The Controversy Around Standardized Testing

What is the controversy around standardized testing?

Standardized testing has had two major milestones in recent history – 1983 and 2001 – and each has had a profound affect on the lives of students across America.  In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, which detailed a number of supposed failings of American public schools and offered suggestions for how best to address each.  For many, this moment is considered the start of the Standards Movement in American education, as one of the major claims – that a standardized curriculum, with regular assessment, would improve educational outcomes across the country – would come to dominate reform debates for the next 30 years.

With the passage of No Child Left Behind, in 2001, the driving rhetoric of standards, accountability, and testing intensified, resulting in massive increases in state spending on yearly assessments, along with a subsequent increase in time and energy spent during school hours (not to mention after school and weekends) on test preparation and practice.  In a report for Stateline, Pauline Vu (2008) pointed to a rise from $423 million in annual state spending on standardized tests in 2002 to $1.1 billion in 2008.  The Center on Education Policy reported in 2007 that 44% of school districts reduced time spent on science, social studies, and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week (Ravitch, 2010).  Simply asking teachers and students in public schools over the last 15 years would help one understand the domineering presence these tests have come to have.

In addition to the vast increase in resources allocated to testing, there are a growing number of criticisms that are gaining momentum.  Some of the most pressing are:

  • Does the testing format – consisting mostly of multiple choice questions (with a small number of open-ended or essay questions, that bring their own causes for concern, particularly in how, and by whom, these questions are scored) – accurately assess student understanding of a given topic?
  • Do students actually benefit from “teaching to the test” (in which classroom instruction is dictated by the material known to be assessed on the tests) or other pedagogical choices made as test preparation?  Or, at a school-wide scale, do students benefit from budgetary and scheduling decisions made in deference to the tests, such as eliminating art and music programs in order to increase class time for Math and English?
  • In a global economy, where creativity and collaboration are almost universally accepted as crucial to individual and community success, do standardized tests (and the resources allocated to them) actually assess the skills we know to be valuable?  In other words, does a high score on a standardized test correlate to success in life after school?

What do the tests measure and what can they predict?

Because of the types of assessments used, the scope of skills and knowledge measured is quite narrow.  For example, multiple choice tests, which comprise the majority of standardized tests, leave little room for the nuance of thought behind an answer and, more importantly for those interested in the process of learning, do not provide space for the thinking behind an answer.  While math teachers often require students to “show their work”, in the form of notes outlining each step of the problem-solving process, standardized tests consider only the final answer.  The teacher who knows the student can look back over the steps to better understand how the student is thinking through a problem; the test scorer has no space for this.

The multiple choice format also introduces opportunities for mistakes to be held against students, teachers, and schools.  By mistakes, we mean more than a student not knowing an answer; rather, there have been numerous reports about test booklets filled out incorrectly at some point in the process, as well as correctly completed booklets misscored by the test companies, and the results of these mistakes have more impact on the individual students and schools than they do on the test companies.

In efforts to shift the testing procedure (slightly) away from the multiple choice format, many tests have introduced open-ended or essay questions, requiring students to write in a response.  While the intent may have been to create better assessments, the effect did not match.  Reports found that test companies hired underqualified graders – individuals with little or no experience in the content area in which they scored student tests – who are allowed to spend only a few seconds per response.

Basically, standardized tests can measure, with some validity, a very narrow scope of student learning.  These tests are particularly helpful at assessing very specific fact recall (names, dates, events) and very specific operational understanding of math problems (though the ability to generalize math concepts may not be measured).  If education is more than this – and we believe it is – the tests miss an enormous amount of what constitutes education.  Additionally, because of the narrow scope, the predictive ability of standardized tests is minimal.  When one considers the importance of creativity, collaboration, and transferable conceptual understanding in our world (i.e., the ability to use skills and processes from one type of learning experience to novel experiences), one can easily see that the standardized tests as we know them are not very good at predicting  or improving outcomes in these areas—and these are the attributes that business leaders and policy makers use to describe the kinds of employees and entrepreneurs who are most successful. This is what we should be emphasizing, not simply regurgitation of known facts and procedures.

What to do with this information?

Many young people, either acting alone or in concert with their parents, have “opted out” of standardized testing.  This means they refuse to take a test; this can be an active refusal, such as by walking out or not coming to school during testing, or it can be passive, such as filling in the score sheets at random or sitting at one’s desk and not filling in any bubbles.  Still other families have chosen to “opt out” of conventional schools altogether, citing the tests and test culture as symptoms of larger problems in how schools view and treat young people.

