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Alfie Kohn is mad about tests. And I don’t mean he likes them.

This Saturday at the 2006 Language and Learning Conference at George Mason University sponsored by the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I had the guilty pleasure of hearing the iconoclastic progressive firebrand assault the paradigm under which all of us who teach today in public schools or who buy into any notion of “accountability” (read pols and the public) are complicit. Equal parts Woody Allen, Clarence Darrow, and John Dewey, Kohn waxed eloquent and often hilarious for four hours without notes or powerpoint on the evil effects of a system that valorizes standardized tests, grades and what he called “verbal doggy biscuits” (ever scribble ‘Good job!’ in the margin of a kid’s paper?) above actual learning.

Here are five problematic effects of an achievement-focused culture, as Kohn sees it.
1. Kids lose interest. Learning becomes a chore, not a way of approaching the world: “If you’re using the right glasses,” said Kohn, “you can see learning evaporate” in environments where kids are taught that its point is not to figure stuff out but only to get better. Don’t blame the grade-grubbers for their behavior, exhorts Kohn. Ask what are the structural aspects of schools and classrooms that promulgate the “toxic message of competition.” For starters, try tests, grades, and honor rolls (and don’t get him started on the bumper stickers).
2. Kids stop trying. Behaviorism, rants Kohn, has taken over not only education but parenting. When we focus only on what we can see and measure, we lose sight of the whole child, who comes complete with a messy but rich interior world in which decision-making is driven by values and thoughts that are not readily measured by star-charts or bubble-sheets. Whether kids succeed or fail, they can explain the results in four ways: effort, luck, ability, or task difficulty. Both the kid who gets a 100% and the one who gets an F tend to infer that the results are due to fixed ability and not effort in a carrot/stick world. Not putting in effort that won’t be rewarded is the rational conclusion.
3. Kids don’t challenge themselves. Citing a mid-20th century management guru, Kohn argues that compliance with a results-driven system again fosters its own “rational” behavior. Actors quickly come to realize that risk-taking is not rewarded, but playing it safe is. When the teacher says to choose any book for a free-choice reading unit (my example), why choose one that’s challenging or difficult when it’s easier-- and you’ll get a better grade-- if you choose one that’s simple, or, better yet, that you’ve already read back in middle school.
4. Kids are thrown by failure. Instead of resilience in the face of an uncharacteristic B+, the child used to getting 100s on quizzes responds with vague panic. Our well intentioned teacherly platitudes only serve to reinforce the zero-sum game, scolds Kohn. “92 is still a good grade,” or, “You’ll do better next time,” both underscore the notion that numerically evaluated performance is a worthwhile end in itself, and, even more damaging, an end that earns the ultimate reward: teacher approval. This as opposed to extending our approval unconditionally. To avoid psychic violence and ultimately create kids who learn for its own sake, the subtext from teachers and parents should properly be, “I validate you as a learner and a person regardless of your performance on any task or test.”
5. Kids do worse. The quality of thinking declines under the tyranny of a results-oriented, bottom line system. “Stupid standardized tests,” a term Kohn quips is redundant, may measure some improvement in so-called achievement when kids are forced on a long march to the endless drumbeat of “Raise those scores,” but ultimately, smarter indices show that quality suffers. Citing study after study, Kohn shows that kids are, for example, less likely to ask for help in a system where you’re supposed to be smart. And they’re less likely to make deep connections, take risks, and unify knowledge across disciplines under conditions that are typical in test-driven schools.

Kohn’s five points are a grim indictment of our NCLB times, but also an inspirational jolt for real world teachers, many of whom may recognize their best practice as striving towards Kohn’s ideals. Tune in next week for more of my brain on Alfie, including an attempt to say how he’d view the quest for NBPTS gold. Until then, as Kohn closed: Respond to the outrageous... with outrage!


Give me a break. Another teaching whining about test scores? Next thing you know, they'll be whining about the audacity of parents demanding some level of accountability from teachers. Newsflash: the real world is a tough, competitive place, and not an ivory tower where subjective standards don't apply. Not grading or scoring our children does them an immense disservice. Am I supposed to just trust my childrens' teachers to measure their progress? What subjective basis should I use to make sure that their teachers are competent to make that judgement?

