I didn’t take many tests growing up, and I’m beginning to think I was lucky.
Growing Up Without Tests
I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. I think there are a lot of ways my education experience has formed the person I am today, but one specific way is my history with tests. Or lack thereof.
My mom is multi-talented, and perhaps one of her most admirable skills, at least as it relates to me, was her ability to tailor the learning experience to each of us kids (I’m one of five).
For me, that meant a very autonomous practice. Mom would usually outline what needed to be done for the week by Monday morning, and I executed in whatever way I thought best. Let’s just say I learned about time management pretty quickly.
When it came to tests, I have very little memory of standardized fill-in-the-bubble style multiple-choice tests. We were required to take the state-issued test once a year, but outside of that we didn’t do a whole lot of test taking. Instead of memorization, my education was much more focused on absorbing and producing content.
But first, creativity
In order to explain why I believe the current test-taking culture of American education is undermining creativity, I first want to talk about creativity itself.
According to creativity researchers Plucker, Beghetto and Dow:
“Creativity is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context.”
Beghetto goes on to break down the creative process into two categories: the divergent stage and the convergent stage. The divergent stage is the brainstorming stage, where generating novel ideas or solutions to a problem happens. During the convergent stage, the creative process focuses on evaluating and selecting the ideas, getting the task done, and communicating results.
How Assessments affect the creative process
A focus on assessments can often disrupt the creative process and cause risk aversion. It’s fairly commonplace for education institutions to value assessment results above all else. They display test results as a way to set a baseline for what it means to be successful. Instead of focusing on cultivating a culture to empower divergence and convergence, schools are indicating that a student’s ability to memorize answers for short periods of time and select answers quickly is of the highest value.
In the book, “Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation”, Vicki Abeles talks about how test-taking culture is an unhealthy cause of extreme stress. Today’s students are “the most tested generation in history,” according to Abeles. The resulting stress and anxiety can often severely distract an individual from creative tasks.
Here are just a few of the ways standardized tests have been known to negatively affect students:
- Reduced content knowledge
- Loss of curiosity and love of learning
- Internalized failure
According to Beghetto, “Empirical evidence suggests that students within such classrooms have an increased likelihood of adopting maladaptive motivational beliefs and engaging in performance-avoidant behaviors.” These students see test errors as a direct reflection of their own capabilities. Not great at memorizing? Then you must be dumber than your fellow students.
We’ve essentially removed the creative problem-solving process and replaced it with a temporary flash of information that can be easily forgotten post-test. Rather than encouraging students to tackle an open-ended problem, we supply four answers and ask them to select one.
And that relates to strategy how, exactly?
Strategy, defined as “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim,” is hard. Whether you’re creating strategic marketing campaigns (like us) or you’re laying out the future of your company, strategy is an elusive creature. It’s a strange mix of big picture thinking, reflection on the known, prediction of the future, and a fair amount of gut instinct. If you want to be good at strategic thinking, you’ve got to be good at problem solving. This is where testing culture comes in.
What happens in a world where 99% of kids are taught that success comes from good grades, and good grades comes from good test taking? What happens when memorizing answers for a short period of time and answering questions quickly becomes a baseline for success? Here’s what I think happens.
I think we all become impatient.
I think our ability to creatively solve problems becomes narrow and hard to practice.
I think we become bubble-fillers.
And, don’t forget, assessments aren’t just impacting our creativity. They impact our stress and anxiety levels. Think about the people who surround you each day. Running around, worrying about everything, checking off one stressful task after another. Not only does the test-taking culture we grew up in influence our approach to work, but it also influences our reaction: stress and anxiety.
Dr. Robert Sternberg summarized it nicely, “life never seems to present us with multiple choice or short-answer responses to problems.” He argues that a testing culture can create students devoid of creativity because creativity isn’t required to get good grades.
The bubble-filling mentality vs. continuous improvement
I know many people who find ultimate fulfillment by creating and completing checklists. I fall into that trap myself all the time. Right now there are no less than three checklists on my desk.
Checklists can be motivating — especially when you complete a task. But they also drive us to prioritize the easiest and smallest tasks first. We’re motivated to accomplish the things that require the least amount of creativity to solve. Do you see where I’m going with this?
When you’re tasked with creating strategies that are unique and offer high value, you must dive deeper and explore areas outside the bounds of a checklist. But think about how hard that is when you’ve spent 12-18 years learning how to create and complete checklists.
Four answers, one bubble. A pretty straightforward recipe.
Not to mention that so much of a truly successful strategy is wrapped into the continuation. We often refer to this as continuous improvement. Like most good things in life, a successful plan is made successful only through ongoing grooming.
Continuous improvement can be incredibly frustrating if you’re used to success looking like a fulfilled checklist. There are rarely any right or wrong answers, only near imperceptible direction shifts at critical crossroads. I’ve seen (and personally experienced) my fair share of impatience when it comes to strategy. Can’t we just memorize the answers, execute quickly, and move on? Alas, no.
Luck + intention
My test-taking stint was a brief one. I attended a local community college from ages 16-18 as a full-time post-secondary student. I took the ACT, like most other kids in Central Minnesota. I took an entrance assessment to get into college and spent the following two years taking tests in a variety of classes.
Turns out, I’m pretty good at taking tests. I’m extraordinarily good at memorization. I once memorized my lines in a lead role of a play in the span of a couple hours. So, yeah, tests weren’t all that difficult, but I retained a very small fraction of what I memorized.
I soon graduated high school and pursued a degree in Fine Arts where the only tests were in art history class. Do I sometimes remember a random fact about Botticelli? Sure. But let’s just say that I’d be of no help as a companion on an art history museum tour.
Is there a place for standardized tests? Of course. They’ve played an interesting role in trying to achieve a level playing field amongst students from varying economic backgrounds. They played a role in my life, as well. Without the standardized tests we were required to take each year, Minnesota would have had no idea if I was actually receiving an education. But in the end, I think it worked out in my favor to have very little exposure to tests growing up.
I fall into the same creativity traps as those around me, but I think I’ve been blessed with a foundation that makes it easier to shake the test-taking mentality and focus on continuous improvement. Thanks, mom.
Here is some of the great content I consumed and referenced as I wrote this article:
Does Assessment Kill Student Creativity, Ronald A. Beghetto, The Education Forum, 2005
Effects of Standardized Test on Students’ Well-Being, by Christina Simpson, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2