Kohn on Standardised Testing

Alfie Kohn is one of the most vociferous critics of today’s standardised tests. Here he answers some questions frequently asked of him.

 Is it my imagination, or are we spending an awful lot of time giving kids standardized tests?

It’s not your imagination. While previous generations of American students have had to sit through tests, never have the tests been given so frequently and never have they played such a prominent role in schooling. Exams used to be administered mostly to decide where to place kids or what kind of help they needed; only recently have scores been published in the newspaper and used as the primary criteria for judging children, teachers, and schools-indeed, as the basis for flunking students or denying them a diploma, deciding where money should be spent, and so on. Tests have lately become a mechanism by which public officials can impose their will on schools, and they are doing so with a vengeance.

This situation is also unusual from an international perspective. “Few countries today give these formal examinations to students before the age of sixteen or so,” two scholars report In the U.S., we subject children as young as six to standardized exams, despite the fact that almost all experts in early childhood education condemn this practice. And it isn’t easy to find other countries that give multiple-choice tests to students of any age.’

In short, our children are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Rather than seeing this as odd, or something that needs to be defended, many of us have come to take it for granted. The result is that most of today’s discourse about education has been reduced to a crude series of monosyllables: “Test scores are too low. Make them go up.”

So what accounts for this?

Well, different people have different motivations. For some, a demand for tests seems to reflect a deliberate strategy for promoting traditional, “back-to-basics” instruction. (Whether or not that’s the intent, it’s often the consequence of an emphasis on standardized test scores.) Other people, meanwhile, are determined to cast public schools in the worst possible light as a way of paving the way for the privatization of education. After all, if your goal was to serve up our schools to the marketplace, where the point of reference is what maximizes profit rather than what benefits children, it would be perfectly logical for you to administer a test that many students would fail in order to create the impression that public schools were worthless. …

Do most people in the field of education recognize the problems you’ve described here?

There are no data on this, but my impression is that the people who work most closely with kids are the most likely to understand the limits of standardized tests. An awful lot of teachers-particularly those who are very talented-have what might be described as a dislike/hate relationship with testing. But support for testing seems to grow as you move away from the students, going from teacher to principal to central office administrator to school board member to state board member, state legislator, and governor. Those for whom classroom visits are occasional photo opportunities are most likely to be big fans of testing and to offer self-congratulatory sound bites about the need for accountability.

But what happens when teachers or students explain that they’d rather pursue other kinds of learning, that they don’t care about scores? Doesn’t this lead the people in charge to rethink the value of the tests?

To the contrary, most of them have responded by saying, in effect, “Well, then, we’ll force you to care about the scores!” This they have done in several ways: first, by making sure the tests are given frequently, raising their visibility among teachers and students; second, by publishing the scores and encouraging the public to see them as indicators of school success. …

Finally, there’s the big one: the most predictable consequence of high-stakes testing, which is being noted with increasing bitterness by teachers all over the country but is rarely understood by those outside the classroom.

And that is … ?

High-stakes testing has radically altered the kind of instruction that is offered in American schools, to the point that “teaching to the test” has become a prominent part of the nation’s educational landscape. Teachers often feel obliged to set aside other subjects for days, weeks, or (particularly in schools serving low-income students) even months at a time in order to devote themselves to boosting students’ test scores. Indeed, both the content and the format of instruction are affected; the test essentially becomes the curriculum. For example, when students will be judged on the basis of a multiple choice test, teachers may use multiple-choice exercises and in-class tests beforehand. This has aptly been called the “dumbing down” of instruction, although curiously not by the conservative critics with whom that phrase is normally associated,

More strikingly, teachers will dispense with poetry and focus on prose, breeze through the Depression and linger on the Cold War, cut back on social studies to make room for more math-all depending on what they think will be emphasized on the tests. They may even place all instruction on hold and spend time administering and reviewing practice tests. The implications for the quality of teaching are not difficult to imagine, particularly if better scores on high-stakes exams are likely to result more from memorizing math facts and algorithms, for example, than from understanding concepts. As two researchers put it, “The controlling, ‘top-down’ push for higher standards may actually produce a lower quality of education, precisely because its tactics constrict the means by which teachers most successfully inspire students’ engagement in learning, and commitment to achieve.”…

Teachers across the country struggle with variations of this dilemma, worrying about their jobs as well as the short-term price their students may have to pay for more authentic learning. The choices are grim: Either the teachers capitulate, or they struggle courageously to resist this, or they find another career. “Everywhere we turned,” one group of educators reported, “we heard stories of teachers who were being told, in the name of `raising standards,’ that they could no longer teach reading using the best of children’s literature but instead must fill their classrooms and their days with worksheets, exercises, and drills.” The result in any given classroom was that “children who had been excited about books, reading with each other, and talking to each other were now struggling to categorize lists of words.”

Even in classes less noticeably ravaged by the imperatives of test preparation, there are hidden costs-opportunities missed, intellectual roads not taken. For one thing, teachers are less likely to work together in teams. For another, within each classroom “the most engaging questions kids bring up spontaneously-’teachable moments’-become annoyances.” Excitement about learning pulls in one direction; covering the material that will be on the test pulls in the other. Thoughtful discussions about current events are especially likely to be discarded because what’s in today’s paper won’t be on the exam. Furthermore, it is far more difficult for teachers to attend to children’s social and moral development—holding class meetings, building a sense of community, allowing time for creative play, developing conflict-resolution skills, and so on-when the only thing that matters is scores on tests that, of course, measure none of these things. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that a greater emphasis on heavy-handed discipline to enforce order may be one more consequence of the imperative for test preparation.

These disturbing changes can take place whenever people’s attention is drawn to test scores. But if bonuses for high scores are dangled in front of teachers or schools—or punitive “consequences” are threatened for low scores-the chances are far greater that a meaningful curriculum will be elbowed out to make room for test-oriented instruction. And this is most likely to happen in schools that serve low-income students.


Kohn, Alfie. The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. New York: Heinemann. pp. 1-2, 19, 29. || Amazon || WorldCat


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