Dr. Danny Weil


Much of the argument against what is termed "high stakes testing", or assessing students based on state standardized tests, has rightly focused on such issues as the pernicious effect of the these tests on minority students and the irrationality of over reliance on test scores.Many educators, students, teachers, community activists, and progressive policy makers have bravely and eloquently stepped forward and spoken-up regarding class inequality and racism in schools and how high stake testing further exacerbates educational problems while eviscerating true efforts at educational reform.

Although these issues are crucial in understanding the role of standardized tests, this article will not focus on these issues.Instead, I want to concentrate on the claim that the standardized tests in and of themselves are inauthentic instruments of assessment and as such, fail to service either parents, teachers, students, or the communities within which they live.For purposes of this discussion, I will concentrate on standardized testing as it relates specifically to primary school.This entry argues that the debate over high stake testing has not focused on some of the crucial questions that need to be asked when looking to devise methods and calibration mechanisms to assess learning and teaching.Questions such as:

ØWhat should we be teaching students in the elementary grades and what should they be learning?

ØWhat are the roles of standards and assessment in the conception of being educated and how can we use evaluation and valid assessment to further authentic instruction?

ØWhat should we be assessing and why?

ØWhat about emotional intelligence?Should we be assessing them as well? 

ØAnd what about multiple intelligences and testing?

ØWhat does it mean to be intelligent and how would this impact on how we teach and measure student performance?

ØWhat is a problem-based curriculum and how can we test skills wedded to thinking?

ØShould we be relying solely on one test, or should we be developing methods and instruments of assessment on a weekly or monthly basis?

These important questions and countless others represent just some of the inquiry that should be undertaken in order to begin to rationally think about and consequently construct standards and assessment instruments that further the mission of education.

As a former bilingual kindergarten, first grade teacher, second grade teacher and teacher of junior high school and high school, I have unfortunately heard from colleagues and administrators alike that primary school students need to be first taught skills and information before they can engage in reasoning activities that call upon them to develop their critical thinking capacities.Thus, elementary standards, these colleagues contend, should be designed to see what students know and what skills they have acquired.In fact, when it comes to teaching students to think critically, I often hear the argument that children are not developmentally ready for critical thinking; that critical thinking in the early elementary grades is not developmentally appropriate. 

The argument assumes that students need an information base before they can think critically and that elementary schools should be a place where this informational base is constructed and important skills acquired.The reasoning surreptitiously maintains that students really need to be taught what to think not how to think.What's needed, argue those that take this position, is to concentrate on teaching students in early primary grades the myriad skills associated with reading, writing, listening, mathematics, and so on.They'll have plenty of time to think critically in the higher grades, contends the argument.Other teachers have maintained that primary grades should be affective centers of learning where students play, learn to feel good about themselves, and socialize.Thinking critically, maintain some, can be uncomfortable and students in early grades should be protected from it, not exposed to it.

Learning, then, becomes reduced to teaching skills and giving information, usually divorced from context; while knowing something is equated with having information about it.Protecting students from reasoning as opposed to engaging them in it becomes accepted as the norm.I believe that what we should be asking is, "Where do these ideas arise from?What assumptions underlie these perspectives regarding learning and teaching?"

For teachers interested in developing the critical capacities of their students, this theoretical conceptualization of education for primary students is unsound and unsuitable.Teachers truly concerned with developing the critical capabilities of their students would argue that knowledge is not equated with having a lot of information.Similarly having students engage in activities to simply show what skills they are able to execute is not equated to having and executing specific skills in the interests of developing critical consciousness.The linear step-by-step process whereby disciplines are broken into fragments and skills into isolated sub-parts taught outside the context of thinking, is challenged.[1]Furthermore, although students obviously need information, it is the manner within which they uncover it, interpret it, as well as use it that is of interest to those who advocate critical instruction.Will they collect information based on a problem-posing curriculum that asks them to construct knowledge in the interest of inquiry and discovery?Or will they be forced to memorize and uncritically accept information without learning to categorize it, verify its sources, classify it, form it into patterns from which they might make plausible inferences, and otherwise use information critically?How students get the information they need, how they assemble it, interpret it, and what they do with it is the real issue.

In terms of actual skills, it is inarguable that students need to learn specific skills called for in various elementary school curriculums.For example, not being able to re-group numbers would seriously impact on a child's ability to understand and perform mathematical manipulations.What is arguable is how they learn these skills, how they orchestrate these skills in the interest of constructing knowledge, and how these skills are employed in a self-conscious, metacognitive manner.

