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Learning at its Best

10 Reasons the Tests Are Lowering Our Standards

we’re creating shallow zombies in the name of high standards

Often, the proponents of the drill-and-kill testing environment hold up the banner of “high standards” as a rationale for excessive testing. I disagree with this premise entirely. Here are ten reasons most tests lead to lower standards:

  1. Extrinsic Motivation: Kids will work hard to learn, because they are naturally curious. When we replace this with an extrinsic motivation, it moves to economic norms, where they learn to do the least possible work for the highest results. A kid learns that it’s okay to do a half-ass job if a D is still passing. Similarly, high achievers are often allowed to skate by complacently with good scores. That kind of mentality isn’t present if a student is excited about learning.
  2. Cramming: If I ask a student to learn something today and expect that student to remember tomorrow, a month from now and at the end of the year, the student will probably remember it. However, ask the same student to learn the information for the test on Thursday and it becomes easy to cram and forget.
  3. Time Is Wasted: I visited a campus on Friday, figuring I might see some time-wasters. Maybe a crossword puzzle for good behavior or PAT time. Instead, as I walked through the halls, I saw entire grade levels of students silently taking a test on information that could have been assessed in an ongoing way throughout the week. I’ve written about this before. My students spend seven weeks  (almost a quarter) of the year taking tests. The test is longer than the Bar Exam or the MCATs. It’s insane.
  4. Low-Level Thinking: Most tests are multiple choice. These tests, by design, do not assess what a student knows. Instead, they test what a student fails to recognize if he or she isn’t guessing correctly. True assessment requires deeper critical thinking and avoids sloppy guesswork.
  5. Slow Feedback: Students should be able to have instant feedback regarding how well they did. However, in an effort to avoid cheating, most students are not allowed to self-grade and reflect upon their learning. It can be a week or two before they get a test back.  The best kind of assessment is the type that allows a student to think about his or her learning in order to adjust as a result.
  6. Excuse for Avoiding Formative Assessment: I am shocked when a teacher says, “They did poorly on the pretest and now I’m shocked that they bombed the test.” Really? How does that happen that a teacher can’t figure out if a student is mastering a standard?
  7. The Bell Curve and Other Deflators: I remember being a student and hoping that the whole class bombed the test, because low scores along around meant the teacher would curve it and I would receive a B instead of a C.
  8. The Wrong Feedback: Tests typically focus on an overall grade rather than the mastery of a standard. Thus, there are two things vying for a student’s attention: the grade and the learning. Often a student doesn’t get to retake a test or find a different method to demonstrate mastery. Meanwhile, the qualitative, customized feedback is often missing from this type of assessment.  And yet, it is this customized feedback that leads to higher standards of learning.
  9. Risk Aversion: Learning involves taking risks. You can’t have high standards without a certain level of risk-taking. Most tests are designed to not only discourage failure but encourage a certain fear of failure.
  10. Complacent Teaching: If we say that a multiple-choice test is our only method of testing, we send the message that different learning styles and preferences make no difference. It becomes totally acceptable to move away from the notion of no child being left behind and instead pushing all students into the same myopic view of success. In the process, teachers have the permission to ignore the “lower level” students and focus on those who are “on the bubble.” We’re watering down our professional standard in the name of higher standards.
visual credit: Yep, that’s my sketch. I drew it during AIMS week orientation a few years ago.

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John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


14 thoughts on “10 Reasons the Tests Are Lowering Our Standards

  1. Despite the fact that the MAPS test gives you specific data very quickly, I don’t see the child doing the work. They just click the mouse on the answer they want. If they don’t answer a question correctly, the test gives me no idea why. When I teach, i hear the thinking and see the process. I can respond and extend learning immediately. As a special education teacher I spent half a day for 6 weeks already this year giving tests in pairs or individually – time lost teaching and learning. With the increase in testing time, I know my students less well because of all the time that goes to testing and data analysis. Give me back my teaching time!!

    Posted by Nancy Mueller | February 6, 2012, 12:23 am
  2. Excellent post. Would that insight such as this – common knowledge to any teacher – trickled up to the decision makers in Washington. In their rush to appear as though they care about education, they overlook and deny the actual strategies that will encourage and enhance deep learning.

    Posted by Julie Dalley | February 6, 2012, 10:01 am
    • I wish people could see that. I wish they would listen. People say that this is an echo chamber, but it’s only because no one wants this perspective breaking into the vacuum.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | February 6, 2012, 6:07 pm
  3. Yes 10 times.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 6, 2012, 12:11 pm
  4. We talk about all the things wrong with our educational system, but I want to know a few things: What can regular teachers do about it? How can we make the best out of what we have already and/or change the system to do what it SHOULD be doing? That’s what I’d like to know. I am in college studying to be a teacher And currently work as an activity coordinator through 21st Century. I want to be able to make the best out of what I have now and what I’ll have in my own classroom and if necessary, try to change what already exists for the better. We talk about all the things wrong with the system but what are we, As teachers in our classrooms, going to do?

    Posted by Megan N Pou | February 6, 2012, 12:19 pm


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