Equality, Freedom, Education: (6) Standardized Testing and The Emperor’s New Clothes–Part 2

From Equality, Freedom, Education: (5) Standardized Testing and The Emperor’s New Clothes–Part 1: “In the September 27, 2000, edition of Education Week, a piece by Alfie Kohn was published: Standardized Testing and Its Victims. If you are concerned about the role of standardized testing in our schools, I believe you will find reading Kohn’s article to be a very provocative and productive use of 10 minutes of your time; further, Mr. Kohn has reminded me via email that the article is a brief adaptation of his book: The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. He encourages anyone who is interested in a more comprehensive treatment of the issue to refer to his book.”

Standardized testing remains a topic of conversation decades after it’s use was first advocated for, and subsequently condemned in the media and elsewhere. Likely because of the DeVos family’s and Koch brother’s focus on replacing traditional public education with capitalism-based education, which has been exacerbating, bit by sneaky bit, the problem of disadvantaged kids having diminished opportunities for a viable future, the question, What do you think of standardized testing?” had been supplanted by What do you think of charter schools? as the most frequent question asked of me at social gatherings.

It was around the time of the change in education-related topics discussed at what Boomer parents called cocktail parties that I began to distance myself from my lifelong role in education. I did so because of my shame at having been a part of the collective failure of educational systems that are responsible for the incongruous and defiant ignorance millions of Americans have been endorsing and displaying for the world to see over the past five years.

A Facebook post re: the use of standardized testing in high stakes decision making caused me to recall Kohn’s article and to reconsider my self-imposed silence. Almost twenty years before, the article had revealed the naked truth about standardized testing. And he was not alone. In 2000, I found his thoughts to be aligned with those I had encountered in the 1990’s by reading, speaking with, or listening to James Popham, Bob Marzano, Rick Stiggins, Fenwick English, Doug Reeves and other prominent educational thinkers. In my opinion, Kohn did a masterful job of distilling the matter down to its essential truths, i.e. he provided the most concise description of the naked and problematic reality of standardized testing.

Here are key facts from Kohn’s article that every parent, policy maker, educator and taxpayer should know:

Fact 1. “Our children are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world … Few countries use standardized tests for children below high school age—or multiple-choice tests for students of any age.”

Fact 2. “Non-instructional factors explain most of the variance among test scores when schools or districts are compared … four such variables (are the) number of parents living at home, parents’ educational background, type of community, and poverty rate …”

Fact 3. “Norm-referenced (standardized) tests were never intended to measure the quality of learning or teaching … The main objective of these tests is to rank, not to rate … not to gauge the quality of a given student or school.”

Fact 4. “Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking … as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.”

Fact 5. “Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old.”

Fact 6. “Virtually all relevant experts and organizations condemn the practice of basing important decisions, such as graduation or promotion, on the results of a single test.”

Fact 7. “The time, energy, and money that are being devoted to preparing students for standardized tests have to come from somewhere … Anyone who doubts the scope and significance of what is being sacrificed in the desperate quest to raise scores has not been inside a school lately.”

Fact 8. “Many educators are leaving the field because of what is being done to schools in the name of ‘accountability’ and ‘tougher standards’ … Prospective teachers are rethinking whether they want to begin a career in which high test scores matter most.”

One final contribution from Kohn’s article is a quote from then Senator Paul Wellstone (Democrat, Minnesota); I offer it here because I think it still rings true:

Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker, and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity.

There is an additional, conceptual problem I have with the use of standardized testing. For six years, I was an assessment specialist in a Delaware school district, and in that role I oversaw the development of proprietary, end-of-course exams for high schools in the district. The underlying principle behind these exams was …


Standards are written descriptions of what all students should know and/or be able to do. Teachers for several years have been expected—by statute—to design instruction that leads all students to mastery of designated standards. There are three challenges facing educators and policy makers related to the implementation of standards-based education:

First, holding teachers accountable for designing instruction that leads to mastery of state-mandated standards is often not done because of opposition by advantaged parents and teachers who have no understanding of the process of designing and assessing instruction* (yes, teachers too, especially at the secondary level).

