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The answer to the question in my headline title, “Is It Dumb to Give Preschoolers Standardized Tests?” is unequivocal:  yes.  It’s dumb.  Don’t do it.  Please don’t do it.   It’s a false metric with false goals that simply reinforces the twentieth-century’s interminable confusion of “standards” with “standardization.”  We can do so much better.

For an analysis of the proposal, from the Department of Education, as part of Race to the Top, and for a strident denunciation of the plan, check out ed blogger Valerie Strauss’s post in the Washington Post today:Why giving standardized tests to young children is really dumb:  She writes, “Testing young children may be cruel, has not worked out well in the past, often provides unreliable scores and therefore invalid inferences about the abilities of children are made too often, David Berliner writes. So why are we doing it?”

Most people don’t realize that the United States is the most “test-happy” society on the planet.   We test earlier and more often than anyone else.   Strauss’s point is that pre-schoolers don’t even have a clear sense of the function of testing, an ability to focus on “right” answers (as adult conceive them), or even a maturity about the control of themselves required to take standardized tests.   The very idea seems to come from people who have never raised young children themselves—or never were young children, a critique I often make of those who critique “the younger generation.”  ( Really, people?  Do you even vaguely remember what it felt like not to be a middle-aged pundit?)

There is nothing wrong with real-time, feedback-oriented, integrated testing in the sense of the challenges that games and other venues offer us.   And I value the motivation in Race to the Top, the desire to assess national and regional and local scores so educators can see where they are lacking and where they need to improve.   But you don’t do that by inflicting the wrong standards at the wrong time.   Given the new computational methods we have, sophisticated ones that allow us to create learning games that, in fact, “test” you by giving you a challenge and reward your success by giving you an even greater challenge, it is dreadful to think of four year olds now having to fill in those same little A, B, C, D, None of the Above item-response answers invented in 1914 for one reason and one reason only:  efficiency.

If we could turn out identical Model T cars (any color you want as long as it is black) on an assembly line, couldn’t we turn out identical public-school educated poor and immigrant kids (for that was the original focus) but standardizing testing requirements?   And so the multiple choice test was invented, “lower order thinking,” as it was called, tested among the “lower orders,” as they were called.   Dreadful then, renounced by their creator shortly thereafter, and then institutionalized by the Scholastic Aptitude People in the late 1920s and now inflicted on American school kids more often and earlier than everywhere else—but also inflicted on the world’s kids, everywhere else.

When I was interviewing people for Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, I asked a lot of questions about testing for the chapter called “How We Measure.”   I met  brilliant innovators (experts and ordinary people who had found great solutions to the problems that face us all in the 21st century), and I always asked them about the “tests” and “challenges” that had inspired their lives.   Just as everyone can name the teacher who helped them find their intellectual or creative spark, who made a difference, almost anyone who can claim any success in the world (however you define that term) can tell you a great challenge they faced as a youngster and succeeded against.  The tests we “ace” create our life-memories, our self-confidence, our ability to go ahead and we never forget our small victories and our large ones, the challenges upon which we stand thereafter.

When I asked the question “what was the most important challenge you ever faced–and why?” not one single person said, “Oh, it was that SAT test I took” or “the end-of-grade exam in seventh grade.”   Tests should give us feedback, they should encourage our learning, they should give us the mettle to succeed in the future.   They should not be busy work, more coins in the coffers of the for-profit test makers, or a way to brutalize kids and penalize parents.   Unfortunately, our national educational policy of “No Child Left Behind” is based on the worst, most irrelevant form of testing.   And now the proposal is to extend that testing to preschoolers.   Start ’em young.  No, please.  That’s a terrible idea.  It is tragic.  It is dumb.


Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher’s Weekly notes:  “Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come.” PW named it one of the “top 10 science books” of the Fall 2011 season.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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