Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing

“The assessment itself is completely artificial. It’s not ranking teachers in accordance with their ability to help develop children who will reach their potential, explore their creative interests. Those things you’re not testing.. it’s a rank that’s mostly meaningless. And the very ranking itself is harmful. It’s turning us into individuals who devote our lives to achieving a rank. Not into doing things that are valuable and important.”

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The following is a partial transcript for an interview with Noam Chomsky uploaded to youtube by The Progressive Magazine.

“You take what is happening in education. Right now, in recent years, there’s a strong tendency to require assessment of children and teachers so that you have to teach to tests. And the test determines what happens to the child and what happens to the teacher.

That’s guaranteed to destroy any meaningful educational process. It means the teacher cannot be creative, imaginative, pay attention to individual students’ needs. The student can’t pursue things, maybe some kid is interested in something, can’t do it because you got to memorize something for this test tomorrow. And the teacher’s future depends on it, as well as the student.

The people sitting in the offices, the bureaucrats designing this, they’re not evil people, but they’re working within a system of ideology and doctrines that turns what they’re doing into something extremely harmful.

First of all, you don’t have to assess people all the time… People don’t have to be ranked in terms of some artificial [standards]. The assessment itself is completely artificial. It’s not ranking teachers in accordance with their ability to help develop children who will reach their potential, explore their creative interests. Those things you’re not testing.

So you are giving some kind of a rank, but it’s a rank that’s mostly meaningless. And the very ranking itself is harmful. It’s turning us into individuals who devote our lives to achieving a rank. Not into doing things that are valuable and important.

It’s highly destructive at the lower grades. This is elementary education, so you are training kids this way. And it’s very harmful. I could see it with my own children.

When my own kids were in elementary school, at a good quality suburban school, by the time they were in third grade they were dividing up their kids into dumb and smart. You’re dumb if you’re lower tracked, smart if you’re upper tracked.

Think of what that does to the children. It doesn’t matter where they’re tracked, the children take it seriously… If you’re caught up in that it’s just extremely harmful. It has nothing to do with education.

Education is developing your own potential and creativity. Maybe you’re not going to do well in school and you’ll do great in art. That’s fine. What’s wrong with that? It’s another way of living a fulfilling wonderful life, and one that is significant for other people as well as yourself.

The whole idea [of ranking] is harmful in itself. It’s kind of a system of creating something called “economic man.” There’s a concept of economic man, which is in economics literature. Economic man is somebody who rationally calculates how to improve his own status (and status basically means wealth).

So you rationally calculate what kinds of choices you should make to increase your wealth, and you don’t pay attention to anything else. Maximize the number of goods you have, cause that is what you can measure. If you do that properly, you are a rational person making informed judgments. You can improve your “human capital,” what you can sell on the market.

What kind of human being is that? Is that the kind of human being you want to create? All of these mechanisms- testing, assessing, evaluating, measuring- they force people to develop those characteristics… These ideas and concepts have consequences…”

~Noam Chomsky~

More on the idea of “economic man“…

“In economics, homo economicus, or economic human, is the concept in many economic theories of humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends. Using these rational assessments, homo economicus attempts to maximize utility as a consumer and economic profit as a producer. This theory stands in contrast to the concept of homo reciprocans, which states that human beings are primarily motivated by the desire to be cooperative and to improve their environment.” ~ Homo economicus (Wikipedia)

Related Reading:

Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery  *  The Bait and Switch of School Reform  * Why Corporate School Reform Will Eventually Fail *  Children Need to Be Free to Learn *  Common Ingredients of Successful School Reform * Flow- The Psychology of Optimal Experience * Understanding How Our Brains Learn  * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Real Learning is a Creative Process *  Every Child is an Artist by Nature * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process *

“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie

“Research from both within the United States and other countries suggest clearly that high stakes testing does more harm than good… We should completely abandon the idea of test-based accountability, that is, get high stakes standardized testing out of education, do not use it to evaluate schools or teachers. Second, we need to return autonomy to local schools and teachers. Let educators do their job and provide support. The government, both federal and state, should work on providing equal funding for schools and eradicate poverty, instead of interfering with teaching and learning, and adding bureaucratic burden on educators and students. Finally, we should invest in education innovations to encourage educators and local schools to seek creative ways to deliver an education for the future…” ~ Dr. Yong Zhao

“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.” ~Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

“Creating a society that goes against human nature is what creates the suffering… We live in a completely unnatural society, that actually tramples on what it means to be a human being. That’s the essence of suffering, and there are so many ways in which our society does that.”  ~Dr Gabor Mate

“The purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.” ~Dr. James P. Comer; Comer School Development Program

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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112 Responses to Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing

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  2. Cath Shippen says:

    Real words of wisdom! I just wish that those in charge of our education system would follow the same ethos. I am sure that every teacher who has a true vocation strongly agrees with Chomsky in this, unfortunately, they are the ones who are leaving teaching or becoming disillusioned drones.

    • Elaine Trewartha says:

      Yes. I have lived and loved teaching for more than thirty years, but what we are now doing in the classroom caused me so much grief that I left. The damage to children is incalculable.

