Undoing the Damage of Standardized Testing: A Call for Thinking and Creativity in the Classroom

Undoing the Damage of Standardized Testing: A Call for Thinking and Creativity in the Classroom


Eisner (2005) states what we decide to teach in our schools determines whether or not we are genuinely educating our students. What we teach and how it is measured molds the kind of minds our students will possess. As Horton and Freire (1990) assert, 'we make the road by walking.' In education, the paths we choose as teachers have a direct and lasting impact on each child with whom we come in contact. Unfortunately, curriculum in the public schools today is driven by assessment. Testing all children from the

third grade on up to ascertain that they possess adequate reading skills sounds good in theory. Let's 'leave no child behind;' let's make sure each one can read. The problem does not lie in the rhetoric; the problem lies in its application. In a well-meaning attempt to try to ensure uniformity and fairness for all, we are being unfair to the very children we are trying to aid. Art and music are an integral part of the curriculum in schools where the children perform well on standardized testing but are disappearing in places where the population of the school is primarily a marginalized subgroup. The 'back to basics' curriculum actually includes nothing but the basics, and the less-advantaged children are being intellectually and culturally shortchanged.

If we value creativity in our citizenry and communities, it must first be cultivated in our schools. Richard Florida, in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, addresses the need for creativity in our communities. Florida believes creativity can and must be developed for everyone to have an opportunity to meaningfully participate in society. He states, 'Human creativity is a virtually limitless resource. Every human being is creative in some way... creativity is the great leveler. It cannot be handed down, and it cannot be 'owned' in the traditional sense. It defies gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and outward appearance' (p.xiv). As teachers, the challenge is to find a way to balance the demands of standardized testing while at the same time ensuring all students have an opportunity to develop cognitively and creatively to their full potential.

Evidence of a Problem

Visit a third grade classroom during the month of February; witness firsthand the stress these eight- and nine-year-old children are under to pass the state-mandated test. Not passing the test means not getting promoted to fourth grade; it means facing failure and defeat at a very young age. The weeks before the test the children are agitated and distractible, whispering to each other when changing classes or walking down the hall on the way to lunch. They report having trouble sleeping and eating; feeling worried just all the time. 'I'm afraid everything I know will go out of my head,' one pudgy eight-year-old confides in me. 'If I have to go to summer school to keep trying to pass the test I won't be able to visit my grandma in Missouri with my sister,' a curly haired girl muses. 'I just wish it would hurry up and be over so my life could get back to normal,' expresses a very wired gifted and talented student. Each student in every third grade classroom is affected; the gifted and talented student who is afraid of anything but success, the average student who is unsure of his aptitude for a test he's never taken, and especially the struggling student who has little confidence in his own abilities anyway. For the struggling reader the test is quite likely to contain content he may not comprehend or relate to; vocabulary he may not understand.

The Faces of the Problem

Which children are at the greatest disadvantage when taking a standardized reading test? Is it the child from the affluent household with a wealth of experiences who is exposed on a daily basis to a rich vocabulary and appropriate use of grammar and syntax? This same child who has been read to since infancy, taught nursery rhymes, sent to preschool, and has a home library of hundreds of children's books. What about the child from a disenfranchised subgroup; the child whose family never had the resources for preschool or children's books? Would the child whose parent(s) speaks broken English or no English be at a disadvantage? What about the child of a non-reader? Which child is more likely to go to summer camp? Which one to summer school?

As a teacher in a diversely populated public elementary school, I have an opportunity to see firsthand who the standardized testing is snaring. In my school, it is the child from a family of migrant farm workers, the child of an interstate truck driver who is in his third different school this year, the little girl whose parents split in January and are in the middle of a bitter custody battle, two little boys with August birthdays, a quiet girl who is frequently sick but has to wait for hours in the nurse's office because her single mother can't afford to lose any of the hourly wages from her minimum wage job, the slight boy who is living with his aunt this year because his father is in jail on drug charges, and the little girl who has just moved from Louisiana and a school system that had not prepared her for the rigor and endurance required to pass an all-day reading test. These are the faces of some of the children who will be spending their summer in a classroom instead of a park or a swimming pool. Children who have few opportunities for intellectual growth outside the classroom; children with so many issues unrelated to their reading abilities that affect their performance outcomes.

Why is it valued?

Besides the obvious injustice of who is actually affected by the pass-or-repeat ultimatum dictated by the state, the real dilemma is how we got in this mess in the first place. How did our schools become so pathetic that what is important and what is valued is the outcome of a multiple choice test containing less-than-interesting reading passages? The biggest error is placing any value on this test in the first place. What is important in our schools is not the outcome of a multiple choice test, but the thinking and creative abilities of our students. Can the children think for themselves? Can they come up with unique solutions to problems and generate their own problems for others to solve? Can they analyze, synthesize, justify, and infer? We must decide what the goals of our society are to be concerning the education of our children.

