“The real cheating scandal that has been going on for years is that kids are being cheated out of meaningful learning by focusing on test scores. Standardized tests like the CRCT measure what matters least. . . Standardized tests are lousy measures of thinking. They assess some combination of (a) family wealth and (b) how much time has been diverted from real learning in order to make kids better at taking tests. Many smart kids, terrific teachers, and exciting schools have lousy test scores. Many not-so-smart kids, mediocre teachers, and awful schools have impressive test scores.”—Alfie Kohn
There are several other things measured by standardized tests that tell us nothing about the quality of our schools and teachers (but much about the irrationality and dysfunction of our society). For example, they also measure children’s resilience and composure. Kids who do not panic under stress tend to do better than those suffer from test anxiety, something that depends far more on upbringing and the culture in the home than on anything teachers bring to the classroom.
Children’s anxiety should be taken more seriously than it is, as it seems to be growing and it reflects poor emotional wellbeing and may be an indicator of longer term problems that could diminish their future success and health. It is also, to a large extent, a product of the socioeconomic reality in which children are living. The majority of parents are working longer hours, putting in more labor per hour, and enjoying less material security than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, thus increasing their stress and anxiety—something that does not go unnoticed by their children.
High stakes tests also measure whether students give a damn. Amazingly, while there is no rational reason for children to take most of the tests seriously (few have any effect on their ability to graduate or get into college), most children do try to do well. This is said testament to the success of the public education system in molding compliant, passive citizens who do as they are told and follow the rules without questioning the logic or costs to society.
Kohn also argues, like many critics of the education reform movement, that standardized testing cheats children out of a “real” education, by taking away time from content, teachable moments, critical thinking, arts, science and physical education. Of course the credibility of this argument depends on the one’s definition of “real” education. In the eyes of employers, standardized tests do a fine job in support of real education because the primary goal of education is to train and sort individuals for their future roles in the economy. Since the test scores are most influenced by children’s socioeconomic backgrounds, they also help maintain the class distinctions in our society.
If a “real” education involves critical thinking, intelligent questioning, creativity, independence of thought, courage to challenge orthodoxies and rules and an intrinsic love of learning, then we need to move away from most testing, as well as the focus on standards and getting the “right” answer.
Dennis Bartels, director of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, points out that critical thinking requires the ability to ask “juicy” questions about phenomena (e.g., questions about cause and effect) and a tolerance for failure (experiments do not always yield meaningful results and scientists often learn more from their mistakes than from the things that went as expected). He argues that informal learning environments, like museums, tolerate failure better than schools do (e.g., the wrong answer in class results in a lower grade or looking foolish in front of peers). Even without standardized testing, schools do tend to emphasize getting the right answers (consider all the “cook-booky,” proof-of-concept high school lab activities in which there is only one correct result and the smart students know this answer before they have even done the experiment). Furthermore, with the increasing obsession with testing, standards and “college-readiness,” schools have little time for students to ask and test such questions in the first place.
The real cheating scandal is not just that the obsession with testing is cheating our children out of a decent education. The entire public education system, with its emphasis on making children career- or college-ready, its obsession with accountability and standards, its overcrowded classrooms and its overworked and underpaid teachers, and the frantic pace to get through everything before the April exams, is an anxiety-provoking and intellectually and socially stultifying experience.
Then again, if the purpose of education truly is to make us ready for a life of obedience and passivity at work and college, then perhaps the testing mania is the right prescription for preparing kids for their future lives.