    • elle says:

      After seven years of teaching, my own concept of education has changed. It is no longer aligned with the current educational system. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I just decided to leave. I suddenly have my own doubts if schools are helping kids to discover their potential that could help them recognize what gifts do they truly have which they could share to the society in the future. The educational system has become too academic, too stressed with test results here and there. Stressed students, stressed teachers. It measures kid’s intelligence based on a very limited standard, as if educators don’t know there’s a broad spectrum of intelligence. It has become one size fits all. It has no respect for individual uniqueness whatsoever. I seriously hope that someone spearheads an innovative educational system that will challenge the status quo, an educational system that guides rather than dictates what the students can be.

  3. Pingback: Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing | "Όποιος ελεύθερα συλλογάται, συλλογάται καλά" Ρήγας Βελενστινλής

  4. Joan says:

    The problem is this: I assume we as teachers want our administrators, principles, department heads, deans, superintendents and the like to be evaluated according to standards and indicators that we set out as educators and colleagues. Otherwise, they would administer and manage according to immeasurable feeling which may or may not be effective when it comes to addressing the needs of the most of those educators they oversee. The logic of this argument, then, is that the teachers and faculty who are managed by those (probably passionate and engaged, though ineffective) leaders should, if they are barred from holding those leaders accountable through assessment, simply enjoy the “experience” of watching those leaders explore the things they are good at in life. If those things do not include effective leadership, then that’s okay, since ineffective leadership is just another way to be in the world. Just don’t ever create job targets, make evaluations, or measure them against their peers. That’s rankism!

    • Jim says:

      No, it’s not. It is ranking when you use them as a point of comparison with others, as we do with students and teachers, without taking into account the contexts (SES, etc.). Teachers use assessments all the time to determine if students have learned something and to what extent, and then they make adjustments or re-teach as needed, all of which is focused on student growth and learning independent of their comparisons with others. We are forced to put grades down that are then used for comparisons. We can assess leadership effectiveness as a means to engender growth and improvement and still NOT use them for ranking.

  5. Susan Y. Mechling says:

    This article accurately describes the disastrous effects of standardized testing procedures in today’s schools.. I taught for 32 years and I am not only saddened by this situation, I am genuinely concerned about the harm we are inflicting. I could no longer do many of my most creative lessons that helped students learn how to think for themselves and truly “own” the knowledge gained. Teachers were coerced to not “waste” time, to teach to the test, to follow cookie cutter lesson formats, to move on quickly whether students were ready or not and to test the students so much that even the most motivated, independent thinkers began to resent school. This trend toward assembly line graduates (IF they don’t drop out first) reduces the number of life long learners with genuine problem solving skills to a dangerously low level. Changes are imperative NOW!

  6. Pingback: Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing | On Power

  7. M2 says:

    Our children are being treated like tiny “adults” in preparation to be a follower in a corporate model. America is going to pay big time for this approach to education, and educators cannot seem to stop this relentless testing, designed to compartmentalize and slot children and teachers by a single test score and school “grade.”

  8. binduram says:

    I think we need to separate comparative assessment [Ranking] with assessment per se. While most standardized assessments compare and rank , if these assessments are used to improve a student’s learning rather than rank , the tests by themselves are not dangerous. It is how we currently conceptualize the use of these tests that is dangerous. For both student and teacher as well as the system it is really difficult to do away with assessment. And most dialogues I see around assessment are invariably at the two ends, we need to find a balance.

    • Yes. Assessments have been around a long time, and standardized tests. But its the ranking of people that creates problems, especially when there is either a social stigma (stupid) as Chomsky described or some loss of rank and status. In the case of VAM scores for teachers now low scores can lead to your dismissal from work, losing your job. With tests that are NOT valid measures.

      • binduram says:

        agree. Using student assessments to evaluate teachers servers neither the student nor the teacher. The process of learning is far too complex and students are so diverse that this only leads to teachers teaching to the test and a minimalist student learning environment (not really an education) as described by Chomsky.

  9. Pingback: Noam Chomsky on Testing and Using Tests to Rank Teachers for Accountability |

  10. Elizabeth Brown says:

    It’s dehumanizing for all teachers and students.

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  14. Noreen Ramsden says:

    “Ranking” is particularly dangerous for the young child! Maturation and cognitive development vary – Einstein was a late developer and so was Churchill! Apparently they only learnt to read when they were over seven years of age!

  15. Pingback: FairTest: Weekly Report on Resistance to High-Stakes Testing | Diane Ravitch's blog

  16. Reblogged this on OPTIMISM ROCKS! ☀️😊 and commented:
    Reblogged by AmaSepia’s parent.

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  25. Shahin Nematizadeh says:

    The worst case is when an applicant to a PhD program in electrical engineering with dozens of publications is required to comprehend an academic lecture on psychology with tons of technical words and read a passage in a short time and then write an academic essay in 20 minutes. A situation which almost never takes place in reality!

  26. mjpryan says:

    Reblogged this on .

