Coke sponsored a contest to see who could come up with a new bottle top to make an empty Coke bottle useful again.
The results are charming and inspiring. And when I think about what we would like tests to motivate, that would be it: creativity that charms and inspires.
The problem with tests in our schools is that not only do they not generate this type of result, but they also systematically teach students to think in terms of right and wrong answers, which is the opposite of thinking that creates charm and inspiration.
Besides squashing ingenuity, incessant testing starts to rip at our social fabric. For example:
1. Kids have lots of tests because companies that make the tests have lots of lobbyists.
The Texas Monthly has a phenomenally well-research history of school testing in the US, which leads to today’s environment where Pearson Education is profiting the most from our current obsession with testing.
Pearson hires lobbyists in Washington, they have employees writing education reform op-eds promoting testing, and they have a near-monopoly on test preparation materials to meet the (largely ridiculed) goals of No Child Left Behind.
2. There is no correlation between the letter grade a kids earns and how much the kid knows.
The Common Core is another policy that promotes testing. Jessica Lehy, writing in the Atlantic, describes how creating a standards-based learning environment encourages more reliance on letter grades, but letter grades do not reflect how much a student has learned. Points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.
3. Testing encourages kids to game the system.
Paul Graham is a guy who funds kids who are college age. And he’s found that the really smart kids are great to invest in, but only after they deprogram themselves from years of testing in school. What Graham discovered through years of investing is that lots of startup founders care more about acting like founders than building things people want.
“They gamed the school system growing up and they assume you win at startups the same way, by learning fundraising tricks and renting office space, but there’s no system to game in a startup. You only win if people like what you build. So in addition to becoming technically skilled, founders have to program themselves with a totally merit-based mentality.”
4. Tests make teachers hate teaching and kids hate learning.
Anya Kamenetz’s new book is, The Test: Why our schools are obsessed with standardized testing – but you don’t have to be. Kamenetz goes into great detail about how teachers feel severely undermined by requirements like No Child Left Behind and Common Core. The government regulations treat the teachers like robots and the negativity teachers feel about teaching rubs off on the students, who start to think of learning as a chore. Our schools become centers for depression, hopelessness, and frustration. And the primary root of the problem is test-taking.
5. Testing solidifies oligarchy.
Teachers give good-looking kids better grades. It’s inadvertent, of course. But so are all the benefits that are conferred on rich kids. And rich kids are better looking.
I don’t make this stuff up; I’m just reporting it. But it’s why no matter what a kid’s school is like, no matter what their education is like, if they are a rich kid they will likely test high, because rich kids test well and poor kids don’t.
At some point, the parents of rich kids have to admit that testing is a method of keeping their kids at the top of the heap at the expense of a meritocracy and an impossibly narrow path out of poverty for anyone. The economically advantaged parents should put their foot down to testing. As a matter of civic principal.