Be My Guest: 15 Reasons Why Standardized Tests are Worthless
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!