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

Assessment in the form of standardized tests isn't wrong on its face, says Howard Gardner, creator of the multiple intelligences theory. But when we measure only one kind of intelligence, that is a problem.

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.

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.

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