In answer to your question "What subjective basis should I use to make sure that their teachers are competent to make that judgement [sic]?" I ask you, what subjective basis do you use to make sure that your doctor, dentist, lawyer, accountant, etc. are competent to make the judgments that they make as professionals?

Oh oh...

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants take rigorous exams to enter the profession and practice their craft. Look at the bar exam passrates. Many who take the exams do not pass or practice. The same goes for CPA exams.

Teachers do not have the same type of entry exam. And no, the Praxis is not at the same standards as the bar exams. For the most part, bad tenured teachers are very protected and insulated from removal. Unions discourage differentiated pay that is not based on years of service only.

This is not meant against teachers- it's just the nature of the profession....

So, in the absense of rigorous initial certification or a profession that weeds out the ineffective, the public wants another guarantee.

Standardized tests that all students take have an important role in education. The public needs some sort of comparison to know that their school is performing at an acceptable level.

Of course test scores should not be the sole emphasis of education, but until schools or academians in the ivory tower can offer a better method of comparions or "guarantee" that students are learning at an appropriate rate, standardized tests are here to stay.

It's easy to criticize, it's hard to offer alternatives. And advocating and implementing alternatives against a slow bureaucracy from within does not get you on the lecture circuit.

As a teacher of nearly thirty years, I am tired of the comparision to other professions... so some rants.

1. I am a vocational instructor, students elect to take my classes, I must sell them. Basically my classes must be easy, or fun, or the students must see value. I prefer the later course with a little of the second. If I set the standards to high, no enrollment followed by RIF (reduction in force). Most students have the capacity and ability and will work toward reasonable standards if they are validated. Help me answer the question "why should I do this?".

2. I can be replaced by someone with an Associates degree and 2000 hours of work experiance or someone with no degree and 6000 hours of experiance. (Provisional vocational certificates are exempt in our state from any testing or professional development requirements)

3. As much as I dislike the idea of standardized testing, I realize their role in today's society. They do not need to be a limiting factor. One solution that parents need to consider would be that passing the standardized test is average. Pass the test, get a C. Don't pass, fail. Passing a standardized test should not insure that the student gets into a college or university.

4. Other professions have a reasonable expectation that their clients will perform. I should have a reasonable expectation that my students will perform...do the assigned readings, not miss class time to vacation with their family, turn in projects and homework.

5. I am fully aware that part of my job is to equip students with basic skills, math, science, communication, social skills etc. I am equipped to do that and will...I have a university degree and many hours of workshops and graduate training that helps me in these areas. I build my classes with these things in mind and point them out to the students and any others interested, yet without some protection pressured administration can replace me with a less expensive person who may have never been exposed to an Algebra class. (See #3).

6. I would welcome teaming with my student's acedemic instructors to work for a complete package, and I know that the other compared professions (doctors, lawyers, etc.) do that. Compensate me for my time and effort.

7. As a teacher I am not afraid of some type of evaluation based upon my performance, in fact I have enough confidence to welcome it. Just give me the benchmarks to perform to. Include in the benchmarks reasonable expectations for all parties (see # 4). If I perform well make the rewards comparable to the other professions.

Finally, we are judging performance, make it mean something to students in the real-world. If a business is hiring a student (almost all of my students have jobs) check their school attendence. Check their records, make the choices they make, the grades they get, the classes they take mean something now. If they move on to post secondary education don't give them crutches (remedial work) that allows them to make up for their poor performance in my classes. If I am at fault ok...but if they didn't perform don't blame me.


First, thank you for correcting my spelling of the word judgement. I am Canadian, however, and the spelling I used is indeed correct by both Canadian and British standards.

Second, surely you see the differences between the professions you listed and teaching. In case you don't, let me point a few of them out to you. Generally, doctors / lawyers / accountants are selected by the user, and paid directly by the user. If the user doesn't like them, or their services, the user can fire them. Teachers are assigned (at least in the public school system), paid with public funds, and difficult to fire.

Finally, you're missing the point. The author is suggesting that grades and standardized tests be eliminated. My problem with this is that I don't know how you would measure progress of students without these benchmarks. Do I rely on the judgement of a teacher? The same teachers who often pass students who lack the fundamental skills to compete in the world? Standardized tests are stressed, in part, because they help to eliminate the difficulties in comparing performance of students by grades alone, since the grades are very subjectively applied, depending on the teacher.