While reductionist learning argues that elementary school skills can and often should be taught in rote isolation, advocates of critical thinking would claim that the obsession with teaching skills isolated from thinking is actually the problem.The modernistic elementary school, with its necessity to teach fourteen disciplines, has created a factory orientation towards teaching and learning.Take your spelling book out, put your spelling book away.Take your math book out, put your math book away.Take your science book out, put your science book away --- this obsession with systematically deconstructing disciplines into sub-parts represents an attempt to teach pieces of subjects in isolation with no interdisciplinary connections.It presents knowledge unsystematically and consequently and simultaneously teaches unsystematic, convergent thinking.For many students, the parts never fit into the whole and they learn "skills", but the skills cannot be harnessed to critical thinking.

Take the skill of reading, for example.Reading critically and reading uncritically are simply not the same processes.To read critically implies thinking critically -- a process whereby the reader actively engages in a silent dialogue with the author as an attentive, questioning participant in the process of interpretation.To simply read without comprehension represents little more than the act of decoding --- what Donaldo Macedo has aptly called, "barking at print."[2]Yet reading is usually broken up as a discipline and taught as phonics, comprehension, language, etc.So when doing phonics the student is not concerned with comprehension.And understanding vocabulary is divorced from both as lists of vocabulary words are constructed for memorization purposes.Spelling is taught as a separate subject, again, usually relying on assembled lists to be memorized.

By taking a subject like reading and breaking it down into component parts taught as separate entities, students never see the interdisciplinary connections and processes necessary to comprehend what they read.They do not get a feel for how the parts make up the whole and the subjects and skills taught within them become so many bee-bees in a bag.

Take the following story, as an example, which I have given students in fifth grade:


Please read the following paragraph.Classify each of the following statements as either FACT or INFERENCE.A statement is a fact if it can be easily be verified by checking its source.A statement is an inference if it is a statement about the unknown based on what is known.

A businessman had just turned off the lights in the store when a man appeared and demanded money.The owner opened a cash register.The contents of the cash register were scooped up and the man sped away.A member of the police force was notified promptly.

1.A man appeared after the owner had turned off his store lights.

2.The robber was a man.

3.A man demanded money.

4.The man who opened the cash register was the owner.

5.The store-owner scooped up the contents of the cash register and ran away.

6.Someone opened a cash register.

7.After the man who demanded the money scooped up the contents of the cash register, he ran away.

8.While the cash register contained money, the story does NOT state HOW MUCH.

9.The robber demanded money of the owner.

10.The story concerns a series of events in which four persons are referred to:

The owner of the store

A businessman

A man who demanded money, and

A member of the police force.

11.The following events in the story are true:

Someone demanded money,

A cash register was opened,

Its contents were scooped up, and

A man dashed out of the store.

Students who could not read critically interpreted the story to mean that a robbery was taking place and that the businessman was the owner and the owner the businessman. They brought their own assumptions to what they read and as a result they bent the facts they were given to support their expectations.They argued that the cash register contained money and that the robber ran away. They assumed facts not in evidence and confused what they believed about the story with what they really knew.They made inferences that they concretized in their minds as fact although no evidence in the story supported their contentions.In short, they really didn't read the story critically; they misinterpreted it entirely. 

On the other hand, students that critically read the passage realized that they were bringing their own assumptions to what they were reading.They interpreted the story through questioning --- attempting to distinguish between what they knew and what they merely believed.They understood the role of inferences in thinking and did not concretize beliefs into facts.They paid copious attention to language and the assumptions inherent in vocabulary.They were able to offer evidence as to their reasoning concerning the story and why they determined something was a fact or inference.They realized that the process of reading critically is quite different than the process of reading uncritically.Yet, both groups could "read".

What traditional notions of childhood education have done is to reduce early elementary school experiences, for both teachers and students, to the act of teaching and learning rudimentary skills so students can simply memorize and recite information. This form of anorexic-bulimic learning has depicted the content and borders for teaching and learning and left a ruinous educational wake in its stead.Regrouping, decoding, sentence diagramming, grammatical certainty, spelling, memorizing, following formulas and the like, these have all been equated with developmental appropriateness and being intelligent in elementary school.And not only has this resulted in conducting and directing the methods of teaching, it has also provided a structural foundation and upon this house of cards is built the multi-million dollar assessment, or standards industry.

