Yes, To Be Clear, I Am Anti-Testing, Anti-Grading

[See You Are Invited to Participate in the #HowMuchTesting Debate!]

Since the early to mid-1990s, I have actively practiced and preached de-testing and de-grading as an educator.

So, to be clear and not as some ploy to be provocative or to slip into hyperbole, I am solidly anti-testing as well as anti-grading.

That stance is based on a very simple point of logic: Tests and grades have been central to formal education for over a century, and the stakes of those tests and grades have dramatically increased over the last three decades; yet, virtually no one is satisfied with our system or so-called “student achievement.”

In the colloquial parlance of my South, we cannot admit that weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter.

However, virtually every time I speak publicly, write a public piece, or am interviewed by the media about testing and grades, I come against something like this from Jordan Shapiro:

If we consider standardized testing in schools, it is clear to me that many folks get caught up in the fire of the debate and lose the ability to see both sides of the story clearly. Those who take an extreme anti-testing position are well meaning. They want to protect children’s individuality. They want to shield them from unnecessary anxiety. They want to protect valuable learning time. They want to spare children the indignity of punching chads and filling in circles. And they want to empower young people by providing them with life-long experiential learning skills.

But some of these critics also seem to forget that those who advocate for measured accountability are also well meaning….

Ultimately, there’s no way for the Federal Department of Education to equitably serve the 50 million students who attend public schools in the United States without some sort of assessment data. But do the current tests provide meaningful data? The critics say no. The advocates point out that all data is ultimately incomplete, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

Typically, the reasonable position is that both sides have good and bad; as well, the final point always swing back to “OK, standardized tests (and even grades) are misleading, flawed, and all that, but we have to have something (which means just plowing ahead with flawed tests and grades).”

This sort of common sense journalistic approach (everything is reduced to “both sides” and then each side is treated as if equal) coupled with fatalism fueled by a refusal to back up far enough to reconsider norms is a false objectivity that can only reinforce the status quo.

Therefore, along with my appeal to logic and confronting a very long history of how tests and grades have failed our students and our formal education system, we have, ironically I think, a tremendous body of data: Standardized test data are overwhelmingly and persistently correlated to social class of students’ families and remain linked to race and gender biases. Those ugly roots of standardized testing (IQ, etc.) are not mere historical artifacts since all standardized testing continues to exhibit the worst elements of inequity exposed in those roots.

And if we genuinely investigate our commitment to data, the College Board’s own research on the predictive value of the SAT when compared to simple GPA is a powerful argument against standardized testing and common sense proposals like Shapiro’s above because GPA trumps the SAT as a valuable metric.

Even though I reject traditional classroom-based grading, hundreds of grades assigned among dozens of teachers over many years (logically again) serve our need to address accountability far better than a one-shot standardized test.

This leads me to suspect that advocates of standardized tests are not as enamored with tests as much as they simply distrust teachers, but again, the data refute that distrust.

And my additional recognition is that standardized test advocates do not love the tests as much as they love how standardized testing reinforces and perpetuates their privilege: high-stakes exit exams do not gatekeep the wealthy, college entrance exams do not gatekeep the wealthy, third-grade retention based on standardized tests do not hold back the wealthy.

Standardized tests have a false allure of objectivity, a bureaucratic allure of efficiency, and a traditional allure since they have always been central to formal schooling. But most significantly, standardized testing serves the interests of the privileged — at the expense of minority and disadvantaged populations.

In the context of equity and education, standardized tests have failed, repeatedly; they are a tragic drain on school funding and instructional time, and to what end?

Instead of tests or even grades, students need rich and engaging learning experiences that include high-quality feedback from their teachers and ample time to revisit those students’ demonstrations of learning.

One teacher or even one artifact of learning doesn’t mean much at any fixed point in time.

Education occurs in fits and starts over many, many years and within a complex matrix of influences (some “bad” experiences are “good” in terms of learning).

Tests and grades are inadequate for teaching and learning, and they simply do far more harm than good.

The evidence is overwhelming for that claim, and to argue otherwise is not simply “the other side,” and it is not reasonable or justifiable because test and grade advocates also want what is best for students.

Continuing to cling to tests and grades is clinging to very negative views of human nature (especially in children) and of teachers.

I am anti-testing and anti-grading because I have committed my life to children and young people, to the complicated and unpredictable art of teaching as an act of social justice, a pursuit of equity.

Testing and grading have not built an equitable system of formal education in the U.S. (in fact, testing and grading have labeled and then perpetuated inequity); therefore, to argue that we must continue both in order to reach that goal is a grand failure of understanding the very evidence advocates claim to understand.

What opportunities and experiences are we guaranteeing all students? — this is the thing to which we must be accountable, not simplistic metrics that serve only to quantify the very inequities we refuse to acknowledge or change.

For Further Reading

Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful”

To My Students at the End of the Semester

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

Co-authored with Schmidt, R. (2009). 21st century literacy: If we are scripted, are we literate? Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

Originally published at on April 26, 2015.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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