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Be My Guest: 15 Reasons Why Standardized Tests are Worthless

15 reasons

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, and also the author of 15 books about learning and development—over a million of which are now in print. The latest is called Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life. Thomas wrote this post last year for his own blog and offered it to me to use here.

It’s wonderful to see all the protests around the country against standardized testing. At Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, teachers are refusing to administer the Measures of Academic Progress. In Texas, hundreds of school districts have passed a resolution saying standardized tests are ”strangling” public schools. The National Resolution on High Stakes Testing, which calls on government officials to reduce standardized testing, has been endorsed by hundreds of organizations and over 13,000 individuals. And yet, in spite of all this, testing is still putting a wicked half-Nelson on students’ curiosity, creativity, and passion for learning in tens of thousands of classrooms around the country. Just in case you are in a position as an educator to influence public policy on this issue, here is a list of 15 reasons why standardized tests are worthless—utterly worthless!

1.    Because students know that test scores may affect their future lives, they do whatever they can to pass them, including cheating and taking performance-enhancing drugs.
2.    Because teachers know that test scores may affect their salaries and job security, they also cheat (see the best-seller Freakonomics for some interesting statistics on this).
3.    Standardized tests don’t provide any feedback on how to perform better. The results aren’t even given to the teachers and students until months later, and there are no instructions provided by test companies on how to improve scores.
4.    Standardized tests don’t value creativity. A student who writes a more creative answer in the margin doesn’t realize that a human being won’t ever see it, that machines grade these tests and any answer that doesn’t follow the format is counted as wrong.
5.    Standardized tests don’t value diversity. There is a wide range of differences in cultural backgrounds, levels of proficiency in English, learning and thinking styles, family backgrounds, and life experience among the students who take standardized tests. And yet a standardized test treats them as if they were all identical to the group that took the test several years ago, and to which the test has been normed.
6.    Standardized tests favor the socioeconomically advantaged. Test companies not only manufacture the tests, they also manufacture the courses and programs that must be taken to prepare for the test. If you have the money, you can even get special tutors that will help you do well. If you don’t have the money, and your school is in a low socioeconomic area that gets less funding than rich suburban schools, then you’re not going to get the same level of preparation.
7.    Because so much emphasis is placed on standardized test results these days, teachers are spending more and more time teaching to the test. If there is something that is interesting, compelling, useful, or otherwise favorable to the development of a student’s understanding of the world, but it is not going to be on the test, then there really isn’t any incentive to cover it.  For example, because No Child Left Behind only tests reading, math, and science, art, social studies, physical education, history, and other subjects are given far less attention than used to be the case.
8.    Standardized tests occur in an artificial learning environment: they’re timed, you can’t talk to a fellow student, you can’t ask questions, you can’t use references or learning devices, you can’t get up and move around. How often does the real world look like this? Prisons come to mind. And yet, even the most hard-headed conservative will say that education must prepare students for “the real world.” Clearly standardized testing doesn’t do this.
9.    Standardized tests create stress. Some kids do well with a certain level of stress, but others fold. So, again, there isn’t a level playing field. Brain research suggests that too much stress is psychologically and physically harmful. And when stress becomes overwhelming, the brain shifts into a “fight or flight” response, where making it impossible to respond correctly to the test questions.
10.    Standardized tests reduce the richness of human experience and human learning to a set of numbers. This is dehumanizing. A student may have a deep knowledge of a particular subject, but receive no acknowledgment for it because his or her test score may have been low. If the student were able to draw a picture, lead a group discussion, or create a hands-on project, he/she could show that knowledge. But in a standardized testing room, tough luck.
11.    Standardized tests aren’t developed by geniuses. They’re developed by mediocre minds. One of the pioneers of standardized testing in this country, Lewis Terman, was a racist (see The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould). Another pioneer, Edward Thorndike, was a specialist in rats and mazes. Just the kind of mind you want your kid to have, right? Albert Einstein never created a standardized test (although he failed a number of them), and neither did any of the great thinkers of our age or any age.
12.    Standardized tests provide parents and teachers with a false sense of security. If students score well on a test, then it is assumed they know the material. However, this may not be true at all. The student may have simply memorized the fact or formula necessary to do well on the test (some students are naturally gifted in taking standardized tests, others are not). A group of Harvard graduates was asked why it is colder in the winter and warmer in the summer. Most of them got the question wrong. They were good test-takers but didn’t understand the fundamental principles that required a deeper comprehension of climate (see The Disciplined Mind by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner.
13.    Standardized tests exist for administrative, political, and financial purposes, not for educational ones. Test companies make billions. Politicians get elected by promising better test results. Administrators get funding and avoid harsh penalties by boosting test scores. Everyone benefits except the children.
14.    Standardized testing creates “winners” and “losers.” The losers are those who get labeled as “my low students” “my learning disabled kids,” or “my reluctant learners.” Even the winners are trapped on a treadmill of achievement that they must stay on at all costs through at least sixteen years of schooling. The losers suffer loss of self-esteem and the damage of low expectations, which research shows negatively influences performance (see Pygmalion in the Classroom, by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson). The winners suffer loss of soul, since most of them are trained seals performing for fast-track parents and may reach midlife on a pinnacle of power and achievement, yet lack any connection to their deeper selves, to ethical principles, to aesthetic feelings, to spiritual aspirations, to compassion, creativity, and/or commitment to life.
15.    Finally, my most important reason that standardized tests are worthless is that during the time that a child is taking a test, he/she could be learning something new and interesting!

