Why I hate standardized tests: A teacher’s take on how to save public education



In recent years, I have begun each semester by asking my first-year composition students two questions, one theoretical and the other practical. First, the theoretical question: What is the purpose of testing? Then the practical question: What happens to the information they study for a test after students have taken the test. My students’ answers to both questions typically achieve virtual unanimity. The purpose of testing, they say, is to find out how much students have “learned,” which is to say, how much they “know.” After they take the test, these same students testify, they forget virtually all of the information they “learned” for the test.

In the subsequent discussion, I ask them what their answers to these questions suggest about their experience in the public school system (only a tiny minority of Miami Dade College students having attended private schools). Did the tests they took achieve the purpose of revealing how much they had learned, how much they know, about the subjects on which they were tested? If they passed those tests (as they must have in that they had been allowed to continue their education) and yet had forgotten the information about the subjects on which they were tested, can they legitimately say that they “learned” that information, and as a result, that they now “know” it? And if they didn’t learn it and, as a result, don’t know it, what was the outcome of their public education?

The answer is surely not that public school students don’t learn anything. They do, after all, learn how to take tests. As standardized testing has swallowed up public education in the U.S. in the twenty-first century, its ravenous hunger intensifying yearly since the federal mandate inaugurated by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and perpetuated by President Obama’s Race to the Top, students have largely become test-takers. As a result, their minds have been increasingly downsized to the mental equivalent of shrunken heads (trophies of the class warfare waged by the corporate interests who profit so handsomely from standardized testing).

Of course, students have always had to take tests. But tests (i.e., multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank) used to be simply one of the tools in the educational tool box. And the least effective tool when it came to assessing student learning. Tests were also the refuge of teachers who lacked the skills or the motivation, first, to engage students’ interest in their subjects, opening their understanding and inspiring their imagination, and, second, to formulate meaningful ways to measure their students’ learning. All teachers had to test their students, but for good teachers (of which there have always been many) testing was, at best, a necessary evil.

The limits of public education must be acknowledged if the most is to be made of it. One teacher per 20 (to 40 or more) students necessarily limits what teachers can accomplish in the best of systems. The educational ideal of the Socratic dialogue assumes an ongoing interaction, whatever the subject may be, between a teacher and a few students, who avail themselves of equal opportunity to question and challenge their teacher, who questions and challenges each student. And the teacher is able to continually assess the students’ understanding of the subject matter based on what those students ask and answer. The classroom setting, by contrast, is an artificial learning environment that threatens to squelch curiosity by the sterility of its structure, and the teacher-to-student ratio typically precludes the kind of interactive dynamic that makes learning natural and lively. The best public school teachers have always found ways to mitigate and compensate for the limitations of the public school setting, but those limitations, nonetheless, remain. (And, as a result, education “reformers” can always point to inadequacies and shortcomings, to whatever degree inescapable—and to whatever degree typically exaggerated by would-be reformers—when they have an innovation to push.) Testing has always seemed necessary to assess the learning of students whose numbers make it impossible for teachers to know them well enough to measure individually their knowledge of subjects.

The seeming necessity of testing, however, is the very fallacy that my students so faithfully pass on from their elders: that the purpose of testing is to assess student learning, to find out how much students know. If this is the purpose of testing, then testing must be pronounced an abject failure. If students, once tested, proceed to forget the lion’s share of the information they “learned” for the test, then they did not, in fact, learn it and they do not, in fact, know it. (If you doubt that this is the case, ask yourself how much of what you “learned” in school you have retained in adulthood; the reality is that what you learned and, therefore, know, is not what you memorized for tests but, instead, what you understood and, as a result, continue to understand.) And if even the students who score highly on tests forget the information they “learned” for those tests, then they come away knowing little more than their low-scoring classmates.