The debate between those who advocate "knowing" as a process of learning basic skills and using these skills for information gathering and retention --- versus those who perceive of "knowing" as an interdisciplinary process of developing skills in the interest of constructing meaning out of a given situation or a given set of facts --- continues unabated.Knowledge, according to the latter view, is socially constructed.This means that the knower is implicated in the act of knowing and brings to the interpretative knowledge process both her historical reality, class, gender location, race, and set of values and personal assumptions and experiences to the process of knowing.Joe Kincheloe speaks to this as he attempts to help us redefine intelligence:

The point of intelligence, therefore, is not to just gather thoughts from memory but to find patterns in those ideas one has collected -- i.e., to gather and choose apart.The process of pattern detection is not simple, however, as it involves the detection of multiple patterns depending on the context in which particular concepts are viewed.Thus the pattern that memory imposes on thoughts must be transcended, as the thinker gains the imaginative ability to see events in ways not necessarily his or her own.[3]

Frankly stated, we don't memorize what we learn and we don't learn what we memorize.We see the logic of what we are attempting to understand and through abstract, systematic thinking, we arrive at decisions, make inferences, come to conclusions, and detect solutions to problems.Committing something to memory, obviously a necessary ingredient in forming a reservoir of knowledge, is quite a different process than memorizing, per se.

In harmony with these awareness' is the understanding that one can have specific skills but not know how to execute them in the interest of the construction of a given project, set of ideas, or creation.For example, knowing how to use a hammer does not mean that one has the intelligence to build a house.And this is especially true if the instruction in learning how to use a hammer is broken down into its fragmentary parts and practiced in rote isolation from the construction of the house itself.These insights seem to be lost on modernistic educational approaches that continue to conceive of formal thinking in elementary schools as the most valued form of thinking --- a thinking that must be learned in fragmented, linear stages. 

There are many reasons for conceiving of learning and education as mere information gathering and rote, skill acquisition.The purpose of this entry is not to discuss the myriad political, economic, racial, psychological, and sexually based topics that contribute to a specific modernistic, technical understanding of knowing as staged skill development and information gathering and retention.However, one issue that must be scrutinized when attempting to analyze the relationship between standardized tests in elementary schools and what they purport to assess, are the psychological assumptions upon which these tests rely.By tying standardized tests in primary school to staged developmental readiness, specific skill acquisition, and rote memorization, these tests have been designed to assess knowledge as information retention and competency as specific skill acquisition.

On the other hand, if we change our assumptions about learning and knowing in the primary grades and conceive of knowing as a holistic, interdisciplinary process that relies upon academic skills and their acquisition as tools for inquiry, discovery, problem solving, critical thinking, and the construction of knowledge, standardized tests would of necessity concentrate on assessing what students can do with what they think they know and how they think they came to know it.They would be one of many powerful tools for helping our students develop thinking processes that they might use to make sense out of their daily lives.Unfortunately, as we shall see, this is not the case.


With the prior discussion in mind, we turn our attention to the California Stanford Achievement Test given to sixth grade students in the state of California.[4]

The test begins with reading vocabulary and students are asked to choose a word or group of words that means the same, or about the same, as the underlined word given them.For example, Sample A states:

Something that is huge is very-





The test goes on to ask students to read a sentence, use the words in the sentence to help them figure out what the underlined word means.Sample B states:

Because the child was very cautious, he looked both ways before crossing the street.Cautious means ---





As the test proceeds, the students are asked to read a sentence in a box.They are then to choose an answer in which the underlined word is used in the same way.Sample C states:

He had a ring on his finger.

In which sentence does the word ring mean the same thing as the sentence above?

a.He lost his new key ring.

b.The teacher will ring the bell.

c.The children held hands to form a ring.

d.She was wearing a gold ring.

What these test questions accomplish is unclear.There is no doubt that students in the elementary grades need to know the meaning and definition of words.However, to test word comprehension with short, irrelevant sentences does little to foster a critical understanding of vocabulary as it pertains to the act of critically interpreting the written word.If we want students to develop effective communication skills of which language usage is paramount, we need to be instructing them to use language in multi-dimensional contexts so they might see the varied uses of language.Simply knowing the meaning of a word does not adequately assess whether a student can use or understand the word within interdisciplinary contexts.Furthermore, by reducing the test to simply vocabulary, teachers are subconsciously or consciously encouraged to spend classroom instructional time to teach word recognition within fragmented, as opposed to holistic, contexts.

The test never asks students to themselves use the words, thereby helping them seat vocabulary within their own subjectivity and context, thereby allowing the reader to see how they perform with specific word usage.And of course the reductionism within the test itself exacerbates the reductionism within teaching.Practice for this test would entail having students read small irrelevant passages similar to the ones in the test, as opposed to critically reading in depth within multi-dimensional contexts.

In the Reading Comprehension section of the test, students are asked to read each question about the passage.They then must decide which is the best answer to the question.The students are giving the following sample:

Tall Tales

Light from the candles bounced of the dark windows and made strange shadows on the walls.After hearing Uncle Sal's stories, we all sat nervously, listening for creaking footsteps and squeaking doors.Leo was the first to speak.

"You don't really believe all those stories out the old Potter place, do you, Uncle Sal?"

