Beyond Marks and Standardized Assessments (Part 1: How High-Stakes Assessments Hurt Kids)


Here's the reality: summarizing a student's performance by means of marks and symbols isn't going away any time soon. The reason is simple: they're convenient and easy. The overwhelming majority of universities use them to benchmark students and award places, most parents demand them, education authorities use them to judge the performance of teachers and schools – and (quite possibly as a result of all of this) kids themselves are addicted to them.

Marks and symbols themselves are not really the core problem. The fact that they are handcuffed to standardized assessments is the real issue. The reasoning is this: you get all students of a particular grade to write the same test so that you can see where they all fall on the spectrum (ideally, a nice neat bell curve). You assign a mark which is mostly based on these batch assessments and report it to the various stakeholders. Sounds logical enough. Except it isn't.

Standardized assessments are not the best way to assess – and may actually be causing more harm than good. Here's why:



Because most standardized assessments are also high-stakes assessments (meaning that they are used to determine who graduates, who is awarded places at university, who gets 'academic' awards and even who is praised as a 'good student'), these norm-referenced assessments cause massive amounts of stress in our young people. This anxiety has negative consequences on cognition and thus on results, significantly lowering memory performance. (Not to mention the lasting damage to self-esteem that almost every student will experience somewhere along the line in writing these assessments.) To a large degree then, standardized tests test how well students can take tests. And how well they can deal with stress. Of course, many argue that this teaches them 'grit' and determination. I argue that it more often causes significant psychological trauma. In the adult world, there's a word for traumatizing people to 'teach them a lesson', it's called abuse. Yet somehow we don't see it this way with kids and standardized tests.



When you crack open what standardized tests really test, much of it is about students' ability to stuff facts into their short term memory. And the rest of it (so called 'higher order questions') can often be coached and learned formulaically – including the questions which ask students to assess, to create, to evaluate, to generate and so on. And it gets worse: many teachers openly forego real learning in the days before a high stakes assessment to coach kids on how to 'hack' the exam – except they call it 'revision'. All of which means that students seldom get to showcase what they have learned in traditional standardized assessments in any meaningful, authentic and personalized way. Instead, these assessments measure how well students can cram their short term memories with facts and procedures, as well as how artfully they can regurgitate these.

Says Alfie Kohn:

To be sure, there are plenty of students who think deeply and score well on tests—and plenty of students who do neither. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.


Because so much of the school year is devoted to students writing, practicing, preparing and being debriefed on standardized assessments, a significant chunk of the school year is lost. Around 20% of the academic year simply disappears. Multiply this across the grades who write tests and exams in a typical education system, and you have close to two years which are lost. Curricula thus become narrowed, interesting tangential issues squashed, in-depth exploration curtailed and engagement stunted – all in the mad rush towards the next standardized assessment. Where subjects have elective components (like English readers or Science experiments), teachers choose the options which 'test well' (i.e.: those around which good test questions can be set). Moreover, involvement in co-curricular sports, cultural activities and clubs, together with all of the rich character-building opportunities these activities provide, is limited so that students can prepare for their exams. Not to mention the amount of time kids get to spend with their families and friends, or even the amount of sleep teenagers in particular lose (and we know how important sleep is to growing brains).

. . . [Of course it’s possible to] succeed in raising average test scores. You deprive kids of recess, eliminate music and the arts, cut back the class meetings and discussions of current events, offer less time to read books for pleasure, squeeze out the field trips and interdisciplinary projects and high-quality electives, spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it’s possible to raise the scores. But that result is meaningless at best. When a school or district reports better test results this year than last, knowledgeable parents and other observers respond by saying, “So what?” (because higher test scores do not necessarily reflect higher quality teaching and learning) – or even, “Uh-oh” (because higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning). Alfie Kohn: “Standardized Testing: Separating Wheat Children from Chaff Children”


Standardized assessments are also a very poor way to measure the quality of teaching. Teachers who drill exam techniques and who teach to the exam, as well as those who blackmail, cajole and even threaten students in order to get them to perform well in an exam will be seen as more effective than those who try to instill a genuine love of learning and independent thought. Worse, the latter often feel pressured to become more like the former as they do not want their students to feel ambushed by a standardized assessment. Hence, these assessments, in striving to benchmark teachers, are actually making teachers worse by prizing the wrong kind of teaching. And this in turn drives many seriously talented teachers away from education.