A Response

Rather than focusing on pinpointing the 'right answer' for a multiple choice test, what can be done to promote thinking in our students that is more critical, more creative, and more caring? For students to become the thoughtful citizens our democracy demands, they need to do more than simply acquire knowledge. Children are quite capable at even an early age of monitoring their own thoughts and giving reasons for their beliefs. The school needs to be an inquiring community where reasoning and judgment are taught, sought, welcomed, and encouraged. Matthew Lipman (2003) defines a community of inquiry as a process that has a 'sense of direction and moves where the argument takes it.' He further stipulates that a community of inquiry is not merely discussion but is dialogic; it has a structure. In a community of learners, dialogue is used to create meaning. Catherine Belsey (2002) refers to Saussure's idea that meaning is differential, not referential. Meaning depends on difference. To find that difference in the classroom, multiple voices must be heard and affirmed. For teachers and students, this means engaging in a critical discourse Shor (1999) refers to as 'the third idiom.' The third idiom is the local discourse invented in the classroom as the power struggles between teacher and students are negotiated through a new code which is a hybrid discourse. In this way the students share in the power within the classroom.

Ira Shor (1996), echoing back to Dewey and Freire, states 'that power is a learning problem and learning is a power problem.' In Shor's book, Critical Teaching & Everyday Life, published in 1987, he questions 'the role of lectures and texts in a dialogic course.' For critical pedagogy to be implemented in the classroom there must be a minimum of teacher-talk and an end put to the one-way transmission of knowledge. The teacher's role in a community of inquiry is to function as a facilitator. Henry Giroux, in his introduction in Freire's book, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, contends it is important 'for teachers to develop pedagogies that allow them to assert their own voices while still being able to encourage students to affirm, tell, and retell their personal narratives by exercising their own voices.' Critical and creative thinking are fostered when the classroom is 'a setting for the negotiation of understandings, for deliberation about reasons and options, for the examination of interpretations' (Lipman, 2003).

To promote and improve the quality of conversations that take place in the classroom, one first must look at the framework. Classroom arrangement is one factor. The room should be arranged so that students can see and hear each other during discussion. For quality conversations to take place students need to engage each other, not direct all questions and comments to the teacher.Also, the teacher needs to act as a facilitator for the students' ideas, modeling the behavior desired in the students. Classroom thinking can be measured by observations, recordings, and interviews.

After teaching and modeling critical and creative thinking, some type of formal or informal measurement can by used to recognize the improvement in thinking of our students. We need to think about what would count as evidence of students thinking critically and creatively and how that could be measured without a pencil and paper test. Feuerstein (1980) identified ten characteristics of intellectual growth that a teacher can observe and document. The first characteristic is perseverance. Thinking students use alternate methods to solve problems and don't give up in despair if the answer to the problem is not immediately evident. Decreased impulsiveness is another evidence of increased thinking and reflection on the part of the student. A third characteristic of intellectual growth is flexible thinking. Students exhibit flexible thinking when they can consider and express the viewpoints of others, thus stating multiple ways to solve the same problem. Metacognition shows a growth in thinking as the students are now able to describe the visual images and pathways taken as they become aware of their own thinking. Careful review is an aspect of intellectual growth as students review the criteria expected for their finished products.

The sixth characteristic is problem posing. With problem posing, the students ask the questions and envision the problems themselves. The use of past knowledge and experiences is another way students are able to apply meaning from past experiences to new ones. Another feature of growth in thinking skills is transference beyond the learning situation. Since the ultimate goal in education is for students to be able to apply what is learned in school to real-life situations, transferring occurs when evidence of previous thinking is seen at home or in other classes. Precise language is evidenced by students using more descriptive words and providing supportive proof for their ideas. Finally, students experiencing intellectual growth should show enjoyment of problem solving. Rather than avoiding problems, students are noticed seeking out problems. By keeping anecdotal records on each child, the teacher will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of a critical stance in the classroom.

How can we teach children to think about thinking and to become social constructivists in the classroom? Paulo Freire (1987) sees thinking, feeling, and action as ways we make sense of the world. Freire further states that, 'the educator needs to recognize that knowledge is not a piece of data, something immobilized, concluded, finished, something to be transferred by one who acquired it to one who still does not possess it' (p.41). Children learn to think by listening to others think out loud so they can build on each other's ideas and challenge one another to give reasons and justify their beliefs. Children learn best through the shared experience of language, not with a paper and pencil test.

As Pinar (1996) writes in Understanding Curriculum, 'Discourse, as poststructuralists employ the term, communicates the social relatedness of the human world and more specifically, our social relatedness as inscribed in and expressed through language... .The human world is a world of language.' Language and dialogue are the keys to engaging children in meaningful conversation which broadens their ideas and views about the content areas and their world outside the classroom.

Final Thoughts

There must be a place in the curriculum for wonder and imagination in the classroom in order to develop thinking and creativity in our future citizens. As Eisner states in The Arts and the Creation of Mind, 'A culture populated by a people whose imagination is impoverished has a static future. In such a culture there will be little change because there will be little sense of possibility.' Schools have become so test-driven that little attention is paid to imagination and creativity, yet creativity is vital for our classrooms and communities. Regarding creativity, Florida contends, 'it is something essential that belongs to all of us, and that must always be fed, renewed and maintained - or else it will slip away.' If we want to undo the damage of multiple choice tests, we must foster thinking and creativity in our students before it is too late.


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