"I don't know," Uncle Sal said slowly."No one has seen Mr. Potter in town for the last five years.Some say he hasn't set foot out of the house."

A.What time of day is it in the story?

  1. Morning
  2. Noon
  3. Afternoon
  4. Evening

B.What kind of stories did Uncle Sal tell?

  1. Peaceful
  2. Scary
  3. Sad
  4. Funny

Not only do the questions contained in the Comprehension section of the reading examination fail to ask for any reasoning, relying on recall answers only, but the test itself relies on short, irrelevant passages that are not linked from story to story.The entire conception of reading is divorced from higher order thinking and what it means to critically interpret a story.Instead, reading is reduced to recalling the facts of a brief, irrelevant story for sequencing or recall purposes.Students are asked to perform, not think.

In her forthcoming book, Contradictions of School Reform: The Educational Cost of Standardized Testing, author Linda McNeil found in her discussions with teachers that after reading only short passages like the one above in preparation for the test, students were actually hampered in their ability to read critically.A sixth grade teacher interviewed in the book found that when he gave his students a Newberry Award Winning book to read that after a few minutes they stopped.They were accustomed to reading brief, disjointed passages as in the sample above and simply did not learn to develop and sustain reading habits.Nor were they able to carry information from the first chapter to the next.As a result of the tests and the classroom preparation time devoted to pass it, students were actually undermining their ability to read critically.[5]They were becoming functionally illiterate --- learning how not to read, not how to read.

The Concepts of Number section of the test is no better.Here, students are asked to read each question and then choose the best answer.The following sample is an example:

Which is the numeral for twenty-three?





The test encourages students to do math, not to think mathematically.Once again, no reasoning is required --- solely simple recognition divorced from critical thinking.Math is not seen as something that is necessary for real-life problem solving but is simply reduced to identifying numbers in rote isolation.Computation is divorced from meaningful life problems.Math is presented and constructed as if it existed in a vacuum.

The Mathematics Applications section in the test is similar.Students are given word problems and asked to pick the right answer after applying the correct mathematical formula and computation.Yet once again, students are not asked to think mathematically but instead are asked to manipulate numbers relative to trivial and irrelevant word problems.The test does not assess if students understand the algorithms they are applying.They are never asked to explain their mathematical reasoning, reengineer and explain the thinking processes they used to arrive at the right answer, or even use the algorithm in varied, and multidimensional contexts.Understanding is equated to mathematical manipulation, not mathematical problem solving within real life contexts.The result is that preparation for the examination also concentrates on doing math as opposed to thinking mathematically and students spend inordinate amounts of preparation time ritually manipulating numerics --- often times without knowing why or even caring.

The Spelling section of the examination concentrates on finding the word that is not spelled correctly by having students read a list of words.Fragmented and divorced from any relevant contexts, spelling is assessed in rote isolation from reading or writing where words and language are used.The result collapses into the use of spelling lists and memorization of words as vehicles for passing this portion of the test..

In the Language Mechanic section of the test students are asked to decide which word or group of words belongs in the blank. For example, in Sample A:

He is a student ___________

a.Elementary school

b.Elementary School

c.Elementary School

d.Elementary school

Grammar is also tested in rote isolation from reading comprehension.Grammatical context is non-existent.The implications for classroom teaching can be seen in boring and repetitive grammar exercises partitioned from critical reading and critical writing.

The same is true for the Language Expression section of the test that asks students to read all four groups of words.One group, they are told, forms a correct sentence.They must decide which group of words forms a correct sentence.An example in Sample A is given:

a.Since early this morning.

b.Brian opened the package.

c.Coming down the street.

d.Somewhere in the house.

Once again, by concentrating on short, irrelevant passages the test encourages preparation based on the meaningless manipulation of words, not critical interpretation and expression.Lacing groups of words together parades as literary expression while self-engineered writing about relevant topics is sacrificed to preparing students for the test.

The test goes on to assess science by relying on short passages, as well.For example, one question asks students:

If you have to ride a bicycle at night, you should-----

a.ride facing the traffic

b.wear reflective clothing

c.make noise so you can be heard

d.carry an extra rider to help you

Students are never asked to construct or develop their own products or experimental designs and thus we do not know what they really know about science, only what they have memorized.Further, they are never asked to explain their answers, to give reasons for why they believe what they believe.The tests fail to tell us whether students understand the scientific process for they are never asked to observe, test, or otherwise expose scientific hypothesis' and ideas to critical scrutiny.