Incidentally, you also didn't address my other core issue -- aren't we doing our children a disservice by not grading or scoring them, since the world is a performance-based environment?


Let me relate some recent experiences: My wife just took on a job as coordinator for a new Science Resource Center in our local school system. Compared to previous jobs (public universities,for example), she described it as "working for a third-world country." Nearly everything must be scrounged from somewhere--including her computer that is too old to run software that is compatible with current technology. She took a big pay cut to take the job, which was OK because it's so important, but the reason was that her salary is already higher than that of the teachers. She was asked to prepare a budget for the next two years, and in accordance with her prior 30 years' experience, put in a 3% cost-of-living increase. That wasn't allowed--"we don't get raises here," she was told. In the last 8 years, the teachers have received a total raise of 0.5%, given in a fit of generosity.

In general, teachers are treated poorly. They are ill paid, and apparently, not given raises that others take for granted. They constantly hear complaints about how they lack the competence to teach, about how the public should not "rely on the judgement of a teacher." They live in a world of constant stress from angry parents whose children got poor grades for poor performance--so the parents blame the teachers, usually loudly.

Oddly enough, college students seem to know about this. Usually, the best and brightest seek other majors, and other careers. The ones who do choose education majors are either less able students themselves, or (and usually) tremendously dedicated to children's education. Those who make it into the schools are the best and most dedicated from this group. Many of them leave the profession within 5 years, having been beaten down by the system.

Now let's add some more interesting observations:

Students that come out of our School of Education are very well prepared. They enter the classroom full of energy and wonderful, innovative learning strategies. They start to implement these strategies--ones that current research on teaching and learning has shown really work, and educate "the whole child," just as we want.

Then they run up against the standardized tests.

Their principles, or superintendants, or maybe even federal law, tell them that they aren't interested in these innovative teaching methods. What matters is having the students do well on the tests. In science (which is my area as a university professor), they are told to dispense with silly things like "how we know," and focus on the vocabulary, because that's what's on the test.

So our students graduate from high school, knowing how to define words like meiosis, transcription, hypolimnion, and moment of inertia. But no one has ever suggested to them that they might someday want to look at actual information (say, sea-surface temperatures over the last 100 years), and compare it to other actual information (say, the frequency of category 5 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico), and try to solve actual problems, based on the information. If SOMEONE had done this, besides just the science geeks, we would have known better than to destroy the wetlands south of New Orleans; we would have known better than to build the canals that funneled the storm surge right into the city; we would have known better than to rely on levies that weren't built to specifications in the first place. We might also have a clue about what to expect in the next 10-20 years, and not be surprised when it happens.

Study after study has shown that high-stakes testing replaces learning with short-term memorization of vocabulary and algorithms. Even with teachers who know the subject well, and who know how to teach it well, the tests force them to teach differently. They must teach SOMETHING ELSE than their actual subject, because that's what the tests test.

Now, theoretically at least, having high standards and accurate assessment should, indeed, enable us to determine how well students are learning what they should learn. They should enable us to keep track of how well the teachers are doing. BUT, that requires accurate assessment. If the tests measure the wrong thing (i.e. inaccurate assessment), then they actually make things worse.

As a consultant for our state's Department of Education, and thus an evaluator of the proposed NCLB science test for high school, I can confidently report that the tests that have been designed so far, measure the wrong thing. They may measure what non-scientists (including many students' parents) think the tests should measure, but it's not science. Students who do well on such a test will probably have trouble in college, and--as we know from experience--require extensive retraining if they take jobs in the fast-growing Life Sciences industry.

So...you're right: the world is a performance-based environment. But "performance" requires thinking, creativity, and innovation. It's not enough to spit back memorized facts. That's not performance; it's merely copying what someone else has already done.

This may not be a popular sentiment in this forum, but one reason that standardized tests are so in demand by so many parents is that so many teachers are so truly mediocre. The problem is not that too many students are graduating knowing how to define meiosis but not the process of to think. The problem is that too many students are graduating knowing neither definitions of words, nor how to think. Given the mediocre level of teachers, I'd rather have them at least teach vocabulary than teach nothing.

