Better Test Scores Don’t Lead To Success

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We shake our heads at the way standardized testing chews the heart out of real learning.   We know about the zombifying effect on schools, teachers, and kids.

Even in the best districts, the effort to attain those all-important numbers eliminates deeper, richer education. Less stellar districts see their schools under a test-heavy siege, charged with getting results or being taken over. This drive also shapes the kind of material students see, relentlessly preparing them to reach higher for the Almighty Score while giving them little time to build essential traits such as critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and persistence.

Parents and educators alike decry this approach, but it’s seen as a necessary pill to swallow (or actually, to make students swallow) in order to achieve some longer term goal. The goal, policy-makers tell us, is greater success for individual students and greater success in global competitiveness.

Do they have proof that boosting individual as well as overall test scores lead to success on either count?



National test scores

We’re told that national test score rankings are vitally important indicators of a country’s future. To improve those rankings, core standards are imposed with more frequent assessments to determine student achievement (meaning more testing, more oversight, more teaching to the test).

But do higher test scores actually make a difference to a nation’s future?

study by Christopher H. Tienken compared results from international mathematics and science tests from a fifty-year period to future economic competitiveness by those countries. Surely it showed that those countries with kids performing best on tests become high performing counties. Actually, no. Across all indicators there was minimal evidence that students’ high test scores produce value for their countries. Tienken concluded that higher student test scores were unrelated to any factors consistently predictive of a developed country’s growth and competitiveness.

In another such analysis, Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, examined achievement studies across the world to see if they reflected the success of participating nations. Using numerous comparisons including national wealth, degree of democracy, economic growth, even happiness, Baker found no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries. Merely average test scores were correlated with successful nations while top test scores were not.

Baker explains, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance…” He goes on to speculate whether testing [or forms of education emphasizing testing] itself may be damaging to a nation’s future.


Individual test scores

What about individual success?

Educational reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Why do we push standardized tests it has been demonstrated that the results are counterproductive? We’ve been told this is the price children must pay in order to achieve success. This is profound evidence of societal shallow thinking because the evidence doesn’t stack up.

Studies show that high test scores in school don’t correlate with adult accomplishments  (but do line up with interpersonal immaturity). We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?”

The conclusion?

Not really.

The criteria for academic success isn’t a direct line to lifetime success. Studies show that grades and test scores do not necessarily correlate to later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. Grades and tests only do a good job of forecasting how well youth will perform in future grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in real life problems, relationships, or career advancement.

What can concerned parents do?

Let’s work toward a future where our children have more time to play, to dream, and to love learning.

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