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Let's Teach Students to Think Critically, Not Test Mindlessly

For the benefit of the nation, we must limit the use of testing and employ it strategically as a tool that can help students view learning with curiosity and frame their responsibilities as citizens of a great country.
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Superintendent Josh Starr's take on some of the education policies of the Obama administration is like a breath of fresh air. Starr, who leads public schools in Montgomery County, Md., maintains that a relentless focus on high-stakes testing is, at best, misguided and, at worst, may limit the ability of future generations to solve society's problems.

In calling for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing, Starr has said we need to "stop the insanity" of evaluating teachers based on student test scores, as recently reported in the Washington Post. He calls it "bad science" to rely on testing to measure teacher quality.

Starr is not the first educational leader to observe that teaching students to take a test is not the same as teaching them to think critically. But he is the most vocal leader of a large school district to question the testing mandates of the Obama administration.

Others also fear that we are encouraging memorization at the expense of cognitive-processing skills that enable people to assess options, synthesize sets of information into a new form, and evaluate the consequences of their decisions, among other tasks.

A recent conversation with a Columbia University professor who works with international students brought this to mind for me. The professor recalled a Chinese student saying that while fellow students from China excel on tests, including international assessments in reading, writing and mathematics, American students are more adept at thinking critically and creatively. In other words, memorization is the easy part; applying academic thought to real-world problems is the greater challenge.

The classroom is the best laboratory we have to develop practical skills for life. When guided by an effective teacher, sustained efforts to increase reading comprehension, writing and expression, and enhance interdisciplinary and collaborative exploratory projects, remain the sine qua non of education improvement.

Yet most districts spend an inordinate amount of time preparing students to take the high-stakes tests used to assess progress and move students through the academic pipeline toward graduation. Practice tests are given, test-preparation materials developed by the publishers of these same tests are purchased, and students are flooded with isolated facts that often are forgotten once they put the pencil down, never to be revisited as curriculum and instructional focus shifts to the next round of tests.

Children in all districts -- urban, rural and suburban -- are subject to our test-driven culture. Its effect on urban students, however, is of greatest concern to me. While these tests are designed to help close the "knowledge gap" among low-income students and those from wealthier families, I'd argue that the reverse is happening. Our testing culture may, in fact, limit the knowledge urban students and those challenged by poverty need to build throughout their academic careers -- from preschool to post-high school.

Here's why: Children challenged by poverty lack the enrichment opportunities -- travel, visits to cultural institutions, tutoring support and music, art and instrumental training -- that tend to be more available to children from wealthier families. As a result, low-income children become what we at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education call "school-dependent," relying on schools to fill in these "prior knowledge" gaps. More time spent on test preparation, however, means less time to take cultural field trips, engage in art and music and other cognitive activities that might narrow this gap.

Family circumstances can intensify the imbalance. Many poor children live in single-parent households, where that parent -- typically, the mother -- must hold two or more low-wage jobs to make ends meet, leaving for work at the crack of dawn and returning late at night, with precious time to engage with a young son or daughter. Children from wealthier families are more likely to have parents with the educational and financial resources to guide their early learning and expose them to more enrichment activities outside of school.

In his highly acclaimed "Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count," author Richard E. Nisbett powerfully suggests that: "Within each race, prior knowledge predicted learning and reasoning, but between the races it was only prior knowledge that differed, not learning or reasoning ability." The lack of enrichment experiences, rather than a lack of intelligence, is what causes students of color to fall behind academically.

In their book, "The Myths of Standardized Tests: What They Don't Tell You What You Think They Do," authors Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith and Joan Harris ask: "Why testing, and why now? The short answer to both questions is that today, accountability rules ... No Child Left Behind brought to a head 20 years of a misguided approach to accountability that has grown progressively more misguided.

"The model of accountability that our policy makers generally espouse takes an 'industrial' approach to schooling. It defines the value of all our education efforts strictly in terms of test scores and so makes increasing those scores the primary goal of our schools. It's as if our leaders believe that you can gather up a bushel of high test scores -- fresh from the academic assembly line -- and take them to market and cash them in for future prosperity."

It makes me think about that student from China, who can ace any test but envies American students for their ability to solve problems and be creative. We need to hold on to that competitive advantage.

For the benefit of the nation, we must limit the use of testing and employ it strategically as a tool that can help students view learning with curiosity and frame their responsibilities as citizens of a great country.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at