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Learning at its Best

Have U.S. Students Fallen Victim to Self-Fulfilling Prophecies?

I was reminded of an interesting tidbit the other day about the Finnish school system in one of the education news emails I receive the other day. This information has been out for a while, but these two sentences stood out for me during my most recent re-read:

Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other.”

Then, I remember the Goslin & Glass study on the social effects of Standardized Testing from 1967 that opened with, “An individual’s self-conception, at least in the United States, strongly depends on his evaluation of his intellectual abilities.”

Then, I think about the messages that American children are fed via the media, their parents, their teachers and, eventually, from their peers that in order to be successful in America, you must attend college.

Which got me to thinking…could we be inadvertently creating self-fulfilling prophecies in our youth and international rankings when our intention is to do the opposite?

The definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as defined by Wikipedia, is “in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true’…In other words, a prophecy declared as truth when it is actually false may sufficiently influence people, either through fear or logical confusion, so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false prophecy. ”

Think of what this does to our kids.

For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to leave out the self-fulfilling prophecies that we know exists in many of our underprivileged kids who, because of their family’s financial position, start to believe—in many cases, before they take the first standardized test in 2nd grade—that they won’t ever be successful because they don’t have the means to go to college. Or the period in high school when many kids realize—sometimes for the first time—that their parents cannot afford to send them to college and they are left with the choice of saddling themselves with an enormous amount of financial aid/debt to put themselves through university or entering the workforce without a college degree. A choice that they have had burned on their brain since they were in diapers means societal perception of an individual’s success or failure. But I digress…

So, all of the people and entities that kids look up to as authorities have been hammering home the message of “college attendance = success” since the child was in diapers.

Fast-forward to second grade, when mandatory assessment testing begins in public schools. The kids have their current impressionable mindset amplified as they start to believe they are a part of the “unsuccessful” group because of (1) their own test scores versus those of their peers, (2) messages they start receiving from their teachers as a result of these tests, and (3) whispers from parents about their enrollment in “low-performing” schools.

Lather, rinse and repeat for each consecutive year until the SATs—the “mother of all tests”—when kids are handed another score. A score which has been associated since I attended school more than 20 years ago not just as a predictor of which college you could potentially attend, but a predictor of potential success in life.

If you look at state assessment reports broken out by grade levels (2-6; 7-8; 9-11), the scores continue to fall as the students progress through school.

I really wonder what would happen if we once again postponed mandatory assessment testing until middle or high school. Would our scores start to rise as we put a damper on students’ self-fulfilling prophecies? I think so…how about the rest of this group?

To our kids’ collective success,
Jen Lilienstein

About Jen Lilienstein - Founder,

Helping parents and teachers develop more intrinsically motivated learners by celebrating and embracing kids' unique multiple intelligence strengths, personality types and predominant cognitive styles.


4 thoughts on “Have U.S. Students Fallen Victim to Self-Fulfilling Prophecies?

  1. I think your assessment of schools and tests’ impacts on children is spot on, and that even before standardized testing we built most of the schools we have to achieve this effect.

    Our schools are very much sorting mechanisms. Let’s say we remove mandatory testing. What else needs to change in how schools operate before our children believe that they belong in community with one another?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 8, 2011, 8:32 pm
    • Chad – I would love to see schools take an alternate route on “tracking” students by empowering the stronger students in certain subjects to help the struggling students along instead of separating them into different classes or study groups. I’ve watched as eldest siblings at home in play groups and in my own home accelerate a learning curve for the younger ones without even realizing that’s what they were doing.

      My perspective is, if it happens from the early grades, we have a chance to not have such a chasm between the students socially or academically. They’ll be able to see how the students that are struggling may be approaching the challenge from a different perspective that broadens their own view…or be on opposite sides of the table in a different subject area.

      It would be great to have the kids practice cooperating vs. competing as much as possible, since this skill set is used much more frequently in the real world–at home and at work. Obviously, some intervention will be needed occasionally by adult “experts”, but this approach should allow the majority of the burden to shift from the teacher trying to help as many students as possible learn the subject in question to helping the students learn to become better teachers, listeners and communicators. A skill they’ll need more and more frequently as they progress through elementary, secondary and university schooling…and on into the “real world”.

      What do you think?

      Posted by kidzmet | October 10, 2011, 9:43 am
      • I’d love to see schools open up spaces like Monika’s or Mike Ritzius’s to see how kids group themselves around learning and inquiry and interest. I think we ought to gear our intervention toward helping kids learn to negotiate differences, which takes a lot of patience and letting go – as a parent and teacher, both, I have to resist the urge to intervene early and often in others’ relationships. I should act like the anti-lock brakes, not the guy who holds the key.

        I think part of the reason kids struggle is because we ask them to learn certain things a certain way in a certain amount of time; if we could be more responsive to what kids want to learn when, I’m confident we could teach a lot of skills through student-directed educations.

        I think tracking is wrong – it’s a systemic ill we can resist, though it’s costly to do so. Create an education system that lets kids all learn from one another – everyone has strengths; everyone struggles – and uses time and adult expertise to provide customized access to learning for kids having difficulty with it. If we change the way we do business, we remove the “obstacles” we often cite as reasons not to take the time to build community and tailor learning to individuals’ needs.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | October 10, 2011, 9:52 am
  2. I agree with your assessment as well. I’d love to see mandatory testing postponed as late as possible, even high school and even then NOT high stakes. In truth I wouldn’t mind seeing those tests completely dine away with, think of all the money we’d save.

    Posted by Alfonso Gonzalez | October 9, 2011, 11:14 pm

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