Why You're Not Learning Anything By Just Memorizing For Tests


Disgust with standardized testing is seemingly ubiquitous these days. It feels as if teachers, students and parents alike view them as a convoluted and misleading gauge for academic progress.

It's important to note the number of parents who object to standardized tests is still quite low. According to a 2013 AP poll, only 26 percent of parents believe their children take too many standardized tests.

What's notable, though, is the fact that more and more parents seem to be joining those who despise these examinations.

Objection to standardized testing is growing across the country, leading students to boycott tests with full support of their parents. This past March, in New Jersey, around 46,000 students opted out of one of these tests, and this is just one example of what is ostensibly a growing movement.

Education is complicated, in the sense that a myriad of factors impact a student's ability to perform: socioeconomics (poverty), learning disabilities, parental involvement and so much more.

From this standpoint, it's somewhat absurd we attempt to quantify a student's academic performance at all. At the same time, without measuring students' progress, we have no way of knowing if they've learned anything.

But what are we actually trying to teach them, and are standardized tests really the means of bestowing this knowledge upon them? After all, the tests are incredibly time consuming and make students so incredibly nervous that, as John Oliver recently highlighted,

Official directions for test administrators specify what to do if a student vomits on his or her test booklet. ...And something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit. Tests are supposed to be assessments of skills, not a rap battle on 8 Mile Road.

Students are under so much pressure to do well on these tests it's making them physically ill. This doesn't seem like a healthy way of preparing the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow.

In theory, standardized tests come from a good place; they were designed to measure the performance of both students and teachers in order to improve education overall.

As the Atlantic notes, they've been around since the 1970s, and anyone under the age of 40 likely recalls taking a test in some form or another. Number 2 pencils and sheets with bubbles were always the staples of these experiences.

But in the past 15 years or so, the tests have evolved and occur more frequently. This is largely a consequence of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and, more recently, Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive federal grant program.

The former was introduced by President Bush, and the latter by President Obama.

The Common Core -- academic standards adopted by over 40 states -- has also had an enormous impact on these developments.

The Common Core sets benchmarks for what students should know in language arts and math from kindergarten through 12th grade. These standards, completed in 2010, are designed to elevate America's global ranking in terms of education while preparing students for college and beyond, as Vox explains.

On the face of it, this all sounds great. It's about accountability and ensuring teachers are providing students with the tools they need to succeed in the world. Not to mention, it's no secret American students are lagging behind many of those in countries across the world.

The problem, however, is standardized tests are drastically manipulating the culture of American education, and it's because of the way these relatively new standards are being executed.

The federal government did not design the Common Core, but it has promoted it through Race to the Top in a roundabout way. Race to the Top provides funding for states that adopt certain educational standards.

The politics of this are complex, but, in a nutshell, if states implement the Common Core they get money from the federal government for doing it.

What this has created is a hyper-competitive system in which a great deal of pressure has been placed on teachers to raise performance levels on standardized tests.

Students are now trained to take tests. Instead of developing critical-thinking skills, which the Common Core is apparently designed to promote, they're learning to become test-takers by memorizing rules and standards. Meanwhile, major education companies like Pearson, who design the tests, are cashing in.

As Robert Hach, a teacher, recently wrote in an op-ed for Salon:

As standardized testing has swallowed up public education in the US in the twenty-first century... students have largely become test-takers. As a result, their minds have been increasingly downsized to the mental equivalent of shrunken heads. The primary reason that testing is, in truth, opposed to learning — learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge through understanding — is that when students regurgitate memorized information, they are unable to digest it — that is, to process it into knowledge through understanding. The very act of memorizing is a substitute for understanding, which is the key to retaining (as in learning) information. To memorize information for a test in order to repeat information on the test inevitably results in forgetting the information after the test.

Think back to high school. You can likely remember preparing for standardized tests, but do you really recall learning anything during that time?

In the same way we don't really develop knowledge by cramming information into our heads the night before an exam and regurgitating it the next morning, standardized testing is upending what it means to receive an education.

Pauline Hawkins, an educator from New Hampshire, recently resigned from a teaching position in Colorado. Upon doing so, she penned a poignant and important but disturbing letter:

I have sweet, incredible, intelligent children sitting in my classroom who are giving up on their lives already. They feel that they only have failure in their futures because they've been told they aren't good enough by a standardized test. I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher -- I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. The emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students.

This is beyond disheartening. An education is meant to be enriching. It's the gateway toward a fuller and happier life. At the moment, however, it seems as if America's public schools are doing the complete opposite, making it no wonder our country's students are falling behind their peers across the world.

Perhaps we should follow Finland's lead, where there is no standardized testing whatsoever. Unlike the United States, Finland's education system is consistently at the top of international rankings, and its students perform far better than America's on math, reading and science year after year.

Finland's approach to education is driven by a whatever-it-takes mentality, in which more focus is placed on a school's progress as a whole than the performance of individual teachers.

Learning is not a competition for them, but a matter of social good and progress.

America could learn a great deal from Finland's example.

When education becomes uniform, like a product manufactured in a factory, it stifles creativity and kills all interest in learning. Curiosity is what drives people toward knowledge. There is no appeal to pursue enlightenment when it is neatly packaged and urged forward by competition rather than for its inherent value.

Something obviously has to change, and relinquishing this excessive reliance on standardized tests would be a good start.

Citations: Standardized Testing (Last Week Tonight), What Happens When Students Boycott a Standardized Test (The Atlantic ), Mounting refusals to take state tests could hurt NJs federal aid (North Jersey), 11 problems created by the standardized testing obsession (The Washington Post), Why I hate standardized tests A teachers take on how to save public education (Salon ), 5 surprising things everyone should know about standardized tests (Vox), NATIONAL EDUCATION SURVEY (AP), Everything you need to know about the Common Core (Vox), Race to the Top What Have We Learned from the States So Far (Center for American Progress), My Resignation Letter (Pauline Hawkins), Bush Obama focus on standardized testing leads to opt out parent movement (The Washington Post), No profit left behind (Politico ), US Students Slide In Global Ranking On Math Reading Science (NPR), Testing Overload (Center for American Progress)