Kohn on Standardised Tests

Alfie Kohn argues that test scores may be raising as schools become more test-focussed, but that other purposes of education may be defeated in the process.

Kohn describes the effects of narrowly bureaucratic testing:

[N]ot all tests are equally bad. The least useful and most damaging testing program would be one that uses (1) a norm-referenced exam in which students must answer (2) multiple-choice questions in a (3) fixed period of time—and must do so (4) repeatedly, beginning when they are (5) in the primary grades. But remember: Even testing programs that avoid some or all of these pitfalls are likely to be problematic to the extent they measure mere memorization or even test-taking skills. In any case, all standardized tests tend to ignore the most important characteristics of a good learner, to say nothing of a good person. Here’s a list offered by educator bill Ayers, although you might just as well make up your own: ‘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.’

Beyond their ineffectiveness as assessments, note that the act of administering (and emphasizing the results of) standardized tests can communicate some pointed lessons about the nature of learning. Because there is a premium placed on remembering facts, children may come to think that this is what really matters—and they may even come to develop a ‘quiz show’ view of intelligence that confuses being smart with knowing a lot of stuff. Because the tests are timed, students may be encouraged to see intelligence as a function of how quickly people can do things. Because the tests often rely on a multiple-choice format, students may infer ‘that a right or wrong answer is available for all questions and problems’ in life and that ‘someone else already knows the answer to [all these questions], so original interpretations are not expected; the task is to find or guess the right answer, rather than to engage in interpretive activity’ [quoting Mitchell, Resnick and Resnick].

Two other features of standardized test also may teach dubious lessons even as they detract from the tests’ usefulness. First, they’re given to individuals, not groups, and helping one another is regarded as a serious offense. Not only is there no measure of the capacity to cooperate effectively, or even to assimilate other people’s ideas into your own, but precisely the opposite message is communicated: Only what you can do alone is of any value. ‘We have been so convinced of the notion that intellect is an isolated, individual quality that we utterly lack the procedures or the psychometrics to study students’ performances in group situations,’ as Dennie Wolf and her colleagues put it.

Second, the content of these tests is kept secret. Given their nature, this is hardly surprising, but look at it this way: What does it say; about an approach to assessment that it can be done only by playing ‘Gotcha!’? Tests ‘that continually keep students in the dark are built upon procedures with roots in premodern traditions of legal proceedings and religious inquisitions’ [quoting Wiggins]. Apart from raising stress levels, the kind of evaluation where students aren’t allowed to know in advance what they’ll be asked to do suggests a heavy emphasis on memorization. It also has the practical effect of preventing teachers from reviewing the test with students after it’s over and using it as a learning tool.


Kohn, Alfie. 2000. The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann. pp.17–18. || Amazon || WorldCat


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