K-12 Standardized Testing Craze Hinders Enthusiasm And Creativity For The Long Haul

Our guest author today is Bill Scheuerman, professor of political science at the State University of New York, Oswego and a retired president of the United University Professions. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

A recent study by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Esther Cho, entitled Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project, should make us all take a closer look at student learning in higher education. The report finds that students enter college with values at odds with academic achievement. They party more and work less, but this lack of effort has had little or no effect on grade point averages. The study indicates that some 36 percent of current college graduates did not improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills, despite having relatively high GPAs. In other words, more than a third of new graduates lack the ability to understand and critically evaluate the world we live in.

Nobody is arguing that we should go back to the good old days when college access was limited to the elite. Politicians and business are united in the goal of the United States once again attaining the highest percentage of college graduates in the world.

Notably, in the face of rising global competition from China and India, President Obama has called this the "Sputnik moment" for math and science education in the U.S.

Among the authors’ recommendations, I see these four as most crucial:

  • improved elementary and secondary school student preparation;
  • strong leadership in higher education to foster an institution-wide culture of learning;
  • enhanced curriculum and instruction associated with academic rigor;
  • faculty that have high standards and expectations for their students.
How can K-12 teachers better prepare students for college as long as they are required to teach to the test? From their earliest days in grade school through high school graduation, thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind, students have learned that learning is all about how to perform on standardized tests. Exploration and creativity are not encouraged or rewarded. Since that’s how success for students, teachers, and schools is defined, the K-12 curricula focus on this goal – limiting students’ exposure to many thought-provoking topics, while taking much of the fun out of learning. For instance, my eight-year-old granddaughter likes to write poetry and little stories, but I notice that she doesn’t have time anymore because she’s always preparing for her next standardized test. By the time students get to college, the thrill and adventure of learning is often gone. Why are we surprised when the key question college students usually ask is some version of "will it be on the test?" rather than trying to understand the world or critically evaluate a complex idea.

The other three recommendations are laudable and essential, but just look at the forces working against them. In higher ed, recruitment and retention is the name of the game, particularly as the economy worsens and state legislatures demand more and more accountability as they cut funding. And how do they measure accountability? By graduation rates. So how do colleges recruit students? By giving them what they say they want: job preparation. The concept of learning for learning’s sake is not what drives college enrollments. Not surprisingly, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that business is by far the most popular undergraduate major. The Improving Undergraduate Learning report noted that, compared to other majors, business majors performed the most poorly on critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills. The authors of the study attribute this to the fact that business majors are required to do the least reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the authors consider more emphasis on reading and writing skills as essential to academic rigor and higher expectations. Under current legislative thinking, public institutions in my state of New York would risk getting beat up on two fronts for instituting such academic rigor – first, more students would likely enroll elsewhere, and second, legislators are likely to start holding back dollars, because more students would have to stay in school longer to meet the increased requirements.

This report says we need tougher standards and that’s a real good thing. But these standards are unattainable as long as we have the kind of standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind and public funding practices that treat colleges like degree factories.


Standardized testing gives one correct answer, one nearly correct, and two others very wrong. In the coming years, will the brain remember which is which, and will it care?
How does getting a "proficient" on a multiple choice test have anything to do with the life a child will live 14 years later? This is insane.

I figured this out. Merit pay based on standardized testing. There are 180 days in a school year, which equals 1,080 hours of school each year (based on 6 hours a day, and I haven't minused the 20 minutes for morning recess, and 40 minutes for lunch). Now, look to how many hours the standardized testing takes, upon which a student's entire future is measured and a teacher's merit pay would be calculated: it's 6 hours of testing, one hour a day for 6 days. Does this make any sense at all?