[You will not get an argument from me against the state tests. They are well-designed by dedicated and brilliant thinkers. They accurately measure a narrow sliver of academic proficiency, assuming the child being evaluated is giving full effort on a normal day.]

These were my original thoughts when I first considered writing on this topic several years ago. In recent years, however, I have come to the conclusion that the state ELA and MATH tests are having a negative effect on students who can’t get the majority of the questions correct. Furthermore, the aforementioned group represents well more than half NY students. It an attempt to raise standards, we are fostering low self-esteem and a defeatist attitude in too many children.

Despite all the push-back from parents and teachers, the importance and use of the tests and their results remains entirely overdone in my opinion. So, rather than serving as a help to children and educators, or as a source of inspiration, they have become an obstacle to motivation, and preparation for them a source of boredom. In the quest for an enlightened education, the over-emphasis on testing has led us astray.

It can easily be argued that even the entire spectrum of intellectual ability constitutes only a small portion of human capability, and state tests only measure a fraction of that intellectual function. Brain research has shown that human intelligence is varied and complex, and that the human brain is constantly changing. Already nine distinct types of intelligence have been identified—abilities that lead to a variety of worthwhile accomplishments that enrich all our lives. Although state tests focus on a portion of linguistic and mathematical intelligence, they are being used as the report card for children and their schools. What are the dangers of this?

  • Children who don’t do well on the tests grow up feeling inadequate
  • Schools don’t get the scope to develop other forms of intelligence, in fact they fall into neglect as their importance is marginalized
  • Children who do well on the tests may not develop other areas that need improvement
  • Curriculum becomes skill oriented, boring, repetitive, drill-filled, and ultimately developmentally inappropriate
  • Politicians and taxpayers evaluate the efficacy of school fund usage solely on this narrow slice on achievement
  • The joy of, and desire for learning go under assault as scores take priority
  • Teachers find their creativity and flexibility constrained
  • Children learn a specific skill set for answering questions while failing to understand the subject matter fully
  • Seemingly endless test preparation fails to develop the subtlety and nimbleness of mind required for real life problem solving

A fuller form assessment is necessary. Sure, linguistic and mathematical aptitudes are important indicators. But should interpersonal, spatial, kinesthetic, naturalist, existential, or other types of intelligence be ignored? Are these abilities not rewarded in life, not needed in the world?

What about the intangible qualities that propel people to great deeds and achievements? Qualities such as moral development, work habits, motivation, sense of purpose in life, service, broad mindedness, and rationality? Should our energies not go into the development of such qualities?

At Progressive School we believe that academic achievement is like the luggage in the car’s trunk. To guarantee it gets to its destination, focus on the engine! The engine that drives achievement is motivation. Proper motivation can help one overcome all obstacles along the road. One of the greatest motivators is a feeling that one’s talents are needed. How can that feeling be developed if we are defining human beings in such narrow terms?

Am I exaggerating? Recently, someone asked people to twitter a one word opposite to “inspiration.” The second most frequent response was “school.” Is this what our children feel? Is this what we want them to experience?

My conclusions? Tests are good, though often unnecessarily difficult due to clumsy, mature language in the questions. The use of them is poor in numerous respects. The importance they have taken on is counterproductive. Assessment can include the current state tests, but only as a small piece in a larger mosaic. When we allow them to dominate as an assessment tool, they begin to drive curriculum. This causes us to lose sight of the big picture. In the end, both a good education and our children get shortchanged.
Now for a lighter look at testing, check out this song.