Second, most state standards require mastery of minutia, when world class standards are those related to critical and other higher forms of thinking, and not to minutia. The often heard criticism that teachers are “teaching to the test” would be a complement if assessments were designed to measure critical thinking–something that standardized tests cannot do; the criticism should be: “teachers are teaching the minutia that’s measured by standardized tests, and not teaching students how to think critically, which is an essential skill in today’s world.”

Third, the assessments needed to determine mastery, such as an essay question or a performance task that requires a student to explain and/or demonstrate their mastery of what it is they should know and/or do; unfortunately, essay questions and performance tasks (almost universally used in Europe instead of standardized tests) do not lend themselves to sophisticated statistical analysis, but standardized tests do, and Ay, there’s the rub**: Politicians like data that is easily translated into headlines (I refer you to Senator Wellstone’s quote above.)

As someone who has written select response (multiple choice) test items for a testing company, I can tell you that it is impossible for a student to “explain” or “demonstrate” anything by answering that type of question. Choosing one of four or five options does not constitute an explanation or a demonstration of mastery. Explaining is an action that a student must make orally or via writing to make clear to an assessor his or her mastery of an idea, a solution, or a problem. Demonstrating mastery of a performance task involves actually performing the skills that a student is expected to be able to do.

Written (or oral) assessments and performance tasks are employed in effective standards-based classrooms by teachers who understand the importance of aligning instruction and assessment with designated standards, but the cost associated with the process of statistically analyzing thousands of written student responses and actual performances for dozens and dozens of standards is prohibitive for state departments of education.

It is sad to say, but cost is one reason our children are being subjected to the burden of high stakes testing in their current form. Another reason is the unforgivable ignorance of too many policy makers and educators who do not understand the incongruity of using tests in a standards-based educational environment that are designed to sort and rank students.

An additional reason why our children are being harmed by the use of standardized tests is the understandable unfamiliarity of taxpayers with the inappropriateness of making high stakes decisions using standardized tests designed to rank and sort students, and in a social context (as in the fairy tale and in English Common Law), their silence can and is often interpreted as consent.

It is not known how long it took for “the whole town” in Anderson’s fable to cry out, “but he hasn’t got anything on!” I do know that it has been twenty years since Kohn’s article was published in one of the most well-read of educational periodicals, and I remain astonished that relatively few have heard his cry. Perhaps it is coming. For the sake of our children—especially disadvantaged children of color—it is time for “the whole town” to cry out:

“Current policies requiring that standardized testing be used for evaluating individual teachers, students and schools is unsound and harmful to all and is especially hurtful to students who need our help the most!”


This is the sixth of several posts that I will be updating and reposting in an attempt to refine and arrange all of my education-related posts in a logical, conceptual order. As always, your comments will be much appreciated.

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* My experience observing/supervising instruction (my non-scientific sample of one, which is supported by research) tells me that the majority of secondary teachers teach to topics, i.e. they teach what they know about and/or that in which they are personally interested in an engaging way; then they design an assessment to measure what they’ve taught. This leaves a tremendous amount of freedom in the hands of individual teachers who seldom collaborate on instructional design. This process is backwards. What has been long recommended as best practice is: 1) teachers should be held accountable for using curriculum guides that contain complex standards requiring higher level thinking; 2) curriculum guides should be designed/validated by teachers with the support of a knowledgeable curriculum specialist; 3) the standards should describe what it is that every student should know and be able to do; 4) teachers should collaborate on the design of assessments that provide every student the opportunity to demonstrate mastery, a process which clarifies for teachers what it is that needs to be taught; 5) teachers should collaborate in the design of instruction that will lead students to mastery to be measured by the assessments. TEACHING IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE!

** In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” when Hamlet was contemplating suicide, he said, ““To sleep; perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub: for in that sleep of death what dreams may come?”

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