The Case Against Standardized Testing
Publication Date: 2007-12-12
Peter's article was named "best submission" in the Minnesota English Journal. It delivers on its title. Site space limitations cut off the notes at the end. They can be accessed using the hot link above.
More than ever, K-12 public education in the United States is
Brace yourselves: Holt wrote this 50 years ago in 1958!
Teaching in a standardized testing environment encourages
lousy teaching techniquesĂ˘"memorization, drill-and-kill, rote
learningĂ˘"and results in the kind of shallow, fleeting and compartmentalized
knowledge that is ineffective and prone to turn
children off from school. We have known this for over five decadesĂ˘"
why would we go back to a kind of instructional practice
that never worked in the first place?
4. Learning is natural and inherently valued.
As mentioned above, a standardized classroom results
in poor pedagogy that gets the learning equation backward.
Learning should be pursued for its intrinsic value, not because
someone is forcing one to learn. Why do students put in hours
and hours rehearsing for musical concerts, plays or practicing
sports? Because, in fact, they see intrinsic value in those activities;
in a word, they choose to pursue them. The same could and
should be true for our academic subjects if and when we focus
on giving students choices and responsibility for designing a
learning plan. Course work should have much greater relevance
to a student, as well as a specific and practical application beyond
school. Mostly this means making explicit the connection
between a given subject and a studentĂ˘s lifeĂ˘"contextualizing it,
bringing it home personally, giving them and their community a
stake in seeing that learning matters.35 Once students are hooked
on learningĂ˘"not for reward or avoiding punishmentĂ˘"they will
do far more for themselves and their intellectual development
than we could ever imagine. Unfortunately, in the current environment,
students are told repeatedly: the reason they need to
spend hours learning some abstract, disconnected operation or
set of facts is that it will someday be on an exam.
5. We are ruining brains.
Brain development is perhaps the most pressing reason
why we need to rethink our current high-stakes testing mania.
By age 9 or so, young people have the physical structureĂ˘"the
hardware, if you willĂ˘"of their brain in place. Over the next ten
to twelve years it is crucial that they actively utilize different
brain functionsĂ˘"develop the softwareĂ˘"in order for it to reach
its maximum potential.36 Structured complexity in the classroom,
an enriched array of choices and modes of assessment,
varied social groupings all contribute to growing the brain in
particularly fruitful ways. And so does creating an environment
in which adequate time, physical activity and low stress levels
are baseline considerations.37-38 Similarly, the aesthetic appreciation
found in music and the arts as well as more contemplative
activities like spirituality and compassion are not things that
happen without schools making them a priority, or at least a possibility.
All of these are currently being shunted aside in our
mad rush to increase test scores. As a result, we are in danger of
producing a generation of learners who cannot critically think,
appreciate the arts, nor marvel at the profound mysteries of our
universe. And, tragically, once these abilities are neglected long
enough, up through the age of 24 or so, there is less of a chance
that they will ever be fully integrated into a personĂ˘s intellectual
6. Exams merely ratify the achievement gap.
The oft-stated purpose of NCLB is to narrow the achievement
gap between whites and students of color. Yet, we know,
and have known for a long time, that the most reliable predictor
of a studentĂ˘s standardized test score is the square-footage of
their principal residence.40 In other words, students of affluent
families almost universally score higher on exams than do students
in under-privileged homes. Researchers have found that
by the age of six, children in affluent families have been exposed
to fully 2 million more words than have been children in more
trying circumstances.41 They are more likely to have been read
to regularly, engaged in enrichment activities like travel and
museums and also to have had access to adequate nutrition and
health-care. Is it any wonder that there is a substantial achievement
gap when there is a veritable gulf of difference between the
haves and the have-nots in America? (I donĂ˘t even understand
why we are surprised by this.) But to then take the one reliable
instrument which has always privileged well-to-do students and
make it the basis of comparison and academic achievement for
every kid in America is simply to lock in place existing inequities.