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  28. Katherine Sung says:

    Assessment is not an evil thing, but has been wrongly employed for inappropriate purposes. We do need assessments in our teaching from time to time to evaluate the effectiveness so as to make adjustment or reinforcement. This is self-initiated, not for ranking, but for enhancement of learning.
    The “Standardized Testing”, I suppose, is for ranking, and is inevitable in this world of competition. When there are not enough places to accommodate all, that seems a “fairer” way for admission. The problem is: when should it be introduced? At a later stage so that our students can have a full span of happy childhood learning? Or at an earlier stage so that they have a “win-win” starting point? The recent phenomena in Hong Kong education revealed that the ranking test starts as early as pre-school, especially those with associated primary and secondary places. That posts a burden to the children, teachers and parents, damages the education ethos, and leads to a “loss-loss” at the finishing point.

  29. jwithers38 says:

    Reblogged this on Ethnography.com and commented:
    “The assessment itself is completely artificial” -Noam Chomsky

    I’d say this is true for K-12 and the college level (where assessment is pushed from administrators and their minions)

  30. Reblogged this on Debbie D'Aurelio and commented:
    As the kids prepare to take standardized tests in April, this article hits home.

  31. Reblogged this on donotmalignme and commented:
    The best thinkers of our time know that these assessments are ridiculous. Yet, I am supposed to pretend that that everything is fine and not question the system. Hogwash.

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  34. yuhong21 says:

    Can I share the article in Korean(My translation/comments), of course refer to Creative by Nature WordPress. I would not find your email address to ask you personally. Depending on how you use it, I personally find it helpful to when guiding students. But the problem is that some people think it is a means to the end especially the testing students with common core could really damage their open-ended thought which is more important. Thank you so much for the articles!

    • Hi, yes, that would be GREAT. Though I just listened to his video, and don’t have the copyright… but I think if you translate there would be no problem. People in Korea and other countries should know about this view.

      • yuhong21 says:

        Thank you very much!! It is all about spreadiing and sharing who believes it is important and find ways to improve students potential and not limiting for a sake of standard .

  35. Pingback: The Trouble with Standardized Testing | Creative by Nature

  36. Bonnie says:

    Yes, yes, yes. And yet the problem extends much more deeply than ranking and testing. We humans have come to value certain ‘ways of knowing’ over others. We value ways of knowing that lead us to definition, to categories, ways that promise Certainty (we ever ignore our universal experience that Certainty is always promised, never delivered); and meanwhile, we devalue (and avoid) ways of knowing that would enable us to interact with and gracefully explore Life’s uncertainties, undefinables, and the unity that underlies all distinction and categorization.

    I’ve been my sons’ teacher through most of their lives, and one of the things I’ve needed to keep reminding them, and myself, over the years is that there is a vast difference between Knowledge and Intelligence. Knowledge (as I’m simplistically conceiving of it here) is largely a ‘collection of facts’ which humans are demonstrably, catastrophically horrible at tracking or understanding or connecting in meaningful ways. Intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to respond, with one’s heart, mind and assorted unknown (perhaps unknowable) ‘ways of knowing’ to whatever is arising in Life (including ‘facts’ of all kinds and natures). I told them they could always gather whatever facts they needed, always learn new skills: they didn’t even have to be taught how to learn! Human children, children of all species, are wired to learn. Given space, encouragement, exposure to ever varying facets of this kaleidescopically wondrous world and universe we find ourselves in, and they’ll drink in mere knowledge trying to understand it all.

    Teenagers now, I’m delighted and relieved to watch as my sons not only pick up new facts and skills whenever they need them, but also have Passion and Curiosity and Openness and (and this is The Best Part): They ever-increasingly trust themselves to be able to respond to whatever arises. One of my eldest’s friends at his high school (at the tail end of our three year experiment with Other Forms of School) said, “You’re leaving school? How will you learn anything?” And my son replied, “You don’t understand. You can’t learn anything here. Learning happens out in the world, with everything.”

    What we are collectively perpetuating on our children cannot be called education, or even learning. Stated plainly, we are breaking their minds. Breaking their natural and native passion for learning. Breaking their trust. Breaking them in ways we have no models for or understanding of. I believe that if we humans pull out of our current tailspin and survive what we have done to ourselves and our world, that in another hundred years we will look back with remorse and real pain on what we once did to children’s hearts, minds, and spirits. We’ll see that somewhere along the line we got lost in our Ideas of children, that we lost sight of the actual living beings in our care.

    • “One of my eldest’s friends at his high school (at the tail end of our three year experiment with Other Forms of School) said, “You’re leaving school? How will you learn anything?”

      And my son replied, “You don’t understand. You can’t learn anything here. Learning happens out in the world, with everything.”

      What we are collectively perpetuating on our children cannot be called education, or even learning. Stated plainly, we are breaking their minds. Breaking their natural and native passion for learning.

      Breaking their trust. Breaking them in ways we have no models for or understanding of. I believe that if we humans pull out of our current tailspin and survive what we have done to ourselves and our world, that in another hundred years we will look back with remorse and real pain on what we once did to children’s hearts, minds, and spirits.

      We’ll see that somewhere along the line we got lost in our Ideas of children, that we lost sight of the actual living beings in our care…”

      Yes, well said Bonnie.

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