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. m.i.l. Bunty Ketcham #

    Excellent blog, Chris…clear compelling argument. My only thought would be that this applies to elementary and middle school testing. In last two grades of high school I believe students do benefit from knowing where they stand compared to other students IN PARTICULAR FIELDS OF STUDY THEY’RE INTERESTED IN…in other words students choosing to be tested in subjects they might pursue into college. This requires quick and detailed feed back to students …useful to them, useful to college admission personnel.


    March 14, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      I agree entirely, Bunty. For instance, I have no problem with the AP courses and exams in high school, which earn students college credit in a given subject if they score high enough on the exam — except for the fact that AP courses are part of a pernicious tracking system that tends to heavily exclude children of color.

      March 25, 2014
  2. Marisela #

    I agree with your reasons, I teach middle school and I hate that the tests even inspired competition among teachers in my district, not collaboration. Now, there are new standards (common core and next generation science standards) AND new testing format. What are your comments on this new wave of testing?

    March 23, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      A little while back I wrote a series of posts on the Common Core and the PISA exam and what a scam the whole thing is. As for the new wave of testing, it simply represents to me how the conventional educational model continues to veer farther and farther away from how children actually learn and develop.

      March 25, 2014
  3. Frankie #

    No, Einstein failing tests is mostly a myth. For starters, standardized tests didn’t exist in 1900. The only tests he failed were the biology & language portions of his college entrance exam, which he didn’t really care about.

    March 26, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for that correction Frankie.

      March 26, 2014
  4. Craig Pearson #

    1. Although I don’t advocate cheating…life lesson, do what you have do to get the right answer
    2. Its a guide to see how we are doing on average not neccesaryly individually.
    3. again its an evolving process to help change for the next year, identify problems and gaps
    4.creativity is important, so is following direction, and learning. Creativity is subjective and cant be measured.
    5. see 2 above…its an average! identifies regions that need help or change
    6. Right or wrong, in life the wealthy will have an advantage, don’t hate on Will Smiths kids!
    7. you have a point to a degree, but for the masses art isn’t going to feed their family
    8. That’s life..You are paid to do a job, you aren’t expected to have others help you do what you should already know.
    9. You don’t think life wont be stressful, There will always be deadlines..See April 15th
    10. again…we need to help little Johnny or Jenny improve in the areas they are weakest not their best subjects.
    11. Welcome to Politics…where the moronic decide whats “best” for everyone…again lets prepare the kids for life
    12. Isnt this what you would want from your doctor…someone that remembers diseases and symptons
    13 the kids that get better funding benefit!
    14. Your right we should just ignore those lagging behind..leave them in the dust?
    15. Your right…and I could have done learned something rather than read you completely moronic tirade against something that might prepare a child for real life. The problem with society is we are codling our children and failing to prepare them for reality. The reality is some will do well…some wont. We have to do our best to ensure the highest percent do. We need some gauge…You offer a lot of complaints but no solutions…therefore you entire diatribe is useless.

    March 26, 2014
  5. David Hamilton #

    How do you measure educational attainment?

    How do you measure instructor effectiveness?

    In a system that often says – we need more money, but you can’t hold us accountable – how do you measure cost effectiveness?

    How can an employer determine language and mathematical literacy if the educational product (diploma) has no validation?

    March 26, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Very good questions, David. As I showed in part two of my post about the PISA exams, the only thing that standardized tests measure accurately is a young person’s socioeconomic status.

      March 27, 2014
  6. AEJ #

    I am a middle school math teacher, and have been teaching for the past 13 years. For the past three years, I have taught directly to the test. The idea of having fun, exploring a topic, or just playing around with the math is a waste of time. I’ve abandoned the use of phrases, in my classroom, such as: “let’s try it and see if it works”, “guess and check”. I’ve seen students totally freak out on test days. They cry, vomit, poop and urinate on themselves…man there have been some rough times. All for a “snap shot” test…..SUCKS

    March 26, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      As a fellow math teacher — though not in a setting where I have to teach to the test all the time — I feel your pain, AEJ. What a surefire recipe for turning kids off to math, eliminating the exploring and experimenting and messing around with numbers and concepts.

      March 27, 2014
  7. Pamela Dickey #

    What a great article! My employment is due to the many kids in Ohio who garner enough credits to graduate, in all the required courses, but end up as dropouts because they cannot pass one or more of the Ohio Graduation Tests. Some of these students never earned better than a D in their classes, but are allowed to believe that they will one day graduate. We are losing a lot of kids.

    March 26, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for sharing this, Pamela. You’re right — so much for not leaving any children behind.

      March 27, 2014
  8. Ben #

    Thank you for the good article.

    Coming from Singapore where standardized and non-standardized high stake tests are part of life, I want to say that you have not mentioned a kind of cheat that is more serious than the one in point 1 and 2 – Cheating by school principals to ensure that his/her school is ranked high and shine.

    In Singapore, we do not have many students and teachers wanting to cheat. But we do have many principals who are very interested to get high ranking for his/her school. Our education system measures the performance of school principals by KPI (Key Performance Index).

    One way to be ranked high is to get rid of weak students and take in good students. Under Singapore education system, the top (elite) schools are allowed to transfer out weak students and open the vacancies to good students. This can be easily achieved by using high stake standardized and non-standardized tests to get weak students out of their way.

    June 22, 2014

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