How The Obsession With Testing is Hurting Learners

“Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.” – Alfie Kohn

I recently had a conversation with a teacher who spoke with genuine passion about helping a student meet state reading targets at her school. She was proud that her interventions had prevented this boy from having to repeat kindergarten. Repeat kindergarten. Yes, there is such a world where these things happen. Increasingly, it seems. One might be forgiven for thinking that the most important mastery skill in kindergarten involves creative play and doing so nicely with others. Certainly, this is a life skill that should not be underestimated. But there are easier things to measure.

We know that data can be important as a means to guide and improve learning, but we also must concede that the growing obsession with testing and ranking is doing more damage to learners than good. One can’t help but wonder what the purpose of the learning targets are when measuring data at such a young age. According to a recent 12-year study at Ohio State University, children are learning in kindergarten what they used to learn in first grade. “Children are better prepared when they enter first grade than they used to be,” according to Emily Rodgers, a professor of teaching at Ohio State University and study co-author. Imagine that: better prepared for the challenges of first grade. So, what is the goal here? To accelerate reading progress in five year-olds so that they can concentrate on college choices and career readiness sooner? It’s worth reading Tim Walker’s perspective on this subject in a wonderfully titled article, The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland. When all is said and done, the trickle down effect of high stakes testing from older to younger students should ring alarm bells for educators and parents alike. Regrettably, students have no voice in this. As Scott McLeod rightly states: “Let’s face it, these assessments are rarely seen by children as a natural outgrowth of their learning. Instead, they are high pressure, high stress activities that are forced upon them by their school systems. These tests are for adults, plain and simple.”

Performance data is not inherently a bad thing: how it is used, the decisions that are made based on it, and its  potential implications for turning learning into a sterile, empirical act might well be. A critical insight into dealing with performance data is expressed in Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In other words, when the measure being used by decision-makers to evaluate performance is the same as the target being optimized by those being measured, it is no longer a reliable measure of performance. W.E. Deming was even more succinct when he stated that targets ultimately lead to a corruption of the original intent: ‘It’s human nature – give me a target, and I’ll hit it’. The noble aim is to find evidence that learning is happening. The most unfortunate outcome of this quest is that the process for gathering evidence begins to take precedence over learning itself. In fact, when this process crosses a line of institutional priority, data collection is actually sometimes at the expense of learning.

Quinn Mulholland, writing in the Harvard Political Review, cites two important sources that highlight the cost of high-stakes testing in the United States where:

“‘Schools have deemphasized, and in some cases completely stopped, teaching things like “social studies, literature, art, music, physical education, and other important topics where test scores do not result in judgments of school quality,’ writes Richard Rothstein in his 2004 book Class and Schools. A 2006 study by the Center on Education Policy supported this claim, finding that … 71 percent of school districts cut back on subjects like history and music so they could spend more time on the tested subjects.”

In his extensive and thought-provoking work in this realm, Alfie Kohn has reached some very clear conclusions about the validity and reliability of standardised test use in schools. His findings conclude that:

  • high scores often signify relatively superficial thinking
  • many of the leading tests were never intended to measure teaching or learning
  • a school that improves its test results may well have lowered its standards to do so
  • 90 percent of the variations in test scores have nothing to do with instructional quality
  • far more meaningful measures of student learning – or school quality – are available.

It may, arguably, be true to say that standardised testing holds schools and teachers accountable for student learning and can provide teachers with informed data about what students need to learn and what they have learned. Results can provide parents with an idea of how their children are doing relative to other children both in school and more broadly. But we also know that an over-reliance on testing can occur when schools are placed under pressure to improve test scores with teachers under pressure to teach to the test and sacrifice more effective and meaningful approaches to learning. This is the death of imagination. We need a new world view.

Accountability measures and indicators of learner growth should not have to depend on the outcome of just one test or even several. In the era of big data combining information from a number of different sources offers the best hope that an individual can be seen through the haze of summative data points. Student voice and choice, creativity and alternative credentials must have a role to play. If the measurement of school effectiveness is one of the purposes of gathering data, then it should not end when the student leaves school. Surely success and happiness after school is a more important data point than a GPA, SAT or test score? As soon as we start viewing students as data points rather than impressionable learners, we are in deep trouble. As Todd Rose reminds us in his book, The End of Average: “The idea that talent can be boiled down to a number that we can compare to a neat average simply doesn’t work. But why? What is at the root of the unexpected failure of ranking? The answer is one-dimensional thinking. The first principle of individuality—the jaggedness principle—explains why.”

The bottom line is that all learners are individuals and learn in different ways. They can’t accurately be compared against one another in any manner that is reliable or takes into account the sum of their individual parts, beliefs, passions, potential or ability. There are alternatives to college and there are colleges beginning to see that this madness must cease. Rose urges us to overcome the barriers of one-dimensional thinking and to “demand that social institutions value individuality over the average, then not only will we have greater individual opportunity, we will change the way we think about success—not in terms of our deviation from average, but on the terms we set for ourselves.”

Our primary obligation is to learners. This must be our sole obsession. As long as we don’t lose sight of this salient fact, we will, one hopes, make the right decisions. What’s at stake here is enormous. Writing recently, David Price sums up what is needed eloquently: “It’s time to shape a new narrative for education, and find new ways of measuring what really matters. If we don’t, we will consign generations of kids to a future they find themselves ill-equipped for – fishes continually being made to climb trees.”

NOTES
Neason, Alexandria. Welcome to Kindergarten. Take This Test. And This One. Slate, March 4, 2015.
Rossman, Sean. Kids are better readers than they were more than a decade ago. USA Today, April 13, 2017.
McLeod, Scott. Bribing Children to Take Our Tests. Dangerously Irrelevant, April 7, 2017.
Walker, Tim. The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland. Taught By Finland, October 2, 2015.
Mulholland, Quinn. The Case Against Standardized Testing. Harvard Political Review, May 14, 2015.
Kohn, Alfie. The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.
Briggs, Saga. 8 Alternatives to High-Stakes Standardised Tests. InformED, November 21, 2015.
Rose, Todd. The End of Average. HarperCollins, 2016.
Price, David. The Trad vs Prog Education Debate – A Bad Case of Attention Blindness. David Price OBE Blog, April 20, 2017.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.