The Stanford Achievement Test is similar to most tests used throughout the nation.From a critical thinking standpoint, it concentrates on testing passive literacy as opposed to active literacy.The result is not simply inauthentic assessment, but inauthentic, passive teaching and learning as students and teacher alike are forced to spend inordinate amounts of time planning for inauthentic testing, thereby sacrificing what could be a rich curriculum to phony assessment preparation.Preparation substitutes for learning.

Part of the problem with standardized testing lies with the modernistic assumptions upon which it is constructed; assumptions that serve to define notions of intelligence; assumptions that reduces learning and knowing to pre-ordained linear stages and thus argue that students in the younger grades simply cannot reason.Unconsciously the modernistic approach to defining intelligence serves to foster low expectations of students and translates into designing bankrupt educational opportunities for their learning.This universalistic modernism has been the foundation for these tests and it is important to examine, in part, the assumptions that oxygenate it.


Perhaps the most important guiding psychological philosophy still dominant in educational circles today, and specifically within elementary education, is the work of Jean Piaget.Piaget's writings in the area of educational psychology have appeared for more than half a century but until recently, have received little critical scrutiny.Though Piaget formulated many theoretical positions regarding behavior and learning, it is his notion of developmental stages of cognitive growth that has had the largest impact on early childhood education.

According to Piaget, a child goes through cognitive developmental stages that occur as a result of a combination of maturation, physical and logical mathematical levels, social experience, and equilibration.These developmental stages were important for Piaget for they implied what was developmentally appropriate at specific ages in terms of providing learning opportunities and developmentally appropriate subject matter content.

For Piaget, the process of knowing was not one that was constructed by the learner.On the contrary, Piaget psychologized the study of cognition outside of a child's particular situation in life.He observed learning as a psychological process --- learning decontextualized from sociological, political, economic, and other phenomenon.By psychologizing learning divorced from social and personal context, Piaget effectively removed cultural, racial, gender, and class conditions from his formulation of learning and subjective formation.The Piagetian formulation of developmental stages removed social interaction, diversity, gender, culture, race, and socio-economic class from the intelligent equation.Coupled with this was Piaget's belief that the highest order of intelligence was that found in formal mathematical-scientific reasoning --- Cartesian-Newtonian ways of knowing.The entire affective dimension of learning was marginalized in favor of purely rational thought formations.In the words of Kincheloe:

Schools and standardized test makers, assuming that formal operation of thought represents the highest level of human cognition, focus their efforts on its coalition and measurement.Students, teachers, and workers who move beyond formality are often un-rewarded and sometimes even punished in educational and work-related contexts.[6]

Accepting Piaget's theories of intelligence and learning designed around cognitive developmental stages afforded modernistic educators a structural approach to defining and measuring intelligence.It also allowed the system to develop calibrating mechanisms called Standardized tests, to decide what students would succeed and which students would not.These tests became "technologies of power" that operated to include and exclude.[7]

Schools and standardized test designers consequently focused their attention on measuring what they saw as the highest order of intelligence.This one-dimensional definition of intelligence has formed the basis and rational for the standardized tests given to elementary school students and by so doing, has defined the method and theory behind instruction.Piaget's theories rationalized early childhood learning; teaching elementary school students was now thought of as a linear process that was to be undertaken in stages, based on what was defined as developmentally appropriate --- even though this "appropriateness" was defined generically and outside the realm of cultural context and individual understanding.

However Piaget's theories are not without its critics.In 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner startled the educational field by publishing his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.[8]Gardner's contribution to the field of cognitive psychology cannot be underestimated.His work, for the first time, specifically challenged Western societal assumptions underlying the definition of intelligence and forcefully argued that the conception of intelligence used to construct teaching practices and the assessment of learning were narrow and theoretically shortsighted.Gardner understood that intelligence could not be reduced to measurement by some short "objective test".And Gardner was not convinced by the Piagetian notions of intelligence that measured verbal, mathematical and scientific reasoning at the exclusion of what he called "multiple intelligences."He seemed to be aware of the social construction of knowledge and his work challenged the linear, one-dimensional conception of knowledge.Gardner posited not only multiple intelligences, but multiple ways of knowing.His work postulated that rational, Cartesian ways of knowing were not the beginning and end of intelligence but represented simply one form of intelligence.By expanding the notion of intelligence to embrace multiplicity in thought, Gardner both democratized it as a concept as well as theoretically challenged the preconceptions that marked both the theory and its application to assessment and learning practices.Human potential, argued Gardner, was developed by paying attention to the multiplicity of intelligences and designing educational opportunities that would help tease out these intelligences and allow them to flourish while consequently assessing their development in the interests of personal growth and self-improvement.