Says W. James Popham for the ASCD:

Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon.

And Noam Chomsky:

The assessment itself is completely artificial. It’s not ranking teachers in accordance with their ability to help develop children who will reach their potential, explore their creative interests.

And Alfie Kohn again:

It also seems clear that most of the people who are quitting, or seriously thinking about doing so, are not mediocre performers who are afraid of being held accountable. Rather, they are among the very best educators, frustrated by the difficulty of doing high-quality teaching in the current climate.


Many argue that standardized tests can be used to diagnose and remediate specific problems. My response is that, no, they generally are not used to do this – because the 'important' high-stakes standardized assessments are given at the end of the school year or at the end of the term. Students either don't ever see these again, or do after a long holiday, in a new academic term or year, when the assessment isn't really relevant anymore. And so, teachers will rush through the reflection process so that there is time to prepare students for the next big standardized assessment.

Besides, an experienced and engaged and caring teacher is never surprised by the results of standardized tests. These teachers monitor their students closely, document their strengths and weaknesses and work consistently throughout the year to help them. Great teachers don't need a benchmarked tests to tell them anything about their students – they already know.

And students themselves will more than likely be able to predict exactly where they will lose marks. They don't need a test to tell them this, they need more time in class to work on mastering what they don't know.



It is a fact that students learn different things at different rates, that they make sense of things in their own way, that they have different interests, backgrounds and experiences around which they scaffold their own learning. It is also a fact that intelligence isn't entirely genetically determined, and that it can be changed to a large degree. It is a travesty that education systems around the world, with their insistence on standardized assessments, force kids into situations that alienate them from their own individual interests and contexts, and which have the inevitable effect of making kids believe that they have set, predetermined abilities – and that is to be their lot in life. Kids become the marks we give them. They have a rank which determines their station. We are creating drones who accept their lot in life as effectively as military training creates soldiers.



Standardized assessments have become an insidious virus that spread themselves ever more widely across the education system. To prepare for the final benchmark exam, schools often write preparatory exams. To prepare for those, smaller standardized assessments are written. And they also spread downwards to the younger grades to 'prepare' these students for the final school-leaving exam. And then further downwards for the same reason. (I know of schools where the Grade 3 students write exams. How absolutely ridiculous!) What all of this means, is that there is less and less time for curiosity, investigation, questioning, discovery, mastery and all those other good things. The standardized testing virus is slowly suffocating education.

And there is a secondary infection: almost every assessment is becoming a standardized assessment. More and more, schools are insisting that every teacher harvests the same marks, for all of their students, for the same assessments, conducted under the same conditions – all in the interests of being fair. Fair? It isn't fair for kids to be treated like MacDonald's hamburgers. And it most certainly isn't fair to imply that teachers will be less rigorous (and perhaps less honest) if they are allowed to customize their own assessments for their own classes, and to individualize assessments according to the needs of the individuals in their class.


Standardized testing may well be responsible for helping to create a more selfish, disengaged and cruel society. By focusing on personal rankings and achievements, the real lessons of a meaningful education are lost. There is no place for developing a social and environmental conscience, for understanding global issues, for learning empathy and tolerance, for caring for and helping others. What matters is to get what you can for yourself at all costs. The essential twenty-first century skills of problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking will only receive as much attention as they need to help a kid pass a test. Multiply this out, and you get a society of self-obsessed, insulated consumers steadily isolating themselves more and more from the world instead of working to make it better for all of us.



To my mind, dishonesty and all manner of magical thinking are actually encouraged by high-stakes testing. And not just in students. When teachers and students feel themselves backed into a corner, and they are not ready to simply accept their 'fate', some will cheat, and others will either call upon a higher power or try to enhance their luck by all manner of superstitious rituals and charms. I am morbidly amazed at the creative cheating that goes on in some schools. So much so, that I sometimes think we need to award credit especially to students who are able to generate truly creative ways of cheating. Or, we could find betters ways for them to express this creativity.


