John Dewey, the 20th-century educational reform philosopher, once voiced his fears about our nation’s obnoxious obsession with test scores:

“Our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages, with percents. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on averaged gross inferiorities and superiorities.”

For grades K-12 combined, kids in the U.S. spend an average of 257 hours – or an astonishing 39 school days – steeped in test prep.

It’s no surprise that the anxiety around becoming an “average” or “percentile” has turned education into a high-stress game for kids: the chaotic rush to learn a certain subject by a certain calendar date…for what, exactly?

Certainly not their cognitive development, as rising levels of “test anxiety” are shown to negatively impact how kids perform on these tests.

Clearly, the pressure to learn a certain subject by a certain calendar date doesn’t align with the wellbeing of kids – their mental health, love of learning, sense of self-direction, low stress levels, high curiosity levels, and more.

The problem of standardized testing is that it has less to do with the development of kids and a lot more to do with funding, which starts at the top of the federal hierarchy.

Schools rely on test scores and graduation rates to acquire the same, or better, federal funding for the next year. If too many students get low scores or too few students graduate, the school loses annual funding.

The premise of the game is clear: for the system, “winning” is not determined by the holistic success of individual kids, but by how much money and prestige is brought in by their test scores.

Our obsession with standardized testing has been increasing over 150 years – and it’s come at a great cost to our kids.

A brief history of standardized testing

(You can read about this more comprehensively here.)

The push for standardized testing began in America in the 1830s, and swept through the nation like wildfire.

Pre-Civil War, standardized written examinations were introduced in schools across the country to make administration easier.

In the 1890s, college entrance exams were introduced. The general push was to make it easier for the progress of large numbers of students to be measured. It was during this time we also saw the rise of intelligence testing, showcasing our society’s exceeding obsession with measuring things.

By 1930, multiple-choice tests were an everyday activity in public schools. Critics began to worry that these tests prioritized low-order thinking and incentivized guessing over learning.

But the emphasis on tests kept expanding, ranging from multiple-choice to AP testing to SAT and ACT exams. Major concerns were raised in the 1970s. Were the prescriptive requirements for learners becoming too prescriptive?

The growing frenzy of standardized testing tightened a legal chokehold in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated annual standardized testing in all 50 states for all grade levels.

The chokehold proved to be so tight, however, that in 2015, Obama passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in an attempt to give states more control over their schools and reduce standardized testing; but it remained a large point of contention for parents, students, and teachers alike.

Standardized testing is a core component of a public school education, and plays a huge role in dictating what actually gets taught – and how.

The arguments for standardized testing (and why they don’t work)

Standardized testing exists to create a universal standard for education.

At first, a baseline like this feels logical. It’s the same test, taken in the same classroom, with the same pencil, whether you’re in New York, New Hampshire, or New Mexico. What’s fairer than that?

Not to mention this testing measures the analytical data of a kid’s performance – right? This also feels logical. How else are parents supposed to know how their kids are doing in school?

Lastly, standardized testing can be viewed as an accountability tool for teachers and students alike – essentially, are the teachers teaching? Are the students learning?

It’s a one-size-fits-all dream.

But that is precisely why it doesn’t work…“one-size-fits-all” doesn’t exist when it comes to kids.

How standardized testing is smothering our kids

The idea behind testing is so cut and dry that it falls apart in the face of the complexities of the real world – and real kids.

Every kid learns in unique ways, yet schools insist on comparing them all by the same set of measures.

When kids exceed or fall short of this arbitrary line, schools are prescribed a method to evaluate, compare, and rank them. Not because this is healthy for kids, of course, but because it’s convenient for the system. And because it’s tied to funding, the schools all fall in line.

Even when we put kids in the same room, give them the same pencil, and make them take the same test, countless other factors are at play that are not taken into consideration. Are they an early reader or a late reader? Are they interested in math, or more verbally inclined? Kids’ natural abilities and learning pace are completely dismissed – as well as more external factors outside of their control.

A family’s wealth, for example, is often directly proportional to their kid’s SAT score. It often has nothing to do with how well their kid is comprehending material in the classroom, and everything to do with how many hours of tutoring they can afford, or how many times they can afford to retake the test to perfect their score.

With enough money, a good score can simply be purchased. What’s “fair” on the surface of standardized testing is hardly ever “fair” at the root of what’s going on.

Regardless of relative wealth, testing negatively impacts the overall mental wellbeing of kids and teachers alike.

By putting so much emphasis on test scores, we’re encouraging students to memorize and regurgitate information, which stifles creativity and imagination. Standardized testing dismisses all the diverse ways kids process new information, which is how we end up with a student who’s a skillful writer but also failing grammar.

Test scores don’t just standardize entire schools, but individual minds. And when we standardize individual minds, we ruin a kid’s desire to learn. Not to mention the chronic stress and “test anxiety” they face because of it.

This devotion to standardization also hurts teachers. It pressures them to “teach the test,” rather than cover material kids are excited about. They’re forced to direct attention (and classroom hours) toward the test scores and letter grades of their students rather than overall cognitive development. “Teaching the test” undermines the thing that made them want to be teachers in the first place – helping kids become better versions of themselves.

Students and teachers alike are then stuck in the feedback loop of test score performance: anxious students lose their love of learning because they’re stressing over test scores, while discouraged teachers lose their love of teaching because they’re stressing over the same.

While the goal of school is not to gain an award, that’s exactly what it has become. The nature of standardized test scores has essentially de-evolutionized education and simplified it to “getting a good score,” rather than encouraging kids to expand their minds, chase their curiosities, and strengthen their intellects, no matter where that pursuit takes them.

What to focus on instead

A great alternative to standardized testing is something called performance-based assessments.

This is when students get to apply what they’ve learned to real-world scenarios. Rather than recalling memorized facts and filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil, students get to create presentations, portfolios, projects, or debates.

These tasks are active and stimulating for kids (unlike standardized tests) because they require kids to comprehend material well enough to then apply it in a creative setting.

These types of assessments also give kids real-world feedback, which is the type of feedback loop we’re trying to prepare them for: doing something in the real world, getting feedback, seeing how it works, and adjusting accordingly.

Ultimately, these tasks are structured enough to accurately assess a kid’s performance while still giving them the freedom to work creatively, and without crushing their love of learning with standardization.

This level of customization requires more effort, which is (part of) why the school system shies away from them – but our kids are worth the extra work.

Ultimately, kids cannot – and should not – be reduced to a letter grade, national average, or baseline percentage.

As a parent, you can refute this national obsession with test scores by trying to curate an education that fosters a holistic and sustainable way of learning.

Kids should trust that meaningful, real-world achievements – like being self-driven, mentally healthy, and excited about the task at hand – hold far more weight than any test score ever could.

Grace Smith

Grace Smith

Grace is a creative wordsmith with a zest for innovative storytelling. After getting her BA in English-Writing, she dove into the world of alternative education and hasn’t shut up about it since. On top of finding new and better ways to learn, Grace is a freelance content writer and strategist passionate about classic literature, killer cortados, and the perfect Spotify playlist.

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