Poor children are, by far, more likely to drop out, have a
stressful home-life, get suspended, repeatedly move and change
schools, run afoul of the law and act out during class.42 They are
also least likely to be interested in or motivated by abstract questions
or the need to score highly on an instrument far removed
from their personal experience. We are not closing the achievement
gap under NCLB as major research studies have shown,43
but, rather, we are confirming and institutionalizing at the level
of policy how real and profound are the differences between rich
7. More anxiety = less learning.
High-stakes standardized tests increase the levels of fear
and anxiety of young students, and it is a well-documented fact
in education that the higher the levels of affective interference,
the less able students are to complete even low-order thinking
tasksĂ˘"not to mention the more reflective, higher-order skills
which are crucial for brain development and future employment.
The stories coming in from around the country, even
around the world,44 of students unable to sleep at night, acting
out, exhausted from stress45 and generally working themselves
into emotional wrecks46 as a result of hype surrounding exams47
is truly disgusting. These are children, some as young as eight
years old, being put in highly stressful situations where their test
performance may have extremely serious repercussions for their
teachers, their parents and the fate of their school. Why are we
doing this again? Oh, rightĂ˘"for the good of the children.
8. Narrowing the curriculum to a lifeless skeleton.
Fact: 71% of schools48 report having to cut back on important
electives like art, music and gym class in order to find
more time for remedial instruction in math and reading. Some
critics might consider this a step in the right direction, more like
our highly competitive adversaries in China, India and Japan.
But, as previously mentioned, in terms of brain development,
pedagogical excellence, real-world skills and fostering intrinsic
interest in learning, this is a huge net loss for children and our
society. Doing more and more of what is not working does not
equate with an effective educational program. We are asking
children to do the metaphoric equivalent of bang their heads
against a concrete wall for hours every dayĂ˘"and when we discover
that it isnĂ˘t working, we are urging them to do it harder
and for longer periods of time.
9. The higher the stakes, the lower the bar.
High-stakes standardized tests are not good measures of
academic excellence. As mentioned previously, they measure
a narrow band of logical sequence operations which are useful
only for taking further exams. In fact, because states are under
tremendous pressure to show that their academic programs are
working, the truth is that state exams are becoming less and less
demanding.49 It is a truism: just as in gym class where every student
must jump over a bar at some minimum height, the temptation
is to continually lower the bar until a vast majority can
make it. This is not driving the system toward Olympian heights
of excellence; on the contrary, it is driving the system toward
lower and lower levels of acceptability. Why is it that some
states like Georgia and North Carolina have such remarkable
pass rates on their State-wide exams but such a dismal pass-rate
on the NAEP exam?50 The answer is that high-stakes exam bars
are not set very high, and are certainly not indicative of students
who are ready for college, work or the complex demands of being
an adult. Look at the amount of remedial instruction now
required on college campuses before students can even begin
taking introductory classes. On the route of trying to measure
and prove academic excellence, we are guaranteeing ourselves a
progressively larger share of mediocrity. We are being dumbeddown
in a systematic, organized and expensive way.
10. Shallow is as shallow does.
The American publicĂ˘s perception of how public education
is performing continues to slide in an era of standardized
testing. Surveys confirm that Americans view public education
unfavorably, saying that standards are too lax and that students
are leaving with low skill-levels.51 Interestingly, when the same
respondents are asked about their own public school, the one
at which they send their children, their perceptions are that the
school performs quite well.52 In other words, it is the Ă˘otherĂ˘
schools that arenĂ˘t doing well, the ones that are educating Ă˘otherĂ˘
children. No doubt, media coverage of school shootings, falling
test scores and inadequate supplies and resources contribute to
a general perception that schools are failing. But even when the
news is apparently good, when pass rates or test scores move up,
the public is being encouraged to believe in a very shallow and
unreliable measure of what makes for a Ă˘qualityĂ˘ education.53 As
much as students are being dumbed-down by the lowered bar of
high-stakes exams, their parents and the public are being asked
to swallow whole that the complex, interrelated and open-ended
process of education can be reduced to a single number, up or
down, black or white. Standardized exams are equally adept at
dumbing-down the American publicĂ˘"the very ones being asked
at election-time to vote on school-funding levels, school-board
candidates, andĂ˘"yes, sadlyĂ˘"even presidential candidates.