Here's the scenario: A group of people are placed into a room with neatly separated spaces, they may not talk or communicate, they do not have a choice to be where they are, they have to be in this place for a particular period of time, they have to do as they are told, and a small group of eagle-eyed watchmen patrol up and down the aisles to make sure nothing untoward goes on. But for the lack of prison bars and weapons, an exam hall comes very close to a prison. And I know I may be reaching a little here, but I firmly believe that exam halls reinforce very outmoded power relationships in schools. In this model, students are not collaborators and co-creators, they are the recipients of enlightenment from a special privileged few. I have written before about how schools need to realize that in the modern era, knowledge is becoming democratized, and that it is no longer the function of teachers to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but rather to be coaches and guides to help kids to acquire both high quality information as well as to hone the so-called 'soft skills' associated with an authentic twenty-first century education.



Let's not even talk about poorly set assessments, or biased questions, or unfair marking. Or the vested interested of so many test setters, moderators, textbooks writers, publishing companies and even government authorities have in standardized assessments (which have far more to do with profits or woo than with education).

But let's talk about what's good about high-stakes assessments. One thing comes to mind: They're convenient. Need marks for your markbook? Tests. Need to find a convenient instrument to benchmark your teachers? Tests. Want to get kids to be more attentive while you drone on? Tests? Not sure they've understood what you've taught? Tests. Have assessment time slots you need to fill? Tests.

And so on.



Standardized tests are valuable. If you're assessing the quality of a washing machine or a new drug. But not if you're assessing how well a teacher has taught or how much a student has learned. The argument that they are the fairest way of assessing because everyone writes the same test is as illogical as saying that the economic system is fair because everyone has the same opportunities to succeed. It is as intellectually lazy to presume that you can measure an individual child's learning with a standardized test as it is to presume that an adult's lot in life is a reflection of what they deserve. (See the 'Just World' fallacy.)

I am convinced that so many schools and teachers use standardized assessments simply because they have always used them, and, well, let's be blunt here: because they either haven't the time or the courage to design a better alternative. Yes, there are external requirements, polices, expectations and even legislation. But mostly, it's a case of inertia and entrenched (but outdated) ideologies. Standardized assessments are damaging young people in some very serious ways, and we owe it to them to begin fighting for a better way.

A final thought: A 2014 study conducted across 33 colleges and universities of various types, and involving 123 000 students found that final exam performance (SAT or ACT scores) had very little correlation with success at university. In fact, those students with low final exam grades and higher general school grades did better than those who did well on their general grades and not so well in their finals. Thus, final school-leaving standardized assessments are a poor predictor of success at university. Say the authors of the study:

Colleges most often determine the utility of admission test scores by assessing how predictive they are of first-year grades. The Commission wishes to underscore that as such, standardized admission tests should not be considered as sole predictors of true college success. Commission members unanimously agreed that college success is a term of sufficient breadth that it includes degree attainment, a wide range of GPAs, and the acquisition of experiences and skills that will propel a student into the workforce, graduate education, or responsible citizenship. For this broad definition of success, standardized admission tests—as well as other individual factors—are insufficient predictors of a student’s likelihood of overall success.

It may not be valid to apply these findings more globally, but it is certainly worth considering. If final exams are indeed the poor predictors of success in other countries as they are in the US, universities are going to have to reconsider their admission criteria. And as soon as this happens, schools become free to begin assessing in more meaningful, relevant ways.

Universities already have a range of 'alternative entry paths', but these are generally only for those students who do not meet the required criteria in terms of grades. I would like to see the 'alternative' path becoming the main one, and the lazy, poorly functioning one becoming the alternative. At the same time, I think schools cannot wait for universities to get their admissions process on the right track. We need to push a better, more meaningful assessment process in collaboration with tertiary representatives in order to give our kids both a better, more relevant education, as well as a better chance at making the transition to higher education.


In the next post (presently under construction) I will present some potential solutions to the scourge of standardized assessments and marks.



Further reading:

Of course, I have done a lot of reading around the subject of standardized testing. But there is only one man you absolutely must read on the topic of standardized testing: Mr Alfie Kohn:

Alfie Kohn: Essays





About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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