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Where Are Schools’ Standardized Tests for Empathy?

My math teacher daughter has a poster in her classroom that reads: “Today I will give you two tests. One will be in math, and the other will be in integrity. If you have to fail one of them, let it be the math one.”

The pressure in schools, on students and teachers alike, is to “demonstrate progress” – certainly a worthy goal for an educational enterprise.

But that pressure, brought on by the quantifying of educational outcomes, seems to intensify the tendency to demonstrate progress by any means – from “teaching to the test” to outright cheating.

Such measures of progress, while helpful on some levels, can also limit the scope of education at the expense of some of the deeper qualities that we all would hope are part of the process.

Standardized measures of progress cannot take into adequate account the wide variation of contexts in which children learn, and some of the more important lessons in a school experience are not reflected in test scores.

This widely accepted insight seems to get lost in the need for data-based evidence to evaluate schools and teachers.

Schools with significant differences in socioeconomic and cultural features will often not be evaluated fairly by standardized measures, and the philosophy of a teacher working with students to nurture their abilities and perspectives from their point A to their point B becomes less relevant than particular test scores.

The lessons of integrity and empathy are hard to evaluate by objective measurements, but there are encouraging indications that teachers and other leaders still recognize and are open to their creative application.

We recently attended a program at the elementary school of a family friend, where an experiment with the Chicago-based Nora Project was in place for the 2016-17 school year.

The Nora Project – named for a child in Chicago who experienced a disability from a medical condition – is the creative work of her family to provide every opportunity for their daughter to experience life to its fullest.

The project partners a fifth-grade child with a disability with a general education fifth-grade class for the year, and the child’s disability becomes part of the curriculum for the year.

Learning about the disability (research), becoming closely acquainted with their classmate (collaboration) and developing “centers” where the non-disabled students would “experience” the disability in projects where they would have to accommodate an inability to see, hear, talk, walk, reach – whatever the limitations are (experience) – become features of an important part of their learning for the year.

The end-of-year program of the project presented a student-produced documentary on the experience, with scenes from the year’s work and testimonies from the participants and some of their parents.

It was clear from this presentation that some learning had occurred at a deeper level, in addition to what is often thought of as the fifth-grade curriculum.

The mature sensitivity and appreciation for the gifts of their “special friend” demonstrated a development of empathy and community that no objective test can measure.

In the promotion ceremony the next day, a student from each fifth-grade class offered words of thanks for the teachers who had shaped their elementary school experience. Many were named.

The last class featured the duo of a young lady named Jessica and Jose, who offered his words through a computerized, screen-touch speaking device. Jessica said, after a roll call of teachers she remembered, “Oh, and one of my best teachers this year was this guy, Jose.”

I doubt that any of these students will find themselves disrespecting or mocking a person with a disability as they continue life’s journey.

A related expression of this emphasis on empathy is the popular book, “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio, with the upcoming November release of the film version.

Without de-emphasizing the importance of any areas of a school curriculum, it is encouraging to see and learn from the experience of those who show us how to go beyond the ordinary to embrace and nourish such “life lessons” as integrity and empathy.

A society that lets itself be led by such virtues may be part of what Isaiah’s vision implied when he concluded his description of the community of God’s peace with the words, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.