Don’t test your kids

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 creativityrewards 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.

18 replies
  1. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    As a private music teacher, I don’t test my students. I teach them how to identify when and how to test themselves, and how to create tests unique to what they want to learn. I feel like extrinsic testing is less than worthless to the goal of learning because it conditions learners to see tests as something that happens to them, not something that they seek out and do to themselves.

    Any serious, successful autodidact (able to learn new skills quickly without the process dragging on) understands that you can know what you need to know unless you know what you don’t know. You can’t know what you don’t know unless you have the skill of creating your own valid tests. This is the reason 99% of people suck at teaching themselves anything and are institution-dependent.

    Another way of putting it is external testing makes learners passive whereas tests students create for themselves makes the learning active. The biggest example of self-created tests: Entrepreneurship in the real world.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      Your comment is the absolute truth and I wish that it were common knowledge but it is not. Thank you for expressing it so well. Shout it from the mountain tops!

    • CeeBee
      CeeBee says:

      I used to teach private music lessons as well, and you bring up a great point I hadn’t considered. I don’t know of any private music teachers that test/quiz their students on skill or theory. It’s always a work in process of skill building and learning new elements of study. Even, written homework/acquiring aural skills is seen as skill building rather than you got 9 out of 10 right. Perhaps that’s why it’s enjoyable.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I don’t wish to offend you, but as a private music instructor, you not only don’t have to make tests for your students, you don’t get to, not important tests anyway. Musicians don’t have tests because they have auditions and performances, and neither they nor their teachers get to invent the validity of those. In an endeavor with such frequent and objective third-party testing, there’s no need to invent hoops through which to jump. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say.

      • John Ireland
        John Ireland says:

        Actually, auditions are horribly biased. The musicians that look as though they are playing well are chosen over those that actually play well.

  2. sarah
    sarah says:

    I always argue with my Dad about testing. I am against, he is for. Since his 16 year old (public school student ) is teaching himself college calculas, my father feels my 13 yr old is a failure for not being as advanced in math. He argues, “If We don’t test, how do we know what the kid knows?” I argue its not important that a kid knows everything. But he points out that is a cop out for people with stupid kids.

    I never have a response, mainly because I end up not caring about winning the argument.

  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I read something yesterday that I can’t get off my mind, I just keep reading it over and over and I can’t decide which points are my favorite because I just love it so much and it really resonates with me.

    This is just one point that was discussed and it says that we should not value what we measure, measure what we value. I just want to say YES!! Wholeheartedly I agree with this. I’m not saying ALL testing is bad, but I am not ok with standardized one size fits all testing.

    I read in an article that as of now our public schools are now majority poor children. The experts claim to have been expecting this to happen, just not so suddenly. With all the craziness that is going on in the life of a poverty stricken children, why do we need to add another layer of anxiety for them through toxic standardized testing and then holding teachers accountable to this? This makes no sense to me.

    Here is the link for the education manifesto I keep reading over and over:

    Here is the link for the article on children living in poverty:

  4. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    Here’s a daily story in Catalonia:

    3 days ago there was a kid in Salou (Catalonia) of age 10 who pretended to be kidnapped on the way home because he didn’t do his homework, and he made the whole thing up because he was into so much stress.
    He tied himself near the train station and pretended to be unconscious.
    His parents took him to the hospital for tests & stuff, to check if he had been drugged or abused.
    Finally, the kid confessed.

    The funny (weird) thing is to read the comments from grown-ups. Who admire the kid for being so creative and imaginative.

    Why put him into so much pressure, then? If the one thing that we admire from kids is the thing that school kills?

    Here’s the link (Spanish):

  5. Christa
    Christa says:

    Tests’ effectiveness has a lot to do with the takers’ personality. My friend and I were both homeschooled in high school and had very few tests compared to our public school friends. When we got to college and had to take scan-tron tests, he loved them. He is an ISTJ. I, an INFJ, hated them. I could pass them, largely because I took a lot of test-taking strategy courses to get a good grade on the ACT, but they never taught me anything.

    One professor gave oral exams twice a semester. We went one at a time into a conference room and told him everything we’d learned in his class. If we kept him interested, we passed. I learned more from that one professor than all the others combined. Of course, his oral tests would not be considered tests at all by standardized test facilitators. But there was no way to cheat in his test, and it fostered a strong relationship between student and teacher.

    It just shows that there are different ways to prove your knowledge. My ISTJ friend, and many others, were horrified by my oral tests and wondered how I could really know anything from such instruction – where were the facts, what was right and what was wrong, how could you be sure that you had learned? I wonder the same thing from taking multiple-choice tests – they meant nothing to me but a number grade.

    Of course, scan-trons were the only option for classes with hundreds of students at one time. My classes with oral exams had no more than 20.

    Anyway, my advice is to talk to your kids about what they know instead of standard tests and have them take a test-taking strategies class if they’re going to college so they can pass scan-trons.