In any case, the real purpose of testing in public education is not to assess student learning but to rank students themselves. Tests have always ranked students into “winners” and “losers,” “successes” and “failures.”The necessity of this was a function of twentieth-century American capitalism, which required that the “public” include enough “losers” at the testing game to work the assembly lines of industry, as well as enough unemployed, would-be workers to threaten the job security of the employed (and so, keep them under the thumb of their employers. Unions mitigated this feature of capitalism for a time, to the benefit of all workers, which is why unions have been under assault by the corporate state and now struggle to survive).

At one time, testing was used to identify the losers so as to attempt to address their deficiencies and bring them over to the winning side. In the twenty-first century, however, the effect (function?) of standardized testing (in the wake of the off-shoring and technologizing of American manufacturing jobs) has been to overwhelm the public school system with losers at the testing game, launching them into a likely future of unemployment and, as a result in a growing number of (largely minority) cases, imprisonment (in the interest not only of limiting, if not eliminating, the possibility of social uprisings, and the accompanying threat to the private property of the corporate rich, but also of expanding the private, for-profit prison industry).

The primary reason that testing is, in truth, opposed to learning—learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge through understanding—is that when students regurgitate memorized information, they are unable to digest it—that is, to process it into knowledge through understanding (just as the act of regurgitating food precludes the possibility that the body will digest that food). The very act of memorizing is a substitute for understanding, which is the key to retaining (as in learning) information. To memorize information for a test in order to repeat information on the test inevitably results in forgetting the information after the test. While students do not intentionally forget the information they regurgitate on tests, their minds reject it just as surely as physical regurgitation constitutes the body’s rejection of food. Their minds reject/forget regurgitated information because the human mind does not learn that way. The human mind requires time (along with other readily available resources, none of which is allowed to interfere with the testing schedule) to process information into knowledge through understanding. And no other bridge exists between information and knowledge than understanding.

But it may be objected that standardized tests do not, as they are currently constructed, require students to memorize information. Instead, they largely test students’ reading comprehension and composition skills (along with their mathematical skills), based on what students are supposed to already know. Aside from the fact that standardized tests often confront them with texts and topics about subjects that students know little to nothing about (because the specific subjects of those texts and topics have not been part of the curriculum), the main problem is that standardized testing has turned reading and writing into mere test-taking skills. The “reading” that students are trained to do as test preparation is little more than skimming a passage in order to find answers to multiple-choice questions (and, as I repeatedly discover, they don’t automatically switch from skimming to reading comprehension just because they have no multiple-choice questions to answer). And “writing” has been reduced to rough-drafting, which is all students can do in the allotted time (the rough draft consisting of three points repeated incessantly in slighting different wordings until the time has expired). Consequently, reading comprehension and writing as the process of drafting, revising and editing are in danger of becoming lost arts. This is, perhaps, the major contribution of standardized testing to public education.

Public school teachers should not be blamed for this state of affairs. They are as equally victims of the system as their students. As long as students are tested, teachers will “teach to the test,” just as students will “study” for the test. (The verb “study” is used by virtually all students with reference not to pursuing their studies through reading and writing and thinking about subjects but, rather, to the activities of test preparation.) Students want to succeed, and teachers want their students to succeed, and academic success is, now more than ever, measured in terms of test scores. And thanks to Obama’s Race to the Top regime (spearheaded by that colossal educational fraud, Arne Duncan), not only students’ success but also teachers’ success and, increasingly, their survival as teachers, depend on their students’ test scores. Tests have always ranked students, but in the age of standardized testing, tests also rank not only public school teachers but public schools themselves (which risk closure if their students’ test scores are persistently low enough) and nations as well (the U.S. ranking well down the list these days, indicating that American students are, generally speaking, not even learning to be proficient test-takers).

