The Tyranny Of Testing

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 01, 1992 3 min read

At a time when discussions about education ring with the jargon of reform—restructuring, assessment, cognitive development, empowerment, at-risk—it’s useful, on occasion, to think about the impact schools have on individual children. Teacher Magazine Associate Editor Mary Koepke, a former teacher, does that in her personal account of a journey she took last year.

Koepke began her career in Brown County, Ind., eight years ago, teaching 7th and 8th grade special education students. For years, she has wondered what became of the kids whose lives so briefly intersected with her own. Last autumn, Koepke went back to Indiana to satisfy her curiosity. The bittersweet experience produced more questions than answers and left her wondering about how well schools serve the children who need them most.

Contributing writer David Ruenzel also embarked on a cross-country journey to satisfy his curiosity. He had heard about a reform initiative launched 60 years ago at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire that completely transformed the school and a number of other private schools. Known as the Harkness Plan, it has as its central aspect a large oval table around which classes in all subjects but science are conducted. The teacher is a facilitator who promotes but doesn’t dominate discussion, making the 12 or 13 students in each class largely responsible for their own education. The article makes clear why the Harkness Plan is thriving in some of the nation’s most prestigious private schools. The article also makes one wonder why it isn’t adopted by public schools.

America’s love affair with testing began nearly a century ago, but over the past three decades it has become an obsession. As Elizabeth Schulz’s cover story notes, public school students spend some 20 million school days annually taking about 127 million standardized tests.

This is an extraordinary investment of time and money, considering that these norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests contribute almost nothing to education. They don’t help teachers teach or children learn. Their primary purpose—some say their only purpose—is to sort and compare children so schools can be held accountable.

The marginal value of standardized tests seems far outweighed by their negative consequences. Teachers know better than most how standardized testing dominates curriculum and classroom practice and leads to tracking. They also know (and resent) that our heavy reliance on testing is a measure of the system’s lack of trust in them. It’s no wonder that representatives to the National Education Association’s annual convention this past summer voted overwhelmingly to condemn standardized testing mandated by federal or state authorities and flatly opposed the use of such tests to compare students and schools.

The recent explosion in standardized testing was triggered in the 1980s by reform-minded policymakers who thought schools could be improved by raising standards and demanding greater accountability. Ironically, many reformers are now discovering that such testing is a formidable enemy of educational innovation and improvement. Teachers who are using the latest findings of cognitive research in their classrooms and administrators who have restructured curricula and schools to help children become critical thinkers are under assault because their students are not scoring well on standardized tests designed to measure kids’ ability to remember and regurgitate isolated bits of information.

In Ruenzel’s article, former New York State Teacher of the Year John Gatto indicts standardized testing for contributing to inequities in education. Koepke’s story offers an example. Standardized test scores played a key role in labeling her students and separating them from the mainstream, virtually guaranteeing that their education would be limited. By contrast, the students at Phillips Exeter, on their way to top universities, take few tests. When the objective is to teach critical thinking and learning is highly individualistic, testing seems superfluous. Indeed, norm-referenced, multiple-choice standardized tests are totally incompatible with the kind of education that takes place at Exeter—and with the kind of education that should be taking place in every school.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Tyranny Of Testing