This week I was part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workshop for high school and university teachers.  The point of the workshop was to foster the exchange of ideas about how to increase science education effectiveness at all levels of a person’s education.  The room was full of a set of amazing high school teachers from our local schools in New Hampshire and Vermont, both public and private.  This was a most depressing meeting.  Listening to these educators describe what they want to do and what they want to try to do relative to what they must do was disheartening personally and more than a bit frightening for what it is forcing on our next generation.

Going around the room, high school educators said over and over that they teach their students to be able to “do” things.  Doing science is the only way to teach it, the only way to practice it, and the only way to understand it.  All the high school educators described the processes of doing real-world problems, instead of simply memorizing facts and the mechanics of various procedures.  The university educators all described wanting high school students to be prepared for thinking and problem solving instead of simply knowing a set of facts.  What I also hear from business leaders in the area is they want people who have skills at doing things.  If you know how to do something, you will automatically also know the facts needed to accomplish what needs to be done, and this is true in any field.

However, these educators all felt tremendously constrained by the lists of things the state and federal government deemed it necessary for students to know.  These state and federal standards essentially boil down to a list of things that can be asked on a standardized test.  When the educational program for a student is designed to do well on a standardized test, the student is being prepared for a career in taking standardized tests – not for a career of thinking and doing.

The era of standardized testing (e.g., AP, SAT, ACT, MCAT, GRE), No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the myriad local and state assessments for students and teachers has turned our educational system into a memorization factory.  I routinely meet students who have received a perfect score on all SAT tests, and they can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag.  I also routinely have 20-30 students in every offering of our introductory biology class I teach tell me that they got a 5 on the AP Biology exam (i.e., the highest score), and my class isn’t fair because they can’t simply memorize their way to an A.  I have also done a number of analyses of student test scores relative to their performance in our classes in the Biological Sciences Department at Dartmouth, and only a very weak correlation exists between SAT scores and class performance.  For example, the most frequent AP score for A students in our introductory biology class is 5, but the most frequent AP score for D students in the same class is also 5.

Standardized testing creates the illusion of accountability.  Once the test scores come back, one thinks one can compare across the entire nation.  One thinks the score is a quantitative assessment of what kind of educational experience the student has been given.  This is simply not the case.  Even if the exams being given were a robust measure of knowledge and skills, too many other factors influence each student’s and the population of students’ scores on these exams.  The educational environment in the home, the economic status of the family, the pressures from outside the home, as well as the student’s raw intellectual horsepower all influence test scores.

However, standardized exams do not assess the aptitude of students in doing science, math or engineering.  Someone who has simply memorized the parts of a cell does not understand how a cell works.  Even working math problems on standardized tests does not assess the abilities of students to do math.  It assesses how well they have mastered the rote mechanics of isolated techniques.

This entire endeavor is also under-girded by the industry of standardized testing.  Educational Testing Services, the College Board, Kaplan Test Prep, Princeton Review, and many others are all in the business of taking people’s money to get students prepared to take these standardized tests.  All of this money is wasted on preparing students for exams that do nothing for their education.

The importance given to these exams also fosters a perverse educational environment that defeats the very goals they are supposed to foster.  An assessment exam should be taken without study and without warning.  What general knowledge and skills does the student have?  If the student studies for the assessment exam, then like all test cramming, material is remembered for the exam and then immediately forgotten.  Moreover, what is crammed is what is on the exam.  The students with perfect SAT scores I encounter all took 2-3 preparatory classes so that they could achieve those perfect test scores.  In fact, our analyses suggest that the SAT exam is now basically measuring how many SAT preparatory classes students have taken.  Thus, these tests now do not assess what students know or what they are able to do.  Standardized tests now quantify how much students have prepared for the standardized test.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies here: the existence of exams to measure educational achievement destroys effective education.

This is exacerbated by the perverse incentives it makes for teacher: whether you get a raise, whether you can keep your job, whether you will ever advance in your chosen career are all determined by the scores your students achieve on one or more of these exams.  Are you going to educate them, or are you going to make them good standardized test takers?  All policy decisions create incentives, and these create counterproductive, corrosive and corrupting incentives that are destroying education in the United States.  How can anyone be surprised by teacher corruption associated with test scores, when we have turned K-12 education in the United States into a preparatory class for standardized exams.

The most perverse consequence of all this is that the new paradigm of preparing for the standardized exam is destroying the very type of education that we all are demanding from schools.  Teach people to think, to do math, to do science, to build things using engineering principles.  All of my high school colleagues bemoaned the time they had to spend in test preparation because it took away from their time and efforts in the education of doing science, mathematics and engineering.  Turn them loose to fully inspire and educate our kids!