Emphasis On Testing Cheats Everyone

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SAT language scores aren’t near the levels seen in the early 1970’s.  Some test-takers resort to cheating, most recently seven teens from Great Neck, NY, who hired an impersonator to stand in (well, sit in) for them. The company that administers the SAT estimates cheating, mostly by collaboration, occurs in only one-tenth of 1 percent of the 2.25 million students who take the test annually. That seems insignificant, but it underscores a larger problem—our test-obsessed educational system.

E. D. Hirsch Jr., author of The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that declining verbal scores have to do with enduring school days stripped of “substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds…” He goes on to note,

The most credible analyses have shown that the chief causes were not demographics or TV watching, but vast curricular changes, especially in the critical early grades. In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

I don’t agree with Hirsch’s basic stance that a core curriculum be taught in every U.S. school but he’s got a point. It’s not a new point. Learning has taken a hit heavy hit from the emphasis on standardized tests. The zombifying effect on schools, teachers and kids brought by high stakes testing isn’t pretty.

Even in the best districts, attaining those all-important numbers eliminates opportunities for innovation and time to work with students’ interests. Less stellar districts see their schools under test-heavy siege charged with getting results or getting eliminated.  This drive also shapes the kind of material students see, relentlessly preparing them to reach higher for the Almighty Score while giving scant attention to more complex yet essential skills for higher learning like critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and persistence.

Why this emphasis on testing? We assume policy-makers know what they’re doing. Surely they haven’t been restructuring education based on bare numbers unless they have substantial proven results. Greater competitiveness on the world market or at least greater individual success?


Here are the facts from my book:

National test scores

It’s widely assumed that national test score rankings are vitally important indicators of a country’s future. To improve those rankings, national core standards are imposed with more frequent assessments to determine student achievement (meaning more testing).

Do test scores actually make a difference to a nation’s future?

Results from international mathematics and science tests from a fifty-year period were compared to future economic competitiveness by those countries in a study by Christopher H. Tienken. Across all indicators he could find minimal evidence that students’ high test scores produce value for their countries. He concluded that higher student test scores were unrelated to any factors consistently predictive of a developed country’s growth and competitiveness.

In another such analysis, Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, examined achievement studies across the world to see if they reflected the success of participating nations. Using numerous comparisons, including national wealth, degree of democracy, economic growth and even happiness, Baker found no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries. Merely average test scores were correlated with successful nations while top test scores were not. Baker explains, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance . . .”   He goes on to speculate whether testing [or forms of education emphasizing testing] itself may be damaging to a nation’s future.

Individual test scores

What about individual success?

Educational reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Why do we push standardized tests if it has been demonstrated that the results are counterproductive? Well, we’ve been told that this is the price children must pay in order to achieve success. This is profound evidence of societal shallow thinking, because the evidence doesn’t stack up.

Research shows that high test scores in school don’t correlate with later accomplishments in adulthood such as career advancement or social leadership.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?

The conclusion?


The criteria for academic success isn’t a direct line to lifetime success. Studies show that grades and test scores do not necessarily correlate to later accomplishments in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or the sciences. Grades and tests only do a good job at predicting how well youth will do in subsequent academic grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in real-life problem solving or career advancement.

Kids certainly cheat because they haven’t prepared for the test, but they also may cheat because they simply see the whole testing game as a farce.  A survey of 43,000 high school students showed that 59 percent admitted cheating on a test during the past year.

What can we do?

Some of us homeschool.

Some parents submit compelling letters telling schools they will not permit their children to be tested, part of a larger opt out movement.

Some are heartened by the ever-growing list of four year colleges that don’t require the ACT or SAT for admission.

Do you think high-stakes testing cheats our kids?


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11 thoughts on “Emphasis On Testing Cheats Everyone

  1. High stakes testing absolutely cheats our kids. Rather than focusing on testing testing testing and blaming teachers and schools for a problem they didn’t create and aren’t empowered to fix, we should have put our money and energy into efforts with some evidence behind them. Quality pre-k for everyone would be a start. Instead, states are losing funding for their preschool programs.

      1. It’s a high-stakes testing environment that encourages that sort of silliness.

        My kids attended a university preschool for language development that used constructivist teaching methods and was fairly learner-directed. They emphasized learning language through social play.
        The public school offering was more behaviorist in their approach, but they didn’t eschew toys in favor of drilling the alphabet all day. There was still room for play.
        Either approach is better than no approach for many at-risk families that would otherwise have children entering school without any Kindergarten readiness skills.

        1. True. But as far as research goes on the benefits of preschool, kids from lowest income/education classes see the greatest gains. For kids from other families, the benefit is harder to find.

  2. Absolutely! The emphasis on testing cheats our kids and harms our economy. That’s why I’m planning to homeschool my daughter if I’m not happy with the opportunities for creativity and hands-on learning in our new school district.

