The Case Against Standardized Testing

“Standardized testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it now threatens to swallow our schools whole.” – Alfie Kohn

In the Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the …, Alfie Kohn explains how little test results really tell us and just how harmful a test-driven curriculum can be. In this book, Kohn explains that:

– High scores often signify relatively superficial thinking

– Many of the standardized test around the world were never intended to measure teaching and learning

– A school that improves its test results may well have lowered its standards to do so

– As much as 90% of the variations in test scores among schools or states have nothing to do with quality of instruction.

– Far more meaningful measures of student learning – or school quality – are available

The proliferation of standardized testing has radically altered the kind of instruction that is offered in schools to the point that teaching to the test has become a prominent part of the educational landscape. Teachers often feel obliged or are indeed mandated to set aside other subjects, for weeks or (particularly in schools serving low-SES students) even months at a time to ‘prepare’ for these tests. The test essentially becomes the curriculum.

Kohn explains that the “One-size-fits-all testing systems have approximately the same effect on quality curriculum that a noose has on breathing.” Standardized tests promote memorization, are inherently biased and inconsistent with the real world. They are given to individuals, and not to groups, and helping one another is regarded as a serious offence. The tests are timed, placing a premium on speed rather then thoughtfulness or thoroughness. The tests are given too frequently and this reflects the assumption that all students learn at the same pace – this obviously isn’t true.

Kohn shares a quote from educator Bill Ayers who says that standardized tests ignore the fundamental characteristics of what makes a good learner – “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting, and least significant aspects of learning.”

The reality is that the types of learning experiences that students remember once they graduate are those that are personally meaningful, intrinisically motivating, real, relevant and authentic -deep learning takes place atthe interstices between disciplines.

What I found interesting about this book, and upon further research, is that there is almost no evidence to support the effectiveness of standardized testing. Kohn states, “The controlling top-down push for higher standards may actually produce a lower quality of education, precisely because its tactics constrict the means by which teachers most successfully inspire students engagement in learning and commitment to achieve.”

Steve Hargadon recently interviewed Alfie Kohn in the Future of Education interview series. You can find the recording at

The book really brings you back to the fundamental question: What is the purpose of education?

Interested to hear your thoughts.