FAQs / Is all testing of children a bad idea?

No. What is important is: Who is being tested, by whom, in what manner, and for what reason. The main concern is tests that are inappropriately designed, interpreted and imposed—which describes most tests used in schools, whether they are of the standardized variety or specific to a particular course. In How Children Fail, author John Holt described the “games and strategies,” as he called them, that schoolchildren adopt in order to pass without actually mastering the material that has supposedly been taught. For these and myriad other reasons, test results are often highly misleading and worthless, yet they inform decisions that greatly effect individual lives. (Consider the fact that every bad driver has passed a driving test.)

Standardized tests are similarly undependable—you can get a high score without even reading the questions, if you know what you’re doing, or a low score if you are too creative in your answers—and that’s not even considering the ever-increasing pressure to cheat on the part of the test administrators (whose funding may depend on group scores).

The most useful tests are those that actually measure what they are intended to measure—for example, how skilled is someone at writing a computer program to do this or that—and those that are used diagnostically, to see where someone is in his/her understanding, so that an instructor knows how to be most helpful moving forward. When test-takers consent to taking a test and know that they will not be punished for revealing their true level of understanding, the results are much more reliable, and the constructive purpose of the test is more likely to accomplished. The unfortunate school student, on the other hand, has them imposed on a regular basis, thus feeding the downward spiral from natural inquisitiveness to fear of failure and/or obsession with external rewards.

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