Is Standardized Testing Killing Creativity?

Ken Robinson is not a fan of the current US educational system. In his popular and often-hilarious TED talks, he makes a passionate, witty, and thought-provoking case that the US educational culture is following the wrong principles. If you haven’t checked out his talks, you probably should, but come back here when you’re done to hear a reaction to it. Here’s a link to an especially good one:


Are you back? Cool. You probably picked up on the major themes of Robinson’s talk: Children are different from each other, children are curious, and human life is inherently creative. But according to Robinson, a school system based on conformity and tedium drains the life out of students. Worse, the culture of standardized testing is getting in the way by narrowly focusing assessment on only a few subjects, making schoolwork numbingly repetitive, and failing to harness the creative power of all involved.

At ansrsource, we often take the role of the testmaker, writing assessment items for the leading academic publishes and other audiences. Even though we don’t currently write the kinds of tests that Robinson is complaining about, we are a part of the testing world. So you might expect us to disagree with Robinson out of some kind of standardized testing solidarity. You might think that, but if you asked around ansrsource, you would hear sympathy for Robinson’s perspective. As testmakers ourselves, we know that while standardized tests can be very useful, anything can be taken to excess.

Still, we try to be a force for good in that environment. That means that if we are asked to write questions that measure fairly mechanical, straightforward skills, we make sure that those questions are accurate, fair, and clear. But we don’t stop there. We encourage our clients to consider using questions that test higher-order thinking skills. It’s possible to write questions that reward students for considering alternative possibilities, critically evaluating evidence, and recognizing the complexity of decision making instead of simplifying it. We also believe that assessment can be part of the learning process, and that learning is richer when the assessment measures the skills that really matter.

We’re also big fans of the disciplines that don’t typically get covered by statewide exams. In our offices, you’ll find poets, novelists, historians, philosophers, musicians, visual artists, and even dancers. Even though many of us are not working in the exact field that we studied in college, we find that we can apply the lessons we learned there to thrive in a changing and unpredictable world.

This isn’t to say that all of us agree with everything that Ken Robinson says. For example, he’s very big on local control instead centralized curricula, but I think that he might change his mind if his children were subject to the whims of the people who run the schools near me. Still, there’s probably more agreement than not. While standardized tests can be excellent implements for measuring some skills, they shouldn’t be the tail that wags the dog.