Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools

Alfie Kohn

All of us, as parents and citizens, want to make sure our schools
are doing a good job and our children are learning. Unfortunately,
the MCAS exams-and the "tougher standards" philosophy
that they reflect-not only fail to provide meaningful information
but actually interfere with the goal of providing students with
a high-quality education.

Much of the discussion about school reform these days is arrested
at the level of "Test scores are low; make them go up."
Few people pause to inquire about what is on those tests, whether
the content is reasonable and important. Particularly in the case
of the high school MCAS exams, the questions require an immense
storehouse of arcane information. It's doubtful that most college
professors, to say nothing of business executives and state legislators,
could pass these tests. (Indeed, it would be most interesting
to invite those folks who are partial to rhetoric about "accountability"
and "raising the bar" to take these tests and have their
scores published.) The question, then, is whether students should
be expected to meet an academic requirement that successful adults
in the community cannot.

The problem with the MCAS isn't that it is too hard so much
as that the whole exercise is too silly. It's not just that most
of us adults probably don't know the material on these tests but
that we don't need to know it. This content doesn't reflect what
we as a society honor, what we think it means to be well-educated,
what matters to us about schooling and human life.

Of course, there is room for disagreement on this point, and
a dialogue about the purposes of education (and the best ways
of assessing learning) would be welcome. But to impose a test
like the MCAS on students and schools doesn't advance such a conversation;
it pre-empts it. A single, very debatable ideology is, in effect,
mandated by law. When the MCAS is not only administered to all
students but used to judge the quality of schools-or even to determine
whether students will be able to graduate-then we are not talking
about "excellence" or "high standards" at
all: we are talking about the ability of a small group of people
to impose their particular theories about education on the rest
of us.

In fact, an emphasis on MCAS scores actually undermines the
pursuit of excellence in the classroom. Every hour our children
spend being drilled on test-taking skills is an hour they are
not spending making sense of ideas. The more that schools are
turned into test-prep centers, the more that academic quality
is sacrificed. This point can be illustrated with a fact, a study,
and a story.

The fact: There is absolutely no standardized testing for elementary
school-aged children in Japan. As more than one educational expert
has noted, one key reason that academic achievement is high there
is precisely that teachers are free from the pressure to try to
raise test scores.

The study: Researchers at the University of Colorado asked
a group of fourth-grade teachers to teach a specific task. About
half of them were told that when they were finished, their students
must "perform up to standards" and do well on a test.
The other teachers were simply invited to "facilitate the
children's learning." It turned out that students in the
"standards" classrooms did not learn the task as well
as their peers in the classrooms of the second group of teachers.
(Source: Cheryl Flink et al., "Controlling Teacher Strategies:
Undermining Children's Self-Determination and Performance,"
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59 (1990): 916-24.)
Other research suggests that when teachers feel pressured to produce
results, they in turn tend to pressure their students, with the
result that the students don't learn as well.

The story: A middle-school teacher in Cambridge has devised
a remarkable course of study in which every student picks an activity
in which he or she has a passionate interest and then sets about
becoming an expert in it. Each subject, from baking to ballet,
is researched intensively, described in a detailed report, and
taught to the rest of the class. The idea is to hone researching
and writing skills, but also to help each student feel like an
authority in something and to heighten everyone's appreciation
for the craft involved in activities they may not have thought
much about. In short, it is the kind of academic experience that
people look back on years later as a highlight of their time in
school. But now her students won't have the chance: "Because
we have so much content material to cover for the MCAS, I don't
have the time to do it," this teacher told me ruefully. "I've
got to do the Industrial Revolution because it's going to be on
the test."

The demands for "tougher standards" and "accountability"
one hears these days are reminiscent of how some politicians,
faced with the perception of high crime rates, resort to a get-tough,
lock-'em-up, law-and-order mentality. This response plays well
with the public, but is based on an exaggeration of the problem,
a mis-analysis of its causes, and a simplistic prescription that
frequently ends up doing more harm than good. So too do the best
theory, research, and practice argue against the mentality that
produced the MCAS -- and in favor of those teachers and students
who have recently taken a principled stand against these tests.

As parents, we need to understand what is at stake. Instead
of simply assuming that high test scores are desirable, we should
respond to public officials (and journalists) who celebrate and
work toward that goal by saying, "If you're concentrating
your efforts on MCAS results, then I for one am concerned about
the quality of education my child is getting here."

Alfie Kohn, who lives in Belmont, is the author of seven books
on education and human behavior, the latest of which is The
Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms
and "Tougher Standards
(Houghton Mifflin, coming September
1999. More information on a national effort to put quality education
ahead of standardized testing can be found at www.alfiekohn.org