    I remember very clearly a few years ago talking to a colleague of mine from Germany. She was remarking that she went back for her high school reunion and was surprised when a friend was working at a new company selling an innovative invention. She was surprised that a German would invent something so creative (it was an iceless ice rink) because she thought the school system drilled creativity out of them. Her friend admitted that the inventor was an American.

    Focusing on standardized testing removes the experimentation and true learning from education, leaving kids with little or no ability to become the entrepreneurs of the future.

    I always wondered why people were so concerned with those international test comparisons since countries like Japan are always at the top of the list, and Japan’s economy hasn’t exactly been chugging along for the past 25 years.

  3. While I’m not a fan at all of “teaching to the test”, my kids will likely be publicly schooled for now. My 3rd grader is getting all kinds of test-prep stuff now, but I’m grateful that he’s also in a gifted program that emphasizes leadership, competition and incredible creativity opportunities. Balancing the two, along with what my husband and I can offer as additional education (home science experiments, etc.) seems to work for us.

    Like we’ve discussed on our writers’ list, one of things my family can take advantage of as a military family is getting to choose our temporary homes based on the best schools around. We’ve been fortunate so far.

    Food for thought about the trends in language test scores, though. Something we see in meteorology is how climate trends are sometimes “tainted” with other outside noise. For example, in the mid-90s the National Weather Service moved many of their upper air balloon launch sites from airports to more rural areas. One of the unintended consequences is that the impacts of urban localized effects was programmed out — and there’s this wrinkle in the observation trends when the changes were made.

    There are many other examples such as these that have an impact on climate trends. I’m not talking about global warming or anything, just that some outside noise sometimes bleeds into longer-range data.

    Anyway, I wonder a lot if standardized testing trends are erroneously compared when the tests themselves are constantly changing. I can’t speak to the language part, but I remember how in the 90s they introduced allowing a calculator into the math side of the SAT. And the scores jumped — the average score jumped in the mid-90s! Then a writing portion was introduced about 10 years later — and the statistics took a bump again.

    To conclude, my family personally may not agree with the testing, but with parental involvement we plan to overcome the extra baggage it has to ensure our sons have a fruitful education that makes them good citizens.

    1. You introduce a very valuable point Patricia. Tests do change all the time and other factors alter the way we understand the results. Even the I.Q. test is renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100) because, in many ways, we’re getting smarter—called the Flynn effect.

      Also, a wider range of students take high school proficiency and college prep tests than in many other countries, skewing the U.S. results downward.

      I particularly like the term “outside noise.”

  4. There are so many things that bother me about standardized testing, but I think my overarching problem is that it has NO BEARING ON REAL LIFE. Being good at taking tests is a skill a person will rarely if ever use once they leave school. I was, and I guess still am, an excellent test-taker. I looked like such a genius when you just look at my test scores, and when you’re scoring so well on tests, your teachers and so forth give you the impression that you’re going to be WILDLY SUCCESSFUL, but the truth is I never learned hard work and persistance (or how to study, period) because it came so easy to me, I never had to make decisions where there wasn’t just one right answer, and I never got help learning the other skills I REALLY needed to learn for life, like being assertive and carrying myself properly and millions of other social skills… so, me, a success? I wish. My younger sister was always terrible at tests, and was pretty much a C student. She just got a promotion from receptionist to business manager at work, and she’s earned it, with skills that actually MEAN something in the world, instead of just the ability to rattle off trivia like I have.

    The emphasis on grades in general is a bit counterproductive sometimes. A coworker just yesterday asked me for help with her son’s homework, and not too long into me attempting to “help” I realized she was trying to DO it for him. Well what’s the POINT of that?! It was a project assignment, one that required thought and work and not just the spitting back of answers, so this was definitely something the school was doing RIGHT, but the PARENTS were sabotaging the child’s learning experience! To tell the truth, I’ve seen that from a lot of well-meaning homeschooling parents at my library, too– but the homeschooled kids are still subject to state testing, after all.

    SIGH. And we won’t even bring up Accelerated Reader. Okay, I just did. Pet peeve. Anyway.

    1. My life too Rockinlibrarian. I did ridiculously well on tests and got crazy high grades, but that didn’t help me build skills necessary for real success like focus (oooh, squirrel!) and assertiveness.

      I watched my oldest head down this path when he was school as well. He skated along getting A’s and working well ahead in all subjects but didn’t see the value of making an effort. It caught up with him. He played in the band for two years without learning to read music (no one even noticed) because he could learn each piece after hearing it once. Until he was asked to play a piece by sight reading.

      A friend who is now a high ranking executive told me he was never better than a C student and struggled every day to keep up. But those struggles taught him to emphasize his abilities outside of school—his charisma, his athletic skill, his drive to prove himself career-wise. In today’s competitive testing environment this high achieving friend wouldn’t have gotten into college. He tells me that he’s influenced hiring policy at his firm. Mid-range students are fine, but they have to show persistence and improvement over time because those indicate the qualities that make for a good worker.

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