Gardner's notion of multiple intelligence and his attempt to formulate a neo-Piagetian conceptual understanding of intelligence has more than mere academic implications.Gardner and others who have attempted to push the cognitive psychological envelope have argued that a new understanding of intelligence would of necessity require a new form of teaching and learning.This, of course, would spark the need for new and different forms of assessment --- from standardized test to daily teacher assessments in the classroom.Adopting a theory of multiple intelligences would force teaching to examine itself and theorize about its activities and assumptions.Similarly, it would force a new look at assessment and standardized tests -- one that looked at assessment as an act designed to encourage students to become self-assessors --- to be able to consistently take a critical self inventory and become continuous lifelong learners by embracing positive, constructive critique.

This notion of self-assessment, or metacogntion, is foreign to current standardized approaches to testing and those who advocate their use.Challenging the current world-view regarding assessment and learning promises to reconstitute our understanding of intelligence.This will help define the activities and learning opportunities we need to provide students in the interest of allowing them to gain and examine intelligence within the disciplines they are exposed to --- not to mention their own subjective lives.


Because Piagetian notions of intelligence view knowledge acquisition as occurring within developmental stages, many educators of young children have thought to abandon reasoning arguing that their students are simply not developmentally ready for critical thinking.Not only does this educational posture negate the experiences that children bring to the classroom, but it rests its conclusions on the premise that students cannot do intellectual work.The result, then translates into not giving them intellectual work to do.

Certainly the appropriateness of instruction and specific instructional techniques is crucial to successful learning among young people.For this reason, we argue that in shaping critical thinking activities for students in the early grades, we must recognize their developmental readiness and the appropriateness of instruction and instructional techniques.However, to abandon reasoning about conflict and problems that students confront both within and outside of school in favor of mere trivial pursuits designed to provide opportunities to refine and hone skills in isolation, is to do a dis-service to today's elementary school students and to society at large.

According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, if one takes into account the nature of a child's thought, then:

Any subject can be taught to any child in some honest form.[9]

Thus, beginning with and going through their own experiences, any abstraction can be concretized within the child's prior and present experiences in ways that allow for inquiry within the pursuit of knowing.The need, therefore, is to gear the instruction to the students' dominant mode of representation and development.

We find that students reason within their own experiences and then eventually broaden their reasoning as their reasoning matures.For example, in asking students to reason about the abstract concept of environmental protection, the teacher might begin with something in the students' experience --- say environmental protection at home, or at school, or in the neighborhood.From there, spiraling instruction outward, she can begin to work with students to extend students' understanding of environmental protection to the rainforest or the redwoods.Reasoning inductively within a child's experience allows teachers to take something that they might have thought too conceptual for children and present these concepts within a context that allows students to critically reason about the abstractions in what they are learning.And as they are reasoning, they will find they need tools such as reading, writing, interpreting, communicating, and other "skills" to make sense of that they are reasoning about. In this way students come to acquire and appreciate basic skills within the context of reasoning, not separated and divorced from it.Learning begins to take on an urgency --- a relevancy and appropriateness within the child's subjective and objective life.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children makes similar arguments for providing students in the early grades reasoning opportunities.In a 1987 report they make the following points:

…the child' active participation in self-directed play, with concrete real life experiences, continues to be a key to motivated, meaningful learning in kindergarten and primary grades.

Meaningful learning materials and activities include … positive interactions and problem solving opportunities with other children and adults.

Adults… extend the child's learning by asking questions or making suggestions that stimulate the children's thinking.

Six year olds are becoming interested in games and rules and develop concepts and problem-solving skills from these experiences.[10]

Yet this all seems to be lost on the standardized test makers and proponents.As we saw in the Stanford Achievement Test, reasoning is simply not the object of concern.


For those who propose that schooling should be designed to help students learn how to think and not what to think, the standardized tests prevalent throughout the nation are not simply insincere methods for assessing students, they are harmful activities that promise to stupefy as opposed to edify.They fail to test active, critical thinking and because they are mandated and tied to teacher and principal performance and job security, they actually perpetuate poor teaching and inauthentic learning.They create an educational environment of irrational necessity.This does not simply impose a minor disservice to educators but culminates in a ruinous educational theory and practice --- a vicious and cruel hoax perpetrated on students, teachers, and the public at large.

Critical thinking advocates argue that authentic testing would and must concentrate on helping students in the elementary grades learn to monitor their own thinking and performance --- to engage in metacognition.The tests should focus on assessing whether a student has understood the logic of what they are studying.As the tests are currently constructed, students have little interest in seeing if they have passed, where they might have errored and why, or what the test actually means.They do not look a these tests as a tool for supervising their own thinking which is why many students simply fill in the blanks or bubble in the "answers" without thinking.The tests themselves are irrelevant and divorced from meaning.Thus, not only are the tests inauthentic, but they fail to motivate either the teacher or the student to monitor their own thinking for purposes of self evaluation and correction; in other words, neither teachers, parents, nor students profit from the test results.The real winners are the multinational corporations that publish the tests and the politicians, real estate agents, and pundits that mandate and rely on their presence.Authentic testing would engage students in metacognition within a relevant, problem posing curriculum.By testing reasoning, authentic assessments would actually help students think critically --- not to mindlessly take tests.

