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Standardized testing is robbing our students of wisdom

I went to kindergarten and elementary school in Mexico until the third grade, then we moved to El Paso when I started the fourth grade. It wasn’t until I moved to El Paso that I learned of the concept of constant testing and multiple-choice tests. Before then, the exams in Mexico were oral or practical, especially in math. But that was just the first few grades of elementary school. Maybe I would have encountered multiple-choice tests later on had I stayed back there?

Currently, I’m the lead teaching assistant for a class on the public health significance of HIV/AIDS. As the professor and I were talking with the students about the different expectations we had of them for the course, the questions from the students kept going back to the midterm exam. (There is a final paper, no final exam.) The midterm exam counts for 20% of the final grade, but the students were asking all sorts of questions. They wanted to know what was going to be included in the exam, if they were going to be required to answer any essay questions, etc. After several questions, I decided to put an end to it.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “Keep in mind that the midterm exam is only 20% of your final grade. You can bomb it and still get an A in the course. What the assignments are meant to do is to test your ability to think critically about a very important public health problem.” In other words, they needed to relax about an exam and focus on the other assignments. One assignment is a group presentation where the students take some important aspect of HIV/AIDS and analyze it top to bottom. The other assignment is a paper taking another aspect of HIV/AIDS and public health and analyzing it while giving some suggestions or explaining known ways of confronting the issue.

Those two assignments — the presentation and the paper — are aimed fully at giving the students the tools they will need for their careers in public health. They’re going to have to do research. They’re going to have to work in teams. They’re going to have to look at a problem and “science the crap out of it,” so to speak. It’s not enough to know things that you can answer via a multiple-choice exam. And it’s not enough to throw data at a black box and come up with something on the other end. (I’m looking at you, biostatistical models.)

This is why I think that the professor’s grading scheme for this class is great. Take away the grading based on knowledge and put those points into grading based on wisdom. So why can’t we do the same with the rest of the educational system?

I think one of the answers is just sheer volume. There are just too many children in public schools and not enough teachers to teach them. Or, if there are enough teachers, those teachers themselves came from an educational system that demanded nothing but multiple-choice, standardized testing through and through. Remember, No Child Left Behind and its strict requirements for testing, re-testing and testing some more is now 14 years old. A child in kindergarten at the time it was passed is now a freshman in college. Chances are, they’ve known nothing but standardized testing.

Seriously, from what I’ve seen as a teaching assistant the last two years, and what I saw in the many people who applied to work at the health department while I was there… And what I’ve seen in students ten to fifteen years younger than me sitting in some classes, standardized testing has killed their ability to think critically. They study by memorizing fact after fact, while almost completely forgetting the meaning and significance of the knowledge they’ve gained.

They’ve lost the wisdom of it all. Or, rather, they were never taught it.


“Exams Start… Now” by Ryan McGilchrist via Flickr (CC by -SA 2.0)

So what do we do instead? How can you re-work a public education system that spans 50 states that cannot agree with each other on many levels? Just look at the brouhaha over Common Core, evolution vs. intelligent design, and other academic themes. Can you really see everyone agreeing to move away from cheap, easy standardized testing and move back to a more practical form of education? Sadly, I can’t. I hope it happens, but I just don’t see it happening.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

3 replies

  1. It really comes down to getting Congress to agree on losing the non-working system and replacing it with a system that properly educates our nation’s children.
    For, if we fail that, we’ll no longer produce engineers, scientists, physicians and other professionals who are world leaders in their fields and as a result, we’ll fail as an industrialized nation.


  2. During high school and for a while afterwards I worked as a programmer, my only formal training being two AP Computer Science courses. I eventually went to engineering school and later changed careers entirely.

    In the process of changing careers I needed some letters of recommendation so I asked my old boss for one. He was happy to oblige and he told me that if I ever changed my mind I was always welcome back.

    Turns out the person they had hired to replace me (with a legit Computer Science degree) while book smart was somewhat lacking in the practical application department and needed a lot of handholding.

    On the other hand, in my current profession (I’m now a paramedic) I’ve found that book smarts tend to correlate to better clinical performance as well.

    The guys and gals who care enough to learn and retain that knowledge and stay current with it tend to also be better critical thinkers and problem solvers and even generally more inclined to keep their skills sharp as well.

    The guys and gals who memorize A&P to get through school and forget it immediately afterwards tend to be the same ones who memorize and follow the SOPs but don’t know the reasons behind them.

    As far as solutions I think the internet provides wonderful opportunities* but you need to get kids to be interested in pursuing them. We need to instill a love of learning in kids and the standardized testing paradigm does nothing but stifle that.

    Two thoughts I always had on this are, fostering an interest in reading early on and not killing that in middle school on with the academic analysis of literature. I think the way English is taught stomps out any enjoyment of reading as a recreational activity which is exactly the opposite of how it should be.

    They other one is teaching learning for learning’s sake. Kids go through school learning to get good grades but since that’s not how the real world works, as soon as the incentive of grades disappears, so does the desire to learn.

    Standardized tests clearly are a mostly meaningless metric. Sure some things do lend themselves to graded tests (I’m thinking math) but I’d say do away with grades entirely. The kids who care to learn will still have the opportunity to and the ones who don’t are still failing even with the carrot of good grades and the stick of failing. Maybe without the spectre of grades hanging over their head some kids might be more receptive to learning.

    I’d bet the lack of short term objective outcomes scares policy makers but we could refocus on evaluating longer term real world outcomes: secondary education acceptance rates and performance, employment, salary, etc.

    In other words, teach people how to learn and why they should as opposed to the rote memorization that standarized testing promotes.

    That said, I don’t keep up on education research so take my thoughts with a grain of salt (a whole dash eclven).

    And finally, circling back around to professional learning, I was recently reading an article** about the lack of entry points to information security careers. One of the suggestions was that companies should offer apprenticeships, as opposed to just internships.

    This struck me as a great idea because that seems like a solid way to bridge the gap between knowledge and application.

    *For example: (I know some physical classrooms even use this)


    1. The problem is twofold, there is the metrics present in the testing that policy makers love to receive and there is the attitude, “teach to the test”, which forgoes understanding with rote memorization.
      The problem with rote memorization is, while it’s pretty cool to know that someone has a spleen, it’s far superior to know *where* that spleen is and how an injury to it can result in severe internal bleeding.


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