The Slow Kill Called ‘Standardized Testing’

Posted on May 6, 2013 in Education

By Hardik Vaidya:

In my fifth grade under resourced government classroom in Mumbai, where I teach full time, when I discuss about subjects like Empathy, Math, Millennium Development Goals, Bollywood Music, Dance, Picasso Drawings, Sports or Wild life with my kids, I am often left surprised at the depth and the varying combinations of intelligence the children possess. On the playground, while some kids are at their absolute best playing those wonderful strokes with their cricket bat, I can’t help but question about the testing system these children undergo that fails to capture these kinesthetic intelligence.


Howard Gardner, the Harvard Development Psychologist, proposed The Theory of Multiple Intelligence in 1983. According to Gardner, there are 8 different types of intelligence we all possess.

They are:
1.Linguistic intelligence
2.Logic-mathematical intelligence
3.Spatial intelligence
4.Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
5.Musical intelligence
6.Interpersonal intelligence
7. Intrapersonal intelligence
8.Naturalist intelligence

We all possess a varying mix and combinations of these forms of intelligence. For example, A child who scores low on Logic-Mathematical intelligence, may score really high on Bodily Kinesthetic intelligence. I’m quite sure, if Sachin Tendulkar was put through the rigor of the academic setting in today’s date and time, he would’ve been a pretty mediocre student. His genius lies in the magic and wonder of the strokes he plays and the domain he dominates in his own way.

Dr. Seuss says, “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!
There is a loud message and a distinct flavor of uniqueness that all children have. Around 172 million kids in India do not complete their basic schooling. That is a large number by all measures for a country that is still in the developing stages. Of the kids who do move on to study further, the set and limited systems of measuring intelligence obstruct the individuals from utilizing their large untapped potential. The metrics to measure intelligence in our educational system from very early on is pretty narrow in nature. Potential Sachins or Michael Jacksons or Einsteins are subjected to the same testing scale like every other child and are made to feel like failures their whole lives because the metrics to measure their intelligence was that of something diametrically opposite. So in essence, the one-size-fits-all tests actually kills or ignores various types of intelligence that these kids exhibit. For instance, in majority of schools in India, we have a prescribed recipe for testing for all the kids. The classic illustration of the fallacy goes like this: One person can see better at the ballgame by standing up, so if everybody in the stadium stands up they will all see better. Unfortunately, the exams end up creating an assembly line model of individuals. All the standardized tests, are typically looking for the ‘right’ answer to questions asked. Questions that are asked in such tests are objective and linear in thinking. There is too much emphasis on the numerical and linguistic abilities of the individual. Since they can be quantified and measured, test makers do an excellent job of making these tests foolproof. All these tests measure what is measurable and countable. What can’t be quantified is not worth measuring according to them.

Bill Ayers, an Elementary Education Theorist said, “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”

When I look at this situation from a marketing perspective, there is a term called customer satisfaction. It is basically a measure of how products and services supplied by a company meets or surpasses customer satisfaction. It would be an interesting survey if the current end user, the kids in this context, are to answer a survey on the effectiveness and the joy such tests actually bring to them while they write those exams. I have a strong feeling, that these ‘customers’ will give a pretty low score to the test ‘manufacturers’. The ‘for-profit’ companies that make these tests, are churning out products without considering the needs and desires of the consumers, that are the children. There is bound to be a gap in the output delivered. The immense pressure on teachers, administrators and the children to perform to fit these scales of measurement may not even remotely prove any point about the brilliance of a child.

Standardized tests are a very good tool to measure a very narrow type of intelligence. The over emphasis on this and everyone-happy attitude will churn out robotic individuals scoring low on the values required to sail through the rigors of life’s challenges. Test makers have a done a wonderful job of selling these to the entire educational system, starting right from primary schooling. The failure to understand the nexus of such forced thinking skills being developed at an early age, the testing metrics and the unemployment issues later in their lives is quite complicated. It was Albert Einstein who quoted, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

In the race to justify the one size fits all philosophy, we have moved away from allowing the children to make mistakes and infuse creativity in learning. I would like to end with a sense of understanding which I can deem is only relatively ahead of its time and well put forth by Sir Ken Robinson.

The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.

So, are we preparing the young ones to have a fighting chance to succeed in their lives or make them clones of each other?