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Opinion
Assessment Commentary

Standards for What?

By Robert B. Reich — June 20, 2001 4 min read
Standardized tests have nothing to do with preparing students for what they’ll do when they leave our schools.

The latest rage in education is standardized tests. Tests have been around for a long time, of course, but have never been employed to the extent they are now. Young people are now being tested and then retested a year or two later, and then retested again and again. Our schools are morphing into test-taking factories. Politicians like tests because they don’t cost much money and they reassure the public that children are at least learning something.

Paradoxically, we’re embracing standardized tests just when the new economy is eliminating standardized jobs. If there’s one certainty about what today’s schoolchildren will be doing a decade or two from now, it’s that they won’t all be doing the same things, and they certainly won’t be drawing on the same body of knowledge. The purpose of education is not only to train people to become productive participants in an economy, of course. And yet, the work that people will do after they leave school has a necessary bearing upon what and how they learn.

Jobs in the old mass-production economy came in a few standard varieties: research, production, sales, clerical, managerial, professional. A system that depended on economies of scale didn’t need many different specialized skills. Nor did it need much original thinking. Most people spent most of their working lives performing the same operations over and over, in the company of many other people who performed the same or similar operations. A standardized education was appropriate because jobs were standardized. In general, the largest pedagogical challenge was to train young people to sit still for long periods of time, be patient, follow directions, and be punctual. These were the core competencies that industry required.

But the old mass- production system is disappearing. Computers, the Internet, and digital commerce have exploded the old job categories into a vast array of new niches, creating a kaleidoscope of ways to make a living. Musicians, artists, writers, and performing artists are discovering multimedia outlets for their talents. Large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere are starting their own Web-based businesses and auction houses. People who had been clerks and secretaries are turning into spreadsheet operators, desktop publishers, and Web- based inventory-control managers. Salespeople are becoming specialty technicians, finding or creating unique products to meet particular customer needs.

There’s also an increasing demand for people who provide personal attention and comfort. This includes an upsurge in advisers, counselors, coaches, and trainers. Physical and occupational therapists are needed. Home health-care workers, elder-care assistants, and child-care workers are all in short supply. And we have a chronic need for teachers at all levels, able to improve people’s skills throughout their lifetimes.


Success in any of these jobs doesn’t depend on mastery of one uniform body of knowledge as measured by standardized tests. Quite the opposite: Most of the work in the emerging economy requires an ability to learn on the job, to discover what needs to be known, and to find and use it quickly.

Many of the new jobs depend on creativity—on out-of-the-box thinking, originality, and flair. Almost by definition, standardized tests can’t measure these sorts of things. They’re best at measuring the ability to regurgitate facts and apply standard modes of analysis. Yet in the new economy, facts and standard analyses can be uncovered at the click of a mouse. Information is efficiently stored in bits and bytes. So it’s less necessary to know a lot of particular things. It’s far more important to learn how to identify and solve new problems, think critically, and challenge assumptions.

Other jobs in the emerging economy depend on the ability to listen and to discern what other people are feeling or what they’re needing. Advisers, counselors, and consultants must be able to hear beyond the words that other people are using, and diagnose what’s really going on. Empathy is becoming a critically important skill. Here again, standardized tests are often irrelevant.

Many jobs depend on creativity. Standardized tests can’t measure these sorts of things.

Yes, of course, the emerging economy requires that people read and speak clearly. They also must know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

Standardized tests can help measure whether children have achieved an adequate level of communication skills and numeracy, and even help pinpoint where children need more guidance. But in many other ways, our new obsession with standardized tests runs exactly counter to the new demands of the modern economy. It is training a generation of young people to become exquisitely competent at taking standardized tests, and a generation of teachers to become exceedingly good at teaching how to take them. Neither of these competences has much to do with preparing young people for what they will encounter when they leave our schools.

The more disturbing prospect is that all the testing may have the opposite effect—dulling young people’s interest in learning and dimming their creative sparks at just a time in history when learning and creativity are more important to the economy than ever before.


Robert B. Reich, who served as U.S. secretary of labor under President Clinton, is the university professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. His latest book is The Future of Success.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Standards for What?

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