I wrote a post on this topic a couple years ago called No Test is Worth Learning For. I'm re-posting it below:
There's a big difference between learning something and then having a test, and learning something because you have a test.
Yes, we want to make sure that we have high standards for drivers, pilots, doctors, and engineers - both for their safety and ours. But we also want drivers, doctors and engineers who are passionate and caring about what they do for its own sake.
But our mania for testing and accountability has the same affect gambling and alcohol has on addicts. Just like the gambler who forgets about their loved one's while sitting at the Blackjack table, students, teachers and parents tend to forget about our love for learning when testsandgrades become the point of school.
In his article "Well, Duh!" -- Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn't Be Ignoring, Alfie Kohn writes:
1. Much of the material students are required to memorize is soon forgotten
The truth of this statement will be conceded (either willingly or reluctantly) by just about everyone who has spent time in school -- in other words, all of us. A few months, or sometimes even just a few days, after having committed a list of facts, dates, or definitions to memory, we couldn’t recall most of them if our lives depended on it. Everyone knows this, yet a substantial part of schooling – particularly in the most traditional schools – continues to consist of stuffing facts into students’ short-term memories.
The more closely we inspect this model of teaching and testing, the more problematic it reveals itself to be. First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful.
Even without these layers of deficiencies with the status quo, and even if we grant that remembering some things can be useful, the fundamental question echoes like a shout down an endless school corridor: Why are kids still being forced to memorize so much stuff that we know they won’t remember?The only difference between a child who studies relentlessly (if not obsessively) everyday all semester and the kid who studies only the night before, madly cramming information into their brain hours before the test - is that the crammer forgets everything 15 minutes beforethe test while the studier forgets everything 15 minutes afterward.
There's a big difference between preparing kids for a life of tests and the tests of life. The former may have kids worried about failing their classes without realizing such a misguided distraction is a recipe for failing at life.
Making students, teachers and parents focus intensely on test scores makes for a great bumper sticker and consumption for the six o'clock news, but it offers nothing but a hollow promise for those interested in real learning.