No Child Left to Learn

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“Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid through education.”

– Bertrand Russell

In this post, we explore a limitation of standardized test-based assessments of student performance by thinking about what it means to learn. If the purpose of K-12 education is to teach children to be thinkers, multiple choice tests do a poor job at assessing learning ability.

‘Testing well’ on standardized exams may indicate that a student has become proficient at regurgitating facts, identifying which formula to use, and memorizing a five-paragraph structure for constructing an essay.  But ‘learning’ asks for more than these things. Learning requires that students think critically about facts being presented to them, understand how to convert data and knowledge into ideas and wisdom, and develop intellectual curiosity to continue learning after school (when most people stop their education).

Laws such as No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) that reward schools based on the ability to meet test score standards will create incentives that ensure a generation of good test takers, and not necessarily great learners. We call this systems archetype “Seeking the Wrong Goal.” Instead of allowing a flexible and organic lesson plan, ‘successful’ teachers have to focus on known test subjects, teach to the test  and push for memorization to ensure higher test scores.


When success is defined by test score results, we teach students to find the predetermined answer to the question that the teacher asked – they are pleasing a teacher, who is pleasing the school administration, who is pleasing the Department of Education. When these students go to college, they then please their professors. And when they enter the workplace, they please their bosses. This is a system that rewards us when we perform on par with other people’s definitions of success.

Real learning requires questioning statements, researching potential answers, and being challenged by others when we are wrong. We have Wikipedia today for fact-checking and knowledge consumption. Why should children be tested on things that they can (and will) use computers to do? Life is not a multiple choice test.

Jules Henry wondered what would happen if students “were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive, the two-party system, monogamy, … and so on”? This type of bold questioning challenges students to examine deeply ingrained beliefs that are less likely to be unlearned if they wait until adulthood to ask questions.

Why don’t we learn about the systems that affect us everyday – education, healthcare, social security, financial, and private vs. public functions in society? These systems struggled in the last decade, but the population of people who understand how they work in depth is limited to a small group of experts who spend their careers studying them. The frontpage news, filled with sensationalist stories and he-said/she-said quotes with little context, does a good job at sharing what events just happened but a horrible job explaining systems structure to empower us with an understanding of why problems persist and how they may unfold in the future. Essentially, how can we move beyond learning about data, information, and knowledge to move toward more understanding and wisdom?  Multiple Choice tests do not teach us to grapple with complexity – they teach us that there is one right answer, and if you study hard enough by yourself, you will succeed at solving problems.

The school factory’s finished product: students who know how to jump through hoops.

The late professor Russell Ackoff compared schools to “outdated factories” where incoming students are like raw material coming into production, and outgoing students are finished products being sent out to be used. “The production process is considered to be successful if the final product is in demand and can be sold at a high price. The system even puts brand names and model numbers on its products and prints them on certificates and diplomas.” Schools are a factory that churns out great test takers, who then get rewarded by certificates announcing to the world their supreme test taking skills. Ackoff goes on to say that education today gives us a vocabulary that teaches us to talk with authority about things we don’t understand.

One final thing that multiple choice tests fail to encourage is creativity. Creativity opens students to challenge the norm and approach the world by asking questions and not just seeking answers.  Unless we make it a point to practice creativity, it is increasingly stripped from us every year. In kindergarten, we have the most room to play, discover, and create. Classrooms are filled with colorful objects and space to roam around, imagine worlds, and build artistic anythings. As we reach high school, we sit in desks that all face the front so that the teacher captures our attention. Then when we join a workplace, we sit in cubicles at our individual desks, staring at computer screens for the majority of the day.

No Child Left Behind confuses telling with teaching, memorization with learning, grades with intelligence, recitation with having new ideas. It assumes that putting in time must equate to receiving value. It doesn’t even make an effort to assess creativity.

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