A perfect example of this can be found in science instruction and assessment.As we saw by looking at the Stanford Achievement Test, traditional science assessment still concentrates primarily on having students passively memorize science information.Yet what is needed is to help students develop a deeper connection between scientific understanding and relevant, real life situations as they probe the inner logic of what they are studying.In the science classroom of tomorrow, instruction hopefully will be based primarily on helping students think critically about science problems.

A good example of authentic assessment in science can be found in the Massachusetts Department of Education response test questions posed to elementary students concerning endangerment and extinction.

When prairie dogs are near farms they eat farmer's crops.Because of this, farmers have killed thousands of prairie dogs.Black-footed ferrets eat prairie dogs.Explain what problem this poses for the ferrets and why this is a problem.

The following was one student's response:

If there aren't enough prairie dogs for the ferrets to eat many of them will starve to death.That is because prairie dogs are their main food.If farmers kill most or all of the prairie dogs, this will be a big problem because most of the ferrets might die.This would mean that their population would become very low.This would mean that they would become extinct.Then there would never be any other ferrets.And maybe this would not just be a problem for the ferrets.If other animals deepened on the ferrets for their food, hey would become extinct too.[11]

Clearly what is being tested here is scientific reasoning as it pertains to the concepts of extinction and endangerment.We can see that the student understands the logic of extinction as she:

1.Can clearly understand the problem or question at issue;

2.Can clearly use language to identify the problem with accuracy and clarity;

3.Can use the concept extinction critically;

4.Can make plausible inferences based on substantiated assumptions;

5.Can recognize assumptions and marshal evidence for them;

6.Can understand the implications and consequences of extinction;

7.Can synthesize the subject matter insights and transfer these insights into new situations.

Compare and contrast this assessment question with the Stanford Achievement Test of the same grade that asks students:

Which is characteristic of an animal?

a.Needs oxygen to live

b.Has roots

c.Uses carbon dioxide

d.Uses sunlight to make food.[12]

In another authentic science assessment given in fourth grade, students are asked to illustrate their understanding of the ecosystem.The student is given a picture of an aquarium.In the picture is an aquarium with six items labeled.The student is then asked, "Which of the six items are important to use in or with an aquarium?Explain why each is important."[13]The items included a thermometer, a plant, a light, a castle, a rock, and a snail.This activity forces students to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant ingredients necessary for an ecosystem and why.To do this the student must understand:

1.The purpose of each item and its adequacy;

2.The question at issue or problem to be solved;

3.The underlying assumptions behind why specific items are important;

4.How to make plausible inferences from the items selected;

5.How to support their position with evidence;

6.How to understand the implications of each item in the overall system;

7.How to apply the concept of ecosystem constructively to a given situation.

Compare and contrast this with the portion of the Stanford Achievement Test that provides a black and white picture of an ecosystem containing water and asks:

Which of these characteristics would best suit an animal living in this environment?

a.Sharp hooves


c.Branched horns

d.Webbed feet

In mathematics, authentic assessment would look similar to that discussed in science.In a third grade assessment adapted from the New Standards Project in Wisconsin in 1991, the following math problem was given to students.

The class is told they will be getting a thirty-gallon aquarium.The class will have twenty five dollars to spend on fish.The students will plan which fish to buy using the Choosing Fish for Your Aquarium (available at any pet store) to help them choose the fish.The brochure explains the size of the fish, how much they cost, and their needs.Students choose as many different kinds of fish as they can, and then they write a letter to the principal of the school explaining the fish they have chosen.In the letter they must:

1.tell the principal how many of each kind of fish to buy;

2.give reasons why they chose the fish they did;

3.and exhibit how they are not overspending and that the fish will not be too crowded or non-compatible.[14]

This is far different than the Stanford Achievement Test that asks for no student reasoning and simply requires that students look at pictures and statements and circle correct answers.Here the student must write, compute mathematics, identify problems, make decisions, support their thinking with reasoning, and use the information they are given critically.


Linda McNeil obtained the following unsolicited correspondence while preparing her book:

The town's head librarian loved to encourage the children of his small, isolated farming community to read.He frequently went to the local school to read to the children.Most recently, he had been reading to a class of "at-risk" eighth graders --- students who had been held back two or more years in school.They loved his reading and his choices of books.He reports feeling very frustrated: the department chair has told him not to come any more to read to the students --- they are too busy preparing for the Texas Achievement of Academic Skills test (TAAS).[15]

And in one elementary school the following chant was taught to students:

Three in a row?No, No, No!