A disturbing feature of the plethora of articles over the past few years that bemoan the arrival of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying (allegedly new-and-improved) standardized tests is that the authors (regardless of whether they come from the political right or left) rarely fail to pledge allegiance to the necessity of standardized testing. They oppose the “high stakes”—for students, teachers and schools—of standardized tests, the over-testing that crowds out instruction from the classroom, and the new non-age-appropriate and non-curriculum-aligned standardized tests that have been constructed to accompany the Common Core. Nevertheless, these writers seem nearly always to feel the need to clarify that they are not opposed to standardized testing itself, perhaps concluding (in compliance with the education reformers’ agenda) that standardized testing is a given and can, therefore, at best be limited as to the havoc it wreaks. The reality is that, whatever the pros and cons of the Common Core itself, as long as its impact on students will be “assessed” by standardized tests, it will fail to educate them. In fact, the standardized tests themselves will constitute its primary impact on students.

Here it is necessary to draw a distinction between testing, on the one hand, and assessment on the other, in that they are regularly conflated not only by the education reformers who champion standardized testing (and demonize those who oppose it to any degree as being anti-assessment and -accountability) but also by critics of standardized testing. If it is true that testing that requires regurgitation of information precludes the digestion (i.e., the process of understanding-into-knowledge) of that information, and that testing that turns reading and writing into test-taking skills cannot, at the same time, assess students’ reading comprehension and writing competence, then it is also true that testing, at least as it is and has long been employed in the vast majority of public school settings, does not assess students’ knowledge at all. Instead, it can only assess their skill at regurgitating information on tests, along with their skimming-for-answers and rudimentary rough-drafting skills.

Thoughtful and experienced teachers have always known that authentic assessments of students’ learning/knowledge require students to explain information about subjects. This is because students can only explain if they understand. Which is to say, if they know. Given the requirement to explain information about subjects, students without understanding quickly demonstrate that they don’t know what they’re talking (or writing) about. Authentic assessments may take the form of oral presentations, multiple-draft compositions, projects requiring demonstration, or other avenues of critical and creative expression. But they all have one feature in common: Authentic assessments cannot be made by technology; human expressions can only be evaluated—assessed—by human beings. Explanations require understanding on the part not only of the givers but also of the receivers of those explanations. (His unbounded confidence in the effectiveness of technology to both instruct and assess has made Bill Gates one of the leading “education reformers” in the U.S.) The success of the education reform movement in transferring “assessment” from the hands of teachers into the technological lap[top]s of computers, in the name of “accountability,” has amounted to the transfer of millions of taxpayer dollars from public-school instruction to private test-makers and technology providers, as well as to the bastardizing of teachers from respected professionals to wage slaves (forced to do the bidding of their corporate masters via the mediation of U.S. public school systems).

Of course, the authentic assessment of student learning assumes that students have acquired knowledge. If this is ever again to be the reality of public education, the foundation and structure of student learning must be rebuilt (and, ideally, improved upon in some fundamental ways).

Foundationally, the obscene amounts of (instructional) time and (public) money now spent on standardized testing production, preparation, and administration should be redirected to providing learning experiences that instill within students the prior knowledge they need to become readers who take primary responsibility for their own education. Field trips to museums, zoos, landmarks, fairs and other educational venues are visual experiences that become memories, in the form of mental images, of subjects that will enable students to visualize the information they later read about those subjects. Only if prior knowledge—in the form of these mental images—is present are students able subsequently to mentally see—and therefore, comprehend—the information they read, the words on the page recalling and replaying the mental pictures from those visual experiences. (Understanding is mental seeing.) In this way, reading comprehension of new information about subjects is enabled by their prior knowledge of those subjects, an experiential knowledge that comes not through reading but through the five senses, laying the necessary foundation for the building of additional knowledge of those subjects through reading. The current crisis of reading comprehension (and, as a result, of writing competence), cemented into place by standardized testing, is arguably due largely to a lack of prior knowledge, which can only be acquired through a wealth of visual experiences, especially, though not exclusively, provided during students’ most formative years.