  6. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I find the aspect of our current obsession with testing that bothers me the most is the willful naïveté regarding the effect of the testing upon the tested. The observer effect applies even more to learning than it does to physics. The fact of testing changes profoundly the processes of teaching and learning.

    I’m not entirely against testing. I always enjoyed it and did well; I’m probably one of few who thought the GREs were fun. When I was at university in Europe, massive year-end exams were heartening and affirming for me. I appreciate those traditions, as well as the tradition of memorization and declamation that persists in some atavistic precincts.

    But you can’t just decide that fourth-graders will have twice as much testing this year than last without changing both what the teacher is going to do in class and how the students are going to feel about it. The education potentates seem to think they exist outside the system and their testing interventions have no repercussions, so they can just bounce testing requirements up and down without changing what they’re testing.

    In reality, the interventions have come to dominate the classroom, with their unintended effects (anxiety, cheating, scripted teaching, cramming) practically drowning out the original purpose of the schools, and destroying the thing they’re imagining they are testing in the first place.

    Like many here, I have decided our public schools do not suit my purposes or the needs of my children. Unlike others here, I believe that many now discarded educational traditions worked better than the mish-mosh employed in today’s schools – including the sort of tests which were once common practice. I think I should test my kids, but my idea of an appropriate test isn’t well embodied by this week’s standardized bubble-filler.

    My kids should try to prove things to me. They should try to prove how good they are at what they do, and how well they’ve learned what they studied. My son passed an important test this weekend when he destroyed his mother at chess. That represented a year of study with me (one of the reasons she married me is that I’m the only man she ever met who could beat her at chess).

  7. Her
    Her says:

    Do they do lots of homeschooling in China? The coke contest was done through an ad agency in China.

    My guess is that the people working the new bottle tops were largely public schooled, not home schooled. So I dont think this is the best example of charming and inspired creativity that stems from homeschooling.

      • Her
        Her says:

        Yes I can read thank you.

        The example she leads off with, and the accompanying photo, are used as an example of charming and inspired creativity. Then you follow with a post about how testing in school is toxic. Although it isn’t explicitly said, it is framed in such a way as to say this kind of creativity isn’t possible in an environment of testing. From a country where homeschooling is illegal.

  8. Phyllis
    Phyllis says:

    Hi all,

    If a child is motivated to learn “important” & useful stuffs like math additions or grammar, then I suppose that testing is redundant. But what if you’ve got an unmotivated kid who is disinterested in learning about stuffs but would rather play all day (for a school-age going kid). Would testing then help in anyway to ensure/force the child to learn something (in theory at least)?

    Also, I think % results from tests are used as proxy indicators as not only as how much a child knows but also measures to a certain extend his/her effort.

    Or are there other ways to reward effort in learning other than benchmarking it with the % test results & the child’s attitude towards learning? I am asking this from the point of a full time mother with a full time child in school & tuition.

    Would love to hear comments on them. Thanks!

    • Christa
      Christa says:

      I don’t think you can force someone to learn. Kids’ brains are set up to learn automatically, and they will absorb just about anything, but you can’t make it “stick.” What they learn depends on their personality, interests, relationships, and motivations.

      You can use rewards and punishments to make a kid do well on tests. If your kid is failing math, you can ground them till their grades improve, and if socializing with friends is a big motivator for them, they will perform better to get their privileges back. But they still might not actually learn the math. Tests don’t make you learn because you can rely on short-term memory that gets pushed out by new short-term memories (that’s what “cramming for a test” does).

      Kids learn more from playing than studying. There’s a lot of research for this. Here’s a quick read: Give Students Time to Play

      Your son wants to play because he wants to learn, and to practice what he’s learned. He just might want to learn different things than he teachers are teaching. What makes math addition and grammar more “important and useful” than cooperation, creativity, or reading emotional cues? The answer is is that math and grammar can be tested, so that’s what counts in school.

      Tests do show a combination of knowledge and ability to focus, but only for a pinpoint of the great spectrum of knowledge in the world. There’s plenty of stuff to learn that you won’t be given a grade-school test for.

      Passing the tests in school is important so that you can move on to other information that may be more interesting. I would advise to help him pass but not to worry if he would rather play than sit in school because that’s natural. All animals play, but did you know that carnivores play more than herbivores because hunting is harder to learn than grazing? And primates play more than any other animal because they have more to learn. (Paraphrased from this essay that I just love: Give Childhood Back to Children )

      My son is almost three, so I’m not in the same boat you are. I speak from my own experiences as a child, not as a mom. Although, I was struggling to get my son to count and found I could motivate him by using his interests – sharks. We counted sharks at an aquarium for 30 minutes and now he can count anything up to 20.

  9. charlie
    charlie says:

    Fine critique. But what is the answer. Just pass everybody? Or individual teachers or schools decide who passes and why? And why then not pass everyone since not passing them make you look bad. Easier to be unaccountable. Just as it’s easy to critique without providing a realistic alternative that can scale. Not so easy to provide meaningful education to millions of children. Not so easy to be accountable for doing so or not doing so.

Comments are closed.