(Three answers "b" in a row?)No, No, No![16]

These represent repressive activities that students and teachers engage in to prepare for the inauthentic Texas Achievement of Academic skills test, similar to the Stanford Achievement Test.In many urban and suburban communities around the nation, education has been compromised and the curriculum reduced to little more than test-taking strategies to be learned in preparation for high stakes testing.Commercial test-prep materials are being sold to schools at alarming rates and for unconscionable profits.These materials become substitutes for the regular curriculum and teachers and students focus' becomes oriented around taking the inauthentic test, not providing opportunities for students to learn how to think.And because many principals' jobs have been increasingly tied to the test results, teachers are finding that they regularly have to abandon authentic teaching in favor of illegitimate test-taking preparation.Drilling students, force feeding students information, substituting learning with memorization, abandoning a curriculum of reasoning in favor of one of acting and performing, and reducing time to test-taking strategies have all had the negative and pernicious effect of de-skilling teachers and students.The result has been devastating.

If inauthentic testing continues unchallenged, we can be assured that learning will continue to focus on such menial and trivial pursuits as I have attempted to describe above.Raising test scores is no substitution for genuine teaching and accelerating critical learning.In the early primary grades, we should be concerned that teacher constraints imposed by standardized testing promise to disfigure true educational efforts and cripple critical learning.This is unacceptable at a time when learning how to learn and how to reason are so crucial to the sustenance of individuality and social survival.Furthermore, by defining intelligence narrowly and hierarchically, these exams assure that multiple intelligences will not be taught to students and that students particular intelligences will not be recognized or valued.This is an act of intellectual robbery.The fact that these tests eschew any notion of emotional intelligences or the affective dimension of learning is reprehensible and offers testimony to the callous abandonment of much of what we have discovered and learned about intelligence within the last two decades.


There has been little public questioning or scrutiny of the role of assessment and its connection to authentic teaching and learning.Propagandistic renderings by an obsequious and maladjusted media have left parents and communities with a erroneous understanding of the nature and contents of these tests and just what they have been designed to accomplish.And, the standardized tests imposed on teachers, students, and their parents and the community have been accepted based on false assumptions of intelligence, thereby perpetrating unsound theories of how children learn and consequently depriving the public discussion of inquiring as to the best methods for teaching and learning.What is happening to instruction and the students it serves is virtually invisible to a public nurtured on demagogic claims by standardized test makers and their paid constituencies.This is unconscionable and it is the role of every educator to protest the distortion in teaching and learning taking place in the name of standardized tests --- particularly in the elementary schools where the foundation of good reasoning and critical thinking must be advocated and nurtured.

What is needed is an accounting system for testing that links authentic assessment to authentic learning.If this can be done, then teaching to the test can become an act of creativity as opposed to an act of intellectual abandonment.The standard debate must be transformed into a debate over learning and teaching.The tests themselves must be held accountable to a more enlightened and rational approach to knowing and what it means to be an intelligent person.Only in this way can we transform the false debate over test "results" into a real debate regarding the "process" of learning.If we as educators can accomplish this, we will have not only educated the public as to what intelligence means, but we will have provided a theory and structure within which critical thinking opportunities can be afforded to all students by all teachers --- regardless of class, gender, cultural background or race.

[1] Aronowitz, S. (1993). Roll over Beethoven: The return of cultural strife. Hanover, NH. Wesleyan University Press.

[2] Macedo, D. (1994) Literacies of power. What Americans are not allowed to know. Westview Press. Boulder, CO.

[3] Kincheloe, J. (1999). The post-formal reader. pp. 12. New York: Falmer Press.

[4] Stanford Achievement Test: Intermediate 2 (1989).Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 

[5] McNeill, L. in Rethinking Schools. The educational cost of standardization. Pp. 9. ReThinking Schools. Summer 2000.Milwaukee: WI.

[6] Ibid. 19. 

[7]Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punishment: the birth of the prison.New York: Pantheon.

[8] Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

[9] Bruner, J. (1971). The relevance of education. New York: Norton.

[10] National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth to age 8. Washington, D.C.

[11] The Massachusetts Department of Education (1989). Science assessment. Boston: MA.

[12] Stanford Achievement Test: Intermediate 2 (1989).Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (1991). The New Standards Project. Milwaukee: WI.

[15] McNeill, L (1999). in Rethinking Schools. The educational cost of standardization. Pp. 8. ReThinking Schools. Summer 2000.Milwaukee: WI.

[16] Ibid.

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