal with problems that do not have ready-made, rote answers. They need to learn to solve problems that instead require judgment and discretion, creative thinking, collaboration, and complex problem solving.
Unfortunately, today young people in the United States—and many other countries—are being prepared for standardized jobs in a world that is punishing those who cannot innovate. Nearly a third of the jobs in the workforce in the United States, for example, require complex thinking skills, and barely a quarter of all workers are up to the challenge (Autor, Katz, & Kearney, 2006; Autor, Levy, & Murname, 2003; Davenport, 2005). At the same time, the No Child Left Behind Act mandates standardized tests to ensure that all children make adequate yearly progress in basic reading and math skills. But we cannot “skill and drill” our way to innovation, because, by definition, standardized testing produces standardized skills.