11. We are undermining and losing our best people.
As an educator, I can attest to the increasing levels of
frustration and dissatisfaction within the ranks of teachers. We
are losing fully 50% of new teachers in the first five years of embarking
on what they hoped was a lifetime career.54 We are also
losing a staggering number of veteran teachers, some through
retirement, others through the frustration of seeing what has
happened to education.55 Think about it: are we really supposed
to believe that a teacher comes home at the end of the day and
says to her husbandĂ˘"Ă˘Honey, itĂ˘s been an unbelievable day at
school; our reading scores just shot up 2 percent over last year.Ă˘
The real truth is that educators are made from a complex
confl uence of personal factors, and principal among them are
a love of learning and a kind of reverence for making a difference
in the lives of youngsters. By subverting that, by elevating
merely routine performance to the front of what makes for education,
we are actively undermining the very rationale for why
good teachers want to teach.56 And slowly, over the course of a
generation, if we lose enough truly inspiring educators, we will
lose their students tooĂ˘"the ones who see no particular reason to
want to go into teaching themselves.
12. We are undermining essential American values.
Last, but not least, and perhaps most insidiously, highstakes
standardized exams support a very dangerous world-view.
Jim Cummins, the intrepid advocate for literacy and second language
acquisition, calls the NCLB mindset Ă˘an ideology.Ă˘57 It is
one that believes there is a single measure of human excellence,
that conformity to the designs of those in authority is mandatory
and that deviating in any way from the norm is wrong and
to be punished Had it been our principal educational impulse
since AmericaĂ˘s inception, I believe there would not have been
developments like Jazz and womenĂ˘s suffrage, or figures like
Anne Sullivan, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Franklin
Delano RooseveltĂ˘"that we would be today a much less confident,
innovative and resilient people.
At its core, the high-stakes standardized testing movement
is asking students not only to not think for themselves, but
to passively accept that all knowledge is controlled by authority.
That you exist only as an individual, not as part of some larger
social whole, and that you will be successful or fail based upon
your individual ability to do exactly what others expect you to.
If you step outside of that and try to do something based upon
conviction, creativity or critical insight, your academic record
along with a raft of social opportunities will be damaged. In
fully embracing a high-stakes standardized testing regime, we
are subverting a substantial part of what makes America unique
and productive: our ingenuity, our self-reliance, our faith that
we make a better tomorrow through creativity and collaboration,
not conforming to othersĂ˘ ideas about what we ought to know or
be able to do. Instead, we are being asked to stay passively in
our chair and make a selection from answers provided, obey all
commands and regulationsĂ˘"no matter how punitive, ridiculous
or restrictiveĂ˘"blithely accept the accuracy, fairness and lack
of transparency surrounding the exams, and voice not a single
word in opposition to the entire noxious enterprise.
Standardizaton versus Customization
To be fair, there are other voices, education experts, policy
wonks and business executives,58 who see it different and
want to continue even more aggressively down the path of tougher
standards, measurable accountability and doling out rewards
and punishment based on test scores. They have their reasons.59
They are well-educated (in a non-high stakes environment, of
course) and they aim to convince: We have to measure what is
happening with public dollars. This is about system accountability.
We need to keep up with what other countries are doing.
Why should poor kids be left without options in the inner city?