If you would like to learn more about the impacts of testing on young people and education in general, or would like to explore options outside the conventional school paradigm, contact any of the alternative education organizations listed below,

OR read more:

Links for further reading  – Educators stand up against developmentally inappropriate tests -What standardized tests miss

Written by Christopher Steinmeier, Director of Programs & Lead Facilitator, Natural Creativity




How do young people really learn? The Argument for Transformational Change

Think about the world around us right now. Is this the world you want for your children? If not, what would that new world look like? And in this new world, how do you imagine them learning and living?

After decades of failed efforts to reform traditional, compulsory schooling, it is time to transform both the way we define “education” and the way we seek to support it in our young. It is time to pay attention to all of the scientific research about how young people really learn—research that shows that the poets and philosophers have been right all along:

  • That learning is a natural process. It is what defines us as human beings. We are “the learning animal”. Learning does not have to be coerced. People do not have to be bribed, bullied or otherwise “motivated” to learn; we are born hard-wired to learn. We can see that most clearly in infants and toddlers. At the time in life when the rate of learning is at its highest, in the first three years of life, young people learn language. They figure out that certain sounds, when put together in specific ways, give them the ability to communicate with others, to express their demands and seek answers to their unending questions. Compulsory schooling—the system that has been in place for over 150 years in America—actually works against the natural predisposition to learn.
  • That learning is not the product of teaching; it is the product of the activity of the learner. Learning (hence, education) is an internal and interactive process. It happens between the ears of each individual and is shaped by each individual’s experience with others and the world. Knowledge is not something poured from a pitcher, from teacher to student. If it were, all students in a class would learn the same thing, at the same level, as everyone else in the class. We know that this is not how real learning happens. It happens through the interaction between the learner and the subject matter, and between learners figuring things out; it happens by way of experience. Hence the old saying:

I hear, and I forget.

I see, and I remember.

I do, and I understand.

Learning without understanding isn’t worth much. It permits only regurgitation; as John Holt noted, “The difference between a good student and a bad one is that the good student doesn’t forget the answers until after the test.

  • That the best learning happens when the learner is in a playful environment. This is true at all ages. For young people, play is all about learning; they are learning how the adult world works by playing out what they see around them, making it their own as they practice the skills needed in adulthood. By taking the play out of learning, traditional schooling greatly reduces the level of interest, intention and retention. This is one of the reasons why youths so often complain that school is boring. An enjoyable, natural process has been ruined by being stripped of its nutrients and then force fed into its powerless subjects.
  • That people are most motivated to learn what interests them. This seems like common sense, and yet forced schooling, with its Core Curriculum, ignores this reality. It tells people what they are supposed to learn and when they should learn it. It denies the reality of individualism, the fact that each of us is, and has a right to be, our own person. It’s like telling everyone, “You’re going to be 5’8” tall and weigh 150 pounds whether you like it or not.” Educational research has begun to uncover the strong links between taking ownership of one’s learning (which includes having the freedom to choose what interests you and the space to follow through) and greater intellectual growth.

The New Option

Imagine a community that supports the natural joy in learning about the world and in creating our place in it. Imagine a place that takes away all of the anxiety and fear normally associated with school and allows young people:

  • to grow in the sunshine of collaboration rather than artificially contrived competition,
  • to learn by doing, reflecting and adjusting, rather than being lectured to, memorizing, regurgitating and forgetting,
  • to turn academic awareness into practical knowledge by learning in the context of purposeful activity—doing work that matters to the individual who is doing it,
  • to deeply explore, discover and strengthen their inherent gifts, interests and passions, and thereby develop a strong sense of identity, and
  • to learn how to improve upon their natural creative abilities, and to use these skills
  • to create a life of purpose and fulfillment.

Natural Creativity is working to build a place in Philadelphia where youths from four to eighteen years old will play, work and learn together, along with a dedicated staff of adults and other volunteers, to explore the world and pursue their interests in creative ways. They will find answers to such life-changing questions as:

  • how does collaboration really work, and what makes it so difficult for so many adults to use it to improve life for themselves and society as a whole?
  • what is the Creative Process, and why is it mistakenly assumed to be the exclusive promise of a few “gifted” individuals?
  • how can I learn to use my time constructively in a way that I enjoy and that will help me grow as a person?
  • how can I build a strong sense of who I am and what I am capable of so that the opinions of others do not limit my personal growth?

Now is the time to stand up for the creative minds of all young people and work together to transform education in Philadelphia and beyond so that all young people will flourish through the combination of guidance and freedom that this new approach to life will bring.

Written by Peter Bergson, Co-Founder and Board Vice President, Natural Creativity