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Teaching to the Test is not Education

By Josette Luvmour, PhD

LearningTeaching to the test has turned out to be profitable for the private business sector. Who knew? In a New York Times article, A Very Pricey Pineapple, Gail Collins (April 2012) pointed out that school testing provides huge corporate profits, led by Pearson Assessment Group who has…a five-year testing contract with Texas that’s costing the state taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars. However, we’ve long known that testing does little to reveal student learning. At the same time, the over-emphasis on testing has caused considerable collateral damage in many schools and to many students. 

The Tyranny of Normal

At the center of this issue is the idea of normal. Its history in education and psychology chronicles the predilections of the dominant aspects of our culture. Normal, we think, means stability and predictability. Yet it has less to say about the health of our people than it does about the security (and fears) of our institutions and the people who profit from the vested interests in them.

The problem with normal is objectification. Normal is the behavior a school needs to accomplish its goal of meeting cultural criteria, which, in our times, means competing in the global marketplace. Academic normal (cognitive ability) is defined by testing; then children are sorted (objectified) according to the results. Character normal is defined by behaving so that the teacher can transmit the curriculum to the greatest number of students and especially to those who succeed academically.

Normal becomes the ability to perform on a par with peers (within standard deviations) in the testing environment. This objectification is not just about data retention and regurgitation or about the intelligence to solve problems. It is also about the ability to perform in a containerized pressured environment. The children have been made into the receptacle for the larger cultural narrative of competition and individualism. Their fate is in the hands of the testers; the locus of control is external.  The not-so-subtle message is that security and our place in the culture depends on success in the testing environment as evidenced by outside approval.

Misguided education policies such as high-stakes testing results in the student’s loss of interest in learning about a subject out of interest. Errors are also likely to produce a low self-efficacy (a belief in our own ability to succeed). Instead performance on the test becomes an extrinsic motivation to avoid negative judgment. Thus, studying for test questions is not about learning. When concerned about performance, the focus is on not screwing up.

Learning is a process of mastering a new skill, understanding a topic, and inspires growth as meaning is discovered.  In the process of learning, errors are something to learn from, not to be avoided. Thus, learning is intrinsic and leads to high self-efficacy. Learning is all about screwing up, learning from mistakes, applying what your learned to do better. A group of citizens against testing has put together A National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing. Check it out and see if you agree.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

—Nelson Mandela

Optimal well-being starts with this question: Who is the child?

When an educator or parent chooses to focus on inspiring learning we are faced with the question of “who is this child.” The question of who is this child dissolves all objectification. We must see the child, her strengths, shortcomings, developmental capabilities, and interests. When we create an environment that inspires a student to play with a topic and think things through without worry of failure, then the student is inspired to explore, step outside of her zone of competence, openly ask questions, discover, and learn. What does this mean to child development? What does it mean for relationships among the children? One insight is inspiring resilient learners is way beyond objectification. Oh yes, and inspiring resilient learners requires relationship with the student.

Relationship with the student increases learning. As relationships become more and more tuned in to the child’s developmental capacities, new perspectives awaken in both adult and child. The shaping and learning of primary values occur in the child as well as further development of these values in the adult. So I ask now, how much do school grades matter if your child is not happy learning something?

Posted on May 8, 2012 by Josette Luvmour, PhD

Josette Luvmour, PhD is a developmentalist, consultant, educator who specializes in child development, adult development, and sustainable family relationships. She serves in the non-profit sector as Director of Family and Professional Development at Summa Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides Natural Learning RelationshipsTM programs to students, families, and professionals. In addition to her 26-year consulting practice at Luvmour Consulting, LLC, she is author of five books and numerous journal articles and chapters that focus on building positive relationships with children. 

©2012, Josette Luvmour, PhD. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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Permalink   Comments (2)   Send to a Friend

Tags: *Educational Policy, Critical Thinking, Learning environment, Parents in classroom

Posted May 10, 2012 by Josette Luvmour, PhD
Nicely put...thank you for your contribution. Many know that top-down transmission education is inadequate...and yet, it persists. Mutually respectful relationships between educators, parents, and students create the context in which inspiration can emerge, and those relationships form the basis for successful learning. We should not settle for anything less. Thank you for your good words. 

Posted May 9, 2012 by rick ackerly
Right. It was 100 years ago that Mark Twain said: "I never let my schooling interfere with my education." (and he was by no means the only one.) All the research shows that school is merely a social sorting device. Let's make all schools an education 


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