Two of the largest and best-funded of these groups are
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable,
and they have banded together to fight any major changes to
the No Child Left Behind Law as it faces renewal. Their reason:
Ă˘competitiveness.Ă˘ As Charles E.M. Kolb, president for the
Committee for Economic Development, a Washington-based
group of business, academic, and philanthropic leaders puts it:
Ă˘Business is probably the largest consumer of American educationĂ˘,
and the priority of learning should be Ă˘having people in
the workforce who are capable and have the skills you need in
the workforce today.Ă˘60
I have already spoken to the issue of Ă˘real-worldĂ˘ skills:
how quickly low-order thinking jobs are being outsourced
abroad, and how 21st century workers will need a much more
flexible right-brained skill-setĂ˘"whole analysis, critical thinking,
creativity, an aesthetic sensibility, and a host of collaborative
people skillsĂ˘"not to mention the intellectual flexibility to
constantly learn new things and be able to switch careers as the
modern economy evolves and restructures.
But letĂ˘s put that aside. LetĂ˘s consider KolbĂ˘s claim that
Ă˘business is the largest consumer of American education.Ă˘ This
gets to the nub of AmericaĂ˘s lack of understanding about the
goals of education. Do we really agree that children are going to
school so that they can serve the interests of the economy? That
is, that the goal of learning is to prepare students so that they
can successfully work for a local business or corporation? Or, is
the goal of learning to further that individualĂ˘sĂ˘"and their familyĂ˘sĂ˘"
own prospects? That is, to help them discover who they
really are, what they value, and prepare them to live a healthy,
dynamic and meaningful life? I submit, by tradition and routine,
that the goal of public education is the latter. That, in fact,
student achievement is higher, more sustained and more valued
when student identity and autonomy are affi rmed and enhanced.
And also, that the largest Ă˘consumersĂ˘ of American education
are the very people who need and use these schoolsĂ˘"students,
along with their families: the exact citizens upon whom all of us
are dependent in a governmental system Ă˘of the people, by the
people and for the people.Ă˘
The core of this debate over whose interests education is
meant to serve characterizes a simple but important distinction
in our approach to how learning actually works: On one side are
people who believe that education is centered in the learner, with
their interests, passions and enthusiasm as the driving force. On
the other are people who see learning as being more about the
system and adults: developing effective structures that allow the
system to manage, control and direct children to Ă˘achieveĂ˘ what
the system determines is important, measuring that and handing
out rewards to those who comply.
The latter impulse, which generally falls under the rubric
of Ă˘standardization,Ă˘ requires students to conform to a certain
mold and become, more or less, products that are kicked-on
from school when they Ă˘passĂ˘ a minimum level of uniformity
with everyone else. The former, which might best be defined by
the term Ă˘customization,Ă˘ asks that we listen to each individual,
establish relationships, help them build identity and assets as
learners and then provide assistance in determining a workable
routeĂ˘"given their affinities and abilitiesĂ˘"into the future. One
side looks fearfully at young people as inputs to an economic
scheme that might not be capable of achieving a minimally viable
result (a la A Nation At Risk); the other looks optimistically
at learning and seeks to maximize what students can become,
create and provide the world.
Both sides say they want the best for children. Yet
only one side actually takes time to ask what children want for
themselvesĂ˘"only one side supports getting students to confront
their world honestlyĂ˘"in full possession of vital literacy skills
and critical perspectives. And only one side has the professional
training, background and experience to fully understand
the complexities of human learning and how to make it happen.
And this to me is the crucial difference between standardization
advocates and genuinely effective educators. Who is willing
to listen? Who is willing to go down the aisles of classrooms
and discover what it is that kids really want for themselves, for
their lives and the world? Who wants the truth, original and authentic,
to emerge from a childĂ˘s encounter with learning? And
who, looking at the economy and education as a series of interconnected
systems and policies to be controlled and managed,
assumes an infallible knowledge about what every kid needs,
then forces them to jump through the same ludicrous hoop no
matter the human cost?
