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Topic: "Turning Children into Data" by Alfie Kohn
Replies: 2   Last Post: Nov 15, 2010 1:34 PM

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Jonathan Groves

Posts: 2,068
From: Kaplan University, Argosy University, Florida Institute of Technology
Registered: 8/18/05
"Turning Children into Data" by Alfie Kohn
Posted: Aug 31, 2010 4:40 AM
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Dear All,

The following link takes you to an excellent article by Alfie Kohn:

The article is called "Turning Children into Data: A Skeptic's Guide
to Assessment Programs."

I have saved a copy of it because this article mentions much of the damage
that the standardized testing insanity has inflicted on our schools.

"Standardized testing insanity" is a new phrase I have started using lately
because "insanity" is a word that I believe works better than "obsession"
because being obsessed with something is not always a bad thing. But the
word "insanity" definitely indicates something negative.

I agree that much of what we would like students to learn (whether they
are children or adults--it does not matter) cannot be measured with
numbers. And numbers do not give any specific feedback. For example,
saying to a student that "your understanding of fractions, according to
this test, is 3/5." What is that supposed to mean? What does
the student understand and not understand about fractions? How can the
student improve his or her understanding of fractions? If the point of
any assessment is supposed to give guidance to the teacher and student
about what is going right and is not going right and how to improve,
then how can we expect vague feedback like numbers to accomplish
such goals? The last time I checked, the real point of assessment
is to help students and teachers improve--not simply to slap a number
in a gradebook or on a student's or teacher's record somewhere.

One of the ultimate crimes of the standardized testing insanity is
that it focuses only on measuring things that are easy to measure
and breaks everything down to mere skills and mere memorization--that is,
it turns education into training. And many of these skills that
students do end up learning are difficult for them to transfer to other
settings because most of them aren't taught to think anymore.

Even worse, their desire to learn and to be creative is killed
because no one wants to be drilled with all these tests and because
we are pressured to learn these checklists of skills so that we
can pass the damned tests and not suffer the penalty for failing!

Here is a piece of a post I had written to Bill Marsh recently on
Math-Teach (in the thread "Why Common Standards Won't Work").
The post can be found at

And many of these things we would like students to learn
cannot be tested effectively via standardized tests. For instance,
how can you test effectively with such tests the students' ability
to work together, to solve a difficult problem that requires them
to research, to think through a lot of ideas, to persist because a
solution will almost certainly not be found within a few minutes or
even an hour or even a day?

For example, the blog post of August 12 titled "They lost interest
because they stopped asking questions" on gives an example of such a difficult
problem. This blog is written by the mathematician Daniel Finkel at
the University of Washington. His name is not found on there, at least
not easily. But I have found his tutoring website that does give his name,
and there is a link to this same blog near the bottom of his webpage
for tutoring.

Peter Hilton wrote a foreword to the book "Mathematics: From the Birth
of Numbers" written by Jan Gullberg. The foreword can be found at

Some of the things Peter Hilton says reminds me that another problem with
common standards is the danger that they reduce education to training by
having students learn to acquire a checklist of skills. Here is a quote from
Peter Hilton's foreword that addresses this problem:

"The first serious error we often meet in considering the role of mathematics is
the confusion of education with training. This error, of course, goes far beyond
mathematics--our bureaucrats and politicians now use the two terms quite
synonymously--but it is particularly meretricious when applied to mathematics.
For students, and their parents, believe that mathematics education should
consist exclusively exclusively of the acquisition of a set of skills that
will prove useful in their later careers; so the skills must be learned, that
is committed to memory, and no real understanding need occur. Of course, we cannot,
in fact, predict what skills the student will need. What we can predict is that
those skills will change and that the student will need to understand and
not merely to remember. Adaptability to change is itself a hallmark of
successful education, and it is change, not any specific technology, that most
aptly characterizes life today and in the foreseeable future. A genuine education
enables one to acquire, for oneself, the skills one happens, at a given stage of
one's life, to need. A training, on its own, contributes almost nothing to
education and produces distressingly ephemeral advantages."

Jonathan Groves

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