The Worst Tests
Review by Jonathan Pollard
Though Kohn finds most standardized tests to be objectionable, he comments that some tests are even worse than others; proving even more damaging to the development of the student's mind, and measuring even less. The most damaging testing programs can be characterized by certain readily identifiable features:
• Multiple choice examinations. Quoting Roger Farr, a professor of education at Indiana University, "I don't think there's any way to build a multiple-choice question that allows students to show what they can do with what they know."
• Even standardized tests that include some amount of open ended or free-response questions are equally ineffective measures of achievement. The essays written on these tests are frequently not scored by educators, but by temp workers, who are paid minimum wage, and who generally spend no more than two minutes on each exam. According to one former scorer, "There were times I'd be reading a paper every ten seconds. I know this sounds very bizarre, but you could put a number on these things without actually reading the paper." Furthermore, the scorer added that he and his coworkers were offered a "two hundred dollar bonus that kicked in after eight thousand papers."
• Timed exams. The ability to work quickly, and perform under extreme pressure, is valued above all else.
• Tests are given far too frequently, and at every grade level. This is simply a manifestation of the school system's obsession with speed. Grade specific standards are simply another way of measuring how fast children can learn, the only difference is that, rather than minutes and hours, the time is measured in years.
• We must be weary of norm-referenced tests. Unlike tests that are "criterion-referenced", meaning that they compare the scores of each student to a given standard, norm-referenced tests compare the performance of the students to each other. No matter how well or how poorly students do on norm-referenced tests, there will always be a top 10% and a bottom 10%; there will always be 50% of the students who have test scores that fall below the median. This is not an indication that our schools are performing poorly or failing, this is simply a necessary product of the definition of "median". Norm-referenced tests don't tell us how much a student has learned, but rather, how much more or less than other students he has learned. Perhaps everyone - even those who had scores below the median - did reasonably well. Unfortunately, we will never know.
• Norm-referenced tests do not assess how well children are learning, but rather, are used to compute who is better than whom. Such tests are used to create a sharp division between the winners and the losers. Why is that we could never accept a system in which everyone could succeed? Why is it that our society so deeply values this selection process, in which some students are labeled smart, and others are labeled stupid? The psychological damage caused by such a system is simply ignored by those who support standardized testing.
• Tests are most damaging when given to younger students. Increasingly, students in primary school are being frequently subjected to timed examinations.
• According to educator Bill Ayers, standardized tests ignore the most important characteristics of being a good learner or a good person. "What they can measure and count," he says, "are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning." Knowing a lot of facts does not necessarily equate with being intelligent or possessing any practical knowledge. Additionally, teamwork, consulting with classmates, or any other form of cooperative learning is explicitly forbidden during the completion of standardized tests. Doesn't our society - and for that matter, the vision statement of every corporation - express the notion that the ability to work as part of a team is a desirable quality?