Howard Gardner
Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

An Intelligence Expert Defines the Real Problem with Standardized Testing in Schools

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Creator of the multiple intelligences theory, Harvard professor Howard Gardner values assessment in school settings. It's important to know how children in America are performing relative to other countries and how their performance changes over time. There is a current problem, however. Gardner says we've come to valorize one kind of test — the multiple-choice, short-answer exam — that measures only one kind of intelligence: the mathematical/linguistic kind. Having a more well-rounded understanding of achievement would benefit our understanding of education, he says, and ultimately benefit the students themselves.

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He holds positions as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. In 1990, he was the first American to receive the University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Award in Education and in 2000 he received a Fellowship from the John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 2005 and again in 2008 he was selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. He has received honorary degrees from twenty-two colleges and universities, including institutions in Ireland, Italy, Israel, and Chile.

The author of over twenty books translated into twenty-seven languages, and several hundred articles, Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments. During the past twenty five years, he and colleagues at Project Zero have been working on the design of performance-based assessments, education for understanding, and the use of multiple intelligences to achieve more personalized curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In the middle 1990s, Gardner and his colleagues launched The GoodWork Project. "GoodWork" is work that is excellent in quality, personally engaging, and exhibits a sense of responsibility with respect to implications and applications. Researchers have examined how individuals who wish to carry out good work succeed in doing so during a time when conditions are changing very quickly, market forces are very powerful, and our sense of time and space is being radically altered by technologies, such as the web. Gardner and colleagues have also studied curricula. Gardner's books have been translated into twenty-seven languages. Among his books are The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, The K-12 Education that Every Child Deserves (Penguin Putnam, 2000) Intelligence Reframed (Basic Books, 2000), Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books, 2001), Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), and Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work (Harvard University Press, 2004; with Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, and Deborah Greenspan). These books are available through the Project Zero eBookstore.

Currently Gardner continues to direct the GoodWork project, which is concentrating on issues of ethics with secondary and college students. In addition, he co-directs the GoodPlay and Trust projects; a major current interest is the way in which ethics are being affected by the new digital media.

In 2006 Gardner published Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, The Development and Education of the Mind, and Howard Gardner Under Fire. In Howard Gardner Under Fire, Gardner's work is examined critically; the book includes a lengthy autobiography and a complete biography. In the spring of 2007, Five Minds for the Future was published by Harvard Business School Press. Responsibility at Work, which Gardner edited, was published in the summer of 2007.


Howard Gardner: I am certainly very much in favor of assessment. I think anybody who’s at all serious needs to know how he or she is doing. And as you become more of a professional, you do more of the assessment yourself. I’m a writer and I don’t have to have as much editing as I did decades ago. On the other hand, I probably need more feedback on speaking than on writing because I do more writing than I do speaking. So assessment is great. And testing is a kind of assessment. It tends to be more formal; namely you can assess all the time. Testing involves sitting down and doing something in a circumscribed period of time. Standardized testing means this is a test that’s done widely for many, many different kinds of people, but it’s done under standard conditions. You show up at 10 o’clock in a certain room, maybe with a No. 2 pencil or at a computer station and you click. And there’s certainly reasons why we like to do standardized testing. For example, if you want to know how American kids in general are doing compared to 10 years ago or how American kids are doing compared to Finnish kids or Turkish kids, you need to have those kinds of instruments. The problem is in the United States we have excessively valorized a certain kind of test — the short-answer, multiple-choice test. And we do way too much of it.

Somebody once quipped that, you know, if somebody’s sick, it doesn’t help to take their temperature all the time. It doesn’t make them any better. In America now and even in 2015 President [Barack] Obama said we’re doing too much testing. The notion is kids aren’t doing well; let’s test them over and over again. All that does is waste time that could be done in educating kids, getting them excited about learning, and so on. So if you ask Howard Gardner what does he think about the whole environment, what I would say is certainly we should assess and we should give feedback to people conveniently in a way they can use it. There’s certain reasons why we need to have standard tests if we want to do comparisons among populations. But that can be done by sampling. You can find out how the United States is doing by assessing 1,200 kids of a certain age. That’s how we actually do public opinion polling for elections. When it comes to applying for highly selective colleges or universities, I think it’s fair to have a test like an SAT or an ACT, but it’s really stupid to make that your only measurement. You should be looking at student work, looking at recommendations, interviewing students if you can. Letting them make a case for themselves and importantly, since I’m a believer in affirmative action, if you have two kids who get the same score and one kid has had thousands of dollars spent on preparation by a Princeton Review and the other kid didn’t even know there was such a thing as a test prep, then I think, you know, the 1,200 in the latter kid is much more impressive than the 1,200 in the former. People often say, "I want to have all my kids’ intelligences tested," and I don’t dismiss it. But the first thing I say is, "How’s the child doing? Is the child thriving? Is the child excited about things, school, have hobbies, have friends?" If kids are fine leave them alone and just say a prayer of thanks. When the armamentarium of intelligence becomes important is when an individual is having some kind of problem. Because then you need to know what’s the nature of the problem. For example, is the child being asked to learn something in a way that the child doesn’t have much aptitude for? Are there other ways of getting at that kind of issue? And this is a good challenge particularly for teachers because a teacher’s job is to help everybody learn certain things. But there's nowhere is it written they have to all learn it in the same way. When it comes to parents, what I would say is you have to avoid positive narcissism and negative narcissism. Positive narcissism is: The one thing I can do is play the tuba and my child has got to play the tuba. Negative narcissism is: The one thing I couldn’t do is play the tuba and my child must play the tuba. What I say is take your kid on lots of different things. Go to museums. Go to parks. Go on holidays. Watch what your child is interested in and, even more, watch how your child pursues those things. That will tell you what the child’s intelligences are. And then you have a choice. Do you want to nurture those or do you want to try to develop ones that aren’t so good? I am definitely uneven in my intelligences, like I think everybody is. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying to bolster the weaker ones just because I want to. But I wouldn’t have to do that. I could just go from strength.