Public schools have traditionally taken students on field trips, providing them with a modicum of the prior knowledge of subjects they need for the development of reading comprehension over a broad range of subjects. The more parents provide these kinds of educational experiences for their children (as was once more commonly the case than it is now), the less the burden on public schools to do so. This is a time, however, when parents, for whatever reason (two-income households, longer work hours, lower incomes, single-parent households), rely more than ever on public schools to single-handedly educate their children; and at the same time, public schools have largely redirected spending away from field trips (not to mention, tragically, from education in the arts) toward the ever-intensifying, and increasingly costly, regime of standardized testing. Public schools have always—even before the onslaught of standardized tests—spent too much time on testing, just as they have always spent too little time on field trips. If, however, the staggering amounts of time and money now spent on testing were redirected to field trips and films and other stimulating and captivating visual experiences, not just two or three times a school year but regularly (monthly?) throughout the school year, students would be equipped as never before to build, through reading comprehension, additional knowledge of subjects on the foundation of their prior knowledge, and therefore, to participate more actively and effectively in their own education (and, no doubt, spend far more time enjoying rather than enduring their public education).

Structurally, assuming students were adequately prepared to comprehend their textbooks and other reading materials by prior-knowledge-producing educational experiences, they would also be prepared to help increase their own and their classmates’ reading comprehension by teaching and learning from each other. Much of the classroom time now so wastefully spent on test preparation and administration could be profitably spent on classroom discussions and debates and other cooperative activities that would harness the dynamic social energy of students for deepening their understanding and broadening their application of their readings. And public-school teachers could take their rightful place as professional facilitators of their students’ education, knowledgeable sources of information for their students to draw upon, rather than merely the test-prep functionaries to which they are being increasingly reduced.

Only when public education has reconstituted itself to fulfill its responsibility to teach students to turn information about subjects into knowledge of the world should educational decision-makers have the nerve to address the question of how best to assess student learning. This is a question, in any case, that should be addressed not by politicians or technologists or others who stand to profit financially, either directly or indirectly (via campaign contributions), from instruments of “assessment,” and whose only qualification for educational decision-making is having sat as children and adolescents in classrooms. The question of how to assess student learning can adequately be addressed only by educators themselves, who alone have the training and the experience—the expertise—to make sound pedagogical judgments.

We can pretend that those who make the decisions that chart the course of public education are actually concerned with students’ acquisition of knowledge of the world in which they live, so that students can graduate into adults who will think critically, questioning and challenging the way things are and the powers that be, and creatively formulating solutions to the socio-economic, environmental and international problems that threaten the nation and the planet, all in the interest of making the United States freer and more equal, more socially and internationally secure and responsible. The reality, however, is that a society of tax-paying consumers who accept without question the way things are—and who regurgitate the answers that are handed down to them via the media from the powers that be—is so much easier to govern (i.e., to rule and fool) than a citizenry of well-informed readers, writers and thinkers. Moreover, the corporate interests that finance the campaigns of elected officials intend to continue to get their money’s worth out of the coffers of public education (and, increasingly, of higher education). And the best way to insure against the prospect of a student uprising against the military-industrial complex and the socio-economic injustices of American capitalism like the one that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s is to nip it in the bud of public education.

C. Wright Mills wrote (in “The Power Elite,” 1956), “Two things are needed in a democracy: articulate and knowledgeable publics, and political leaders who if not men of reason are at least reasonably responsible to such knowledgeable publics as exist.” Alas, the political leaders of the twenty-first-century U.S. and their corporate owners have taken the necessary steps to seal the deal, ensuring that “articulate and knowledgeable publics” cannot emerge from U.S. public school systems.

Nevertheless, an uprising of public-school educators and parents is, if not yet sweeping the nation, at least increasingly making its displeasure with standardized testing felt. There may yet be time, even as it currently circles the drain, to save public education, reconstituting it in a way that gives willing students the opportunity to learn not only how to know about but also how to change the world in which they live.