Margo (and anyone else)

As a teacher, I can tell you that in most states, since about 20 years ago (I became a teacher 11 years ago), teachers no longer are "life-certified." That is, in order to stay certified, I must take courses for the rest of my career. In addition, sometime in the last 20 years, most states enacted a testing process. (And, it's not just a "Praxis" test - not that I am personally familiar with that test - each teacher must take exams in his/her areas of certification. With NCLB, if you want to teach geology, you must be tested/certified in geology, not just science. If you want to teach calculus, you must be tested/certified in calculus/high school math - not just general high school curriculum.)

So, like lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, we are held accountable for what we know, and are supposed to know. We also must work to stay certified - unlike many other professions, we cannot just continue to teach, we must continue to take classes and learn.

As a teacher, I am offended by the statement "so many teachers are so truly mediocre." It may be true that many teachers are truly worn out by the demands that are put on them by students, parents, and administrators - so many demands that go beyond teaching our curriculum. A mediocre teacher won't survive all of these demands - which is why we lose so many teachers in the first five years - we are a profession with a high attrition rate.

However, any teacher in the last 10 years has come into teaching because it's what he/she _wants_ to do, not because we get summers and holidays off. Summers and holidays are not worth the extra stress put on us as a teacher. Plus, I'm not paid for the weeks I don't teach. Yes, you can stretch your pay over 52 weeks (if your district allows), but that means you pull some of the salary earned from the school year into the summer.

I'm going to end here, because I think I'm starting to rant. However, I will end with this. I teach, because I love teaching. I'm a NBCT (National Certified Teacher), because I want to teach well.


We should also remember that 'testing' is not necessarily synonymous with 'assessment.' Both Kohn and John Dewey would support more authentic methods for measuring learning than anything attached to a scantron form. For example, I use student writing portfolios in my own classroom, and I ask students to reflect on what it is they've learned since, to paraphrase Dewey, all learning is personal.

Portfolio assessment is a valid and powerful means to assess student learning. If we want to standardize something, let's standardize the use of it for every student in the country.

But, alas, America is the land of mass production, and our educational institutions are no different. We need it cheaper and faster. How much money would it cost to hire readers to assess these portfolios? And how much time would it take?

Perhaps we could outsource the job to India.

I am a fairly new teacher, only three years. The first year I began teaching I found out I was not highly qualified, despite 32K in loans to specialize in a severe, critical shortage area. I teach Varying Exceptionalities, mostly SLD, in middle school. I make no more money that anyone who walks in off the stree with antkind of degree and gets a job teaching with no pedagogy classes at all. These people get two or three years to take county supplied courses to qualify as a teacher. Three years to botch a childs life, and then decide to move on. Would you want me to come in and be your lawyer with no law training? Would you want to pay me the samr thing? Am even better question is should someone come into education from another professsion and make than an experienced teacher Just because they have a masters or doctorate in another field? This is what happens here. I will have accumulated over 700 inservice hours by the end of this summer and if that were grad. classes I'd have completed the course work for a doctorate. I haven't been paud for the vast majority of that time nor am I reimbursed for the incentives and school supplies I buy for my class. Now I'm told in my state they want to give performance pay to the teachers of the top 10% or top 10% score gaining students. I'm not sure. It doesn't matter. My students will never in a million years be in that category. I and my efforts don't count. My students are already not going to try. Why try to score high. It will only leave them open to failure. They need to succeed. They need to be coaxed ot of their shells. When a student works on turning my room into the world of the book we're reading it is a success. No he may not read any better. He does know more and he has experienced sucess in classs, and in front of his peers. We lump ESE in with regular students because we want to have high expectations and we should, but we also have to give more success. These kids don't perform on tests. Even the gifted ones, Even the ones who do all the work, have caring, connected parents and even know the answers in class. The failure of these students is not theirs but the tests. I ask you Is it any wonder that the school can't keep qualified teachers? P.S. I have to sweep and mop my room if I want it done. Each teacher in my school has been assigned a week that they are reasponsible for taking students time to sweep the hall they are on. Why do teachers burn out and become mediocre? They quit hanging out at school for the extra free hours of work. They quit trying all hours of the night, to get ahold of working or noncaring parents. The benefit they don't tell you about in college is that they don't charge you for overtime they let you work all you want or need to.

