“Smart” Kids and Hard Tests

So a couple weeks ago now, I attended the forum on the Common Core standards in Albany with Commissioner King.

The parents and teachers and board members and principals who spoke were as a rule eloquent. Some of the many things mentioned that I share concern about incude:

  • Losing instructional time to constant testing
  • Assuming that testing gives an accurate picture of a child’s ability
  • High stakes testing that affects teachers and schools
  • Conducting high stakes tests based on new standards when curricula appropriate to those standards has not been field tested and in some cases barely written, and teachers haven’t had a chance to be trained in it and try out new techniques.
  • Corporate curricula made by the test makers
  • Putting non verbal children through a test that requires literacy
  • Testing brand new English language learners at length in English way above what is required to assess their English proficiency.
  • Testing 4-6 year olds at all, and expecting them to acheive non developmentally appropriate academic milestones that normal children acheive at wildly varying ages.

However, there is one complaint that I heard a few times at that forum and elsewhere that I think was misplaced and does this new movement a disservice. It goes something like this: “My kid is bright, and he/she found this test haaaaaaaard. Clearly something is wrong.”

I don’t agree. I would argue that if (big if) you are going to have standardized testing, the damage to purportedly “bright” kids is arguably quite a bit higher in the longer run if they sail through every test they meet, being told over and over that this means they are smart and will succeed at anything they try, than if they have to struggle and deal with some frustration and experience challenging material like the rest of their peers already do on a regular basis.

I was one of those kids. I won stuff based on my SAT scores and all that jazz. And I was very lucky to have parents who aways emphasized to me that what I could do was a combination of some aptitude and hard work. But nonetheless, I and quite a few others I know who tested well, had a few levels of reality check to battle through when we came to realize that the world was not only full of people who were much smarter than us even if they didn’t test so well, but that many of those people had developed rather more initiative in identifying what they wanted to do, sticking to it through tough times, getting good at it, following internal motivation, and acheiving greater things thanks to not being scared to risk failing.

There is really compelling research written up in the book NurtureShock that involves how children who are told they got a math problem right because they are smart are inclined to give up when presented with a harder one, as opposed to those who aretold they got the first one right because they worked hard on it. The latter group was shown to cheerfully keep working at problem way above their skill level trying to puzzle it out, while those whose identities as the smart ones were disrupted by the challenge tended to give up in tears.

Facing things that are hard is good for you. It’s not like a harder test won’t still give a relative picture of the different strengths of different kids, at least insofar as any test is going to give you useful results. Don’t tell (any!) kids they are stupid and not going to college because they struggled, for sure. But for goodness sakes, don’t tell some subset that they should never struggle or something’s wrong either.

For those kids who were crushed by low scores on the new tests: that’s the fault of all those who (1) didn’t communicate that the scores were universally expected to be lower and (2) have led those children to believe that their identity and worth are bound up in high scores. That latter attitude does a disservice to both those who test well and those who don’t.

Let’s not let a lot of very valid critiques of overtesting and the weaknesses of “data-driven” education decisions get sullied by an attitude of entitlement by those whose kids have sailed through the previous set of assessments. That misplaced, if understandable, defensiveness of children struggling with a blow to an unhelpful identity is not about addressing the problems with the way the system educates and supports all children, which I believe should be the goal.


(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Nov. 7, 2013.)

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