And it has to be said: the agents of standardization are
not nearly as interested in the lives of poor and disenfranchised
students as they claim. For the truth is this: well-to-do students
and their families have access to fully Ă˘customizedĂ˘ learning
experiencesĂ˘"tutors, charter schools, private schools, academic
camps, test-prep centers, travel, enrichment of all kindsĂ˘"whereas
the poor are consigned to the dumbed-down standards of accountability
and vacuous debates about whether they can obtain
these low-level skills and out-dated curriculum from their local
school, or, with government help, attend one further away.61 In
either case, they end up without an education aimed at furthering
their unique abilities, but rather, curriculum and instruction designed
to make them like everyone else who is not succeeding.
The agents of standardization have an awesome advantage
in this debate: the American public does not have a high
tolerance for nuanced discussions about education policy. Tell
them that schools are bad, that numbers from test scores prove
it, that the younger generation is about to ruin this country and
a majority buy it. Ask them to consider a list of qualitative reasons
why that scenario is a misconception and a massive fraud
and a majority will beg off for not enough time.
I am not suggesting that educating children is easy or uncomplicated.
Nor that it is currently being done well or should
be radically more expensive. What I am saying is that we are
doing a dreadfully dumb thing in embracing whole-heartedly
the standardized testing agenda. It is unproven, and a rotten
educational strategy: harmful to kids who need education most,
fundamentally unfair, counter-productive to brain development
and ignorant of the demands the world makes on kids as adults.
It also represents a fundamental change in the goals of public
education: from serving the genuine needs of learners to catering
to the demands of business concerns and an unjust economic
arrangement. And I also submit that believing we can reduce the
very complex, profound and multi-faceted process of educating
a child to a single number, to see those numbers as everything we
need to know about millions of professionals working to educate
kids, and then to assert that all will be better if we just hand over
control to bureaucrats in Washington is the height of arrogance
and reveals a severely authoritarian impulse.
The high-stakes, measurable accountability advocates
are in ascendancy, and with every indication that the system they
put in place is not effective and not working, they demand more
power and more control over how we teach childrenĂ˘"while simultaneously
decrying the scourge of taxation that sustains public
schools. They variously blame teachers, parents, the bureaucracy
and notions of public education itself. But never do they
provide real solutions, real resources or new ideas on how we
can restore AmericaĂ˘s faith in a dynamic public education sectorĂ˘"
one that utilizes the latest pedagogy, curriculum, brain-research,
technology and inspired instructors. Rather, they use the
cudgel of Ă˘testing dataĂ˘ to fl og everyone in their way and spout
an endless parade of statistics to confi rm what everyone already
knows: we need real reform, real ideas and real resources if we
want to change the status-quo in AmericaĂ˘s public schools.
But even before that, and now more than ever, America
needs one thing above all: an informed, dedicated, and effective
teacher corps. One willing to effectively combat outmoded,
counter-productive and wrong-headed educational strategies by
using well-grounded research, experience and insight. One that
has the courage and vision to articulate and create thoughtful,
dynamic and highly relevant instructional programs that help
every child in America realize their potential as full human
beings. And, I believe, that must start with the set of teachers
whose very job it is to engage multiple perspectives, enhance
communication and build critical literacy; those whose job it is
to work with language and human expression to further ennoble
the cause of being human: teachers of the language arts.
1. Houston, Denver, and the state of Florida all approved
programs to provide Ă˘merit payĂ˘ to teachers based on
test scores of students. In Houston, the upshot of administering
these bonuses resulted in a chaotic scene in which teachers
complained bitterly about why, how and if the process approximated
reality. Denver backed down from its plan to extend a
pilot program across the district. Whereas, Florida is dealing
with problems of testing errors and fairness to the extent that the
legislature is revamping the original law only one year after it
2. Currently, 27 states produce school report cards,
most of them based significantly on test scores.
3. Even the U.S. Congress is on the case of assessing
the wisdom of using high-stakes testing for promotion.
< http://www.nap.edu/html/highstakes >
4. Both Education Week and the New York Times have
recently raised serious questions about the quality of standardized
tests given their rapid increase in number and importance.