I just happen to stumble upon this forum by accident. I would like to say ahead of time that my english is terrible. So please forgive me if you can't understand or become fustrated by what I say.

I'm a sophmore in college majoring in Biology. I went through years of school where the standardized tests were important. As most of the teachers here seem to know, you're right.

I went to college and cried many tears for all the D's I have gotten on my tests and lab reports. I wasn't the brightest student but I wasn't terrible. In highschool my GPA was a 3.2, in college my GPA ranges from a 2.8 to 3.0. My professors...all of my science professors stress on why things happen and what will happen in the real world. They do their hardest to make test impossible to parrot back memorized information. Of course I was screwed. I can tell you the definition but I can't tell you why things happen, how they relate or even be able to put all the things I learned together.

Those stupid tests in high school didn't prepare me for this. It took me a long long time for me to understand what my organic chemistry professor was talking about when he kept on saying "memorizing is worthless" (his favorite saying).

I just thought it would be interesting to have a student's input in here. I'm sorry if I didn't contribute anything really useful.

To "A Student"

You have contributed everything! Everything Emmet and all of the teachers reading these postings do, we do for you and because of you! Thank you for taking the time to read about the National Board process and all of our comments. I very much enjoyed and appreciated what you had to say. I wish you well as you continue to strive and succeed at university.

Isn't it sad that a student feels the need to begin and end their comments with apologies. When students don't feel they have earned the "verbal doggy biscuits" (Kohn) we teachers throw them, they become insecure learners. We shouldn't lie to children just so parents don't attack us. It is only when the students trust us that they are able to learn from us, but too often the parents become their child's lawyer instead of their parent. This is how they "show" they are interested and involved in their child's learning when really they aren't. They just want the teacher to make them smart.
The stakeholders (state & local gov.,superintendents, school boards, parents, and let's not forget Bush's "great-in-theory-but-will-never-work NCLB fiasco)in the current education system create an impossible senario in which everyone fails. Teachers' hands are tied, so they can't teach the way children learn, and children are taught from a textbook things like how to use "tricks" to remember math facts--something Maria Montessori would tell us must be discovered (not taught) in order to be retained. But we don't have time for that--the test is always just around the corner! We don't give students TIME to learn. My philosophy has always been that it is better to go a mile deep and an inch long than a mile long and an inch deep. The schools are victims of the second (testing constraints), THAT'S why kids don't learn!
My idea? Place ESL and English speakers in small Montessori-type settings (the only teaching philosopy that has continued to be successful) and allow them to progress at their own pace with teacher guidance. Studies show that ESL students cannot learn what they need to know to get out of high school in the same amount of time as a native English-speaker--and how ridiculous it is to assume so! All our kids need more time, and I don't mean increase the school day, I mean time spent doing work that relates to their individual needs. I have taught this way for 25 years and it works. I am lucky enough to have spent my career in private and parochial schools where the teachers are still allowed to teach. The ultimate goal of schools is to mold children into good citizens and adults who can compete in a global society for jobs. This will never be accomplished by creating a long line of regurgitators of information. Who are these people going into education today? Would you recommend this field to your teenager? No, they must be idealists who think they can make a difference, so hooray to them--that is the kind of person I want teaching my child. Let's just hope there are some major changes in the system before their five-year depression sets in and they quit.
If some parents didn't assume teaching their kids to tie their shoes, zip a coat, or learn all their multiplication facts at school without any help from home was totally the teacher's responsibility, we might have time to teach the meat of what they need to know.
So think again if you assume we are mediocre and don't do our jobs, because not only are we putting in a whole days work after we get home, we are teaching the kids social skills, emotional skills, listening to how thier dog died and giving emotional support. And don't forget, we love them so much that we are teaching them to tie their shoe, zip their coat, and practicing multiplication facts all while doing playground duty--and oh yea, somewhere in there ya'll, we gotta teach that test!

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Recent Comments

  • Pat Tate: Isn't it sad that a student feels the need to read more
  • Lisa: To "A Student" You have contributed everything! Everything Emmet and read more
  • A Student: I just happen to stumble upon this forum by accident. read more
  • Dotty: I am a fairly new teacher, only three years. The read more
  • Alyssa T.: We should also remember that 'testing' is not necessarily synonymous read more




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