Testing carried too far?

In Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Sir Ken Robinson astutely makes the case that unless we understand the education system that the future demands of us, then our efforts to create testing systems will not prepare us for that future.  


He points to the increasingly rapid rate of technological change that is driving cultures around the world and changing the needs of the workplace, pointing out that employers “want people who can think intuitively, who are imaginative and innovative, who can communicate well, work in teams, and are flexible, adaptable and self-confident.  The traditional academic curriculum is simply not designed to produce such people.”

In the midst of perusing Robinson’s book, I read today with dismay that the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges in partnership with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities has announced a new “voluntary system of accountability” or VSA for colleges(most likely to avoid this being legislated like public schools have endured).  

The accountability system will standardize several aspects of college information, some of which I don’t disagree with one way or another, like better information about costs, student and family information, etc.  

But, and this is the part I find appalling, the colleges will require students to take one of several standardized tests across all academic disciplines to measure student progress. (Basically, the Texas TAKS test has come to colleges.) 

Colleges participating have four years to figure out how to administer the test before they have to publicly report the scores.   Granted, this is a voluntary accountability system, but some 200 major universities(including University of Texas) are participating, and it is likely this will pressure private colleges to participate as well.

Two of the tests are prepared by or administered by ACT or SAT, according to an article in the Baltimore Sun, and most of the testing choices consist of multiple choice tests.   Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar voices the concern which mirrors Ken Robinson’s:

“How do you measure citizenship?. . . “How do you measure values? How do you measure inspiring a spirit of lifelong learning?”

The dean of John Hopkins University, Adam Falk concurs:

“The more we rely on standardized testing as our bellwether for the quality of education, the more we will value in education only those things that can be measured on standardized tests.”

This is exactly what Sir Ken Robinson writes about, as we continue to use a strategy from the past(multiple choice, standardized tests of traditional skills) to measure what we will need in the future.

He writes,

“Education and training are meant to be the long-term answer for all of those asking how they are to survive the coming turbulence.  But they will not provide the answer while we continue to misunderstand the question that this new revolution is presenting.” (p. 24) 

and further:

“These standards were designed for other times and for other purposes.  We will not navigate through the complex environment of the future by peering relentlessly into a rear view mirror.”(p. 16)

Yet once again, we have failed students because we are failing to understand what is needed and what lies ahead, and the way we are measuring them doesn’t apply to the needs of the future.  Here’s the multiple choice test we should be giving them, because at least it speaks to their futures:


I’m a parent, and I don’t want my son to attend a college where the way they assess what he has gained in college is a standardized, multiple-choice test, because I want more than that for him.   I want him to explore, find his way, cultivate the passions he discovers along the way, and to feel free to do that.  I wouldn’t think of assessing a college by how many students there passed a standardized multiple choice test. 

There’s some notion this whole movement comes from parents who are eager to intervene and compare colleges in some scientific manner, when at best, choosing a college is a personal decision for each student.  In fact, most parents I know are tired of testing, tired of having their children subjected to test prep curriculums, skill drills, and frustrated with the system, not clamoring for more.  I have heard in dismay as parents talk about how to better prepare their children for the tests, not for learning or deeper thinking, because that’s where the emphasis is, which saddens me.

Because at heart, all of us know it is not best for children.  Do we want to be sure all of our children are learning?  Yes, we do.   Learning.  All of them, in every school, everywhere, deserve that.  

But learning, as Ken Robinson points out so eloquently, is so much more than you can test on a standardized test, and my fear too, is that colleges also, will value what is tested, rather than testing what is valued.

How have we gotten so far away from what is meaningful assessment in education?



6 thoughts on “Testing carried too far?

  1. AUGH! I had heard about Spellings’ desire to implement higher ed testing but had no idea someone would actually DO it. What I loathe about this concept is the use of the word “accountability” as if somehow nobody was accountable before!!! And whose accountability are we talking about… the students, or the professors?

    The best anecdote I have is from my own life… three YEARS after I took a philosophy class, I found all the principles I learned there gelling with everything I was learning in my major. All the thinking muscles I’d developed in that class had finally become a habit of mind. Immediately at the end of the class, I was frustrated and my brain ached and I hated everything – it was an opaque and confusing process. But later on, it came together for me. I continue to benefit from that professor and her class.

    How on EARTH will universities measure that sort of breakthrough?

  2. Oh, Carolyn – this is appalling.

    Our district does very well on NY State ELA (English Language Arts) tests in the lower elementary grades, not very well on the middle school assessments. Our students don’t wake up “dumber” after a few years. The skills the test measures are not the skills they need to be successful. And as a scorer, I can tell you that the bar is set very low indeed on some of these tests: if a student writes a single word of intelligible English, even if that word makes no sense in the context of the question, a “1”, rather than a “0” must be awarded as the score (on a range of 0 – 4). The tests fail to adequately assess correct grammar and usage; critical thinking, collaboration, communication don’t even enter into the equation.

    Education seem to have conveniently forgotten the technology component of NCLB. We are testing the wrong skills with the wrong tools. Our standards are out of date and out of synch with the world as it is today. Will we ever get it straight?

  3. In a weird coincidence, I just noticed that my random quote of the day is this:

    Quote of the Day
    You can never plan the future by the past.
    Edmund Burke


  4. I find this appalling too. Seems we make two babysteps forward towards progess and then two GIANT steps backwards. Lets just blame NCLB. The gov’t just LOVES numbers, and a standardized test will give them that. Creativity and original thought or problem-solving cannot be assessed. My oldest son selected his college based on the fact that they would IMMERSE him in his field major–video and animation, which is heavily reliant on creativity. Now I need to find out if his school (DePaul U) will require this assessment. He despises these kinds of tests. But he’s much more in tune with his creative side.

  5. In 2004, Edutopia published http://www.edutopia.org/muddle-machine” that explained how textbook editors design curriculum. During this time, I was working with ESC Region 15 in San Angelo, TX and the 8th grade social studies teachers were concerned about how they teach to the TAKS (the test) and which TEKS (the standards) they needed to cover. What they found out is that the TEKS are spread out over 3 years so they don’t have to teach all of the TEKS for the grade level each year. In working with the specialists from the ESC, we were hoping teachers would design PBL activities that encouraged students to use inquiry, do research, collaborate, etc. I can guarantee that today a few of these teachers are teaching to the test only. Innovation only happens behind closed doors today with a few teachers who are willing to take risks. Or at a school where the administrator encourages creativity.

    I worked with urban school districts in the San Francisco bay area where teachers learned PBL. Then NCLB and accountability issues. Open Court even had an accountability program who visited the schools each week to see if the teachers were on page 262 on Thursday and the bulletin boards had to reflect what was being taught and tested. Veteran teachers are leaving – frustrated. This is not what they signed up for. New teachers (and parents and administrators) in the school system for the last 5 years only know this type of teaching practice. I talked to some very educated parents from the Oakland hills who think this is the right way to teach their students. In some of these really poor schools (where we don’t want to leave any kids behind) there are no more class sets of books unless the teachers purchase them.

    So now standardized tests in universities. I work with several universities. Let’s be real. This is not going to work. That is unless you teach the faculty to all think alike. They don’t. I’m working with a several faculty at one university who are all teaching the same course. They worked together to design the curriculum. However, they have their own teaching styles: some use Web 2.0 tools, others are still stand and deliver lecturers. There are some that give multiple choice tests but most ask their students to do research, write a paper, create a presentation, etc.

    I am hoping this testing and accountability movement changes to encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, inquiry, and creativity, so we get back to real learning.

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