5. The Fairtest site is one of the few credible and independent
sources of information about standardized testing.
< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/fallout.htm >
6. Education Week broaches the question.
7. This is just one of many Ă˘wonksĂ˘ who are willing to
go there on trusting standardized tests more than the judgment
of the professional educator.
8. The Ă˘freeĂ˘ market, as espoused by Republicans, is
most often depicted as Ă˘theĂ˘ savior for public education.
9. How are young people supposed to learn and practice
democracy if they do not see it and understand it from their
experience in school?
10. Fairtest is considered one of the few unbiased sources
of information about standardized testing.
< http://www.fairtest.org/ >
11. An extensive review of the literature reveals the one
valuable role for standardized tests.
12. Once again, Fairtest has the data and the quality information.
< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/nratests.html >
13. Criterion-referenced exams are sometimes called
Ă˘standards referenced exams.Ă˘
< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/csrtests.html >
14. Anyone who can prove standardized testingĂ˘s efficacy would have lifetime job prospects. The National Academy
of Sciences is no small player in this debate. Can you find any
evidence in peer-reviewed studies?
15. Test scores have either inched up within the margin
of error, stayed the same or declined.
16. Why would test scores be going down for our best
and brightest? Perhaps because we are focusing on minimum
standards instead of achieving excellence.
17. International comparisons have their own problems
but clearly the U.S. is not exactly sprinting to the front of the
pack in the standardized testing era.
18. NAEP scores show little movement nationally, leading
many to suspect states are lowering their standards to give
the Ă˘appearanceĂ˘ of improvement. And Gerald Bracey has had
to work overtime to swat down claims made by Education Secretary
Spellings about the success of NCLB testing.
19. America sometimes believes that it can ignore, avoid
and transcend the long history of humanity: Campbell says otherwise.
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CampbellĂ˘s_Law >
20. Berliner and Nichols demonstrate conclusively the
fatuousness of the standardized testing myth.
21. Compiling all the individual states and their errors
would be a heroic undertaking.
22. Their missions may vary, but the focus of their vision
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_school >
23. Captured from http://www.blakeschool.org/academics/
index.html on 7-28-2007.
24. The original report makes an interesting read in light
of the 1990s economic success.
< http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html >
25. Gerald Bracey has the data to reinforce his ideas
about why A Nation At Risk was way off base.
26. There has never been any country or school system
in the world that has recorded 100% profi ciency on any meaningful exam.
nclb-0-chance-of-meeting-profi ciency.html >
27. There are many players calling for Ă˘tougher standardsĂ˘
on students and teachers, but the Aspen InstituteĂ˘s NCLB
Commission is among the highest profi le.
28. Dropouts are notoriously hard to measure, but many
people believe it has reached an Ă˘epidemicĂ˘ level amongst the
29. HarvardĂ˘s Civil Rights Project weighs in with authority
and long experience on this question.
< http://www.edletter.org/current/ferguson.shtml >
30. We have known the shortcomings of programs like
NCLB for a long time; in fact, this is an old idea wrapped in a
31. One of the premiere thinkers about literacy, Jim
Cummins, knows a bad thing when he sees it.
32. Maintaining profit margins in todayĂ˘s economy
means a race to the bottom.
33. Some business leaders Ă˘get itĂ˘, and are attempting to
move education into the 21st century.
34. Applied thinking, creating new knowledge, critical
thinkingĂ˘"we know what kids need to be successful but we are
not doing it consistently at the K-12 level.
35. Among many books and thinkers espousing Ă˘human
developmentĂ˘ above the need to sort and measure, Thomas
Armstrong stands out.
36. Dr. David Walsh, who lives here in Minnesota, is a
leading thinker about adolescent brain development.
37. Dr. Eric Jensen is also a leading thinker on brain development,
particularly as it relates to educational design.
38. Neuroscience is quite clear, united and convincing
on the needs of adolescents relative to brain development. Why
donĂ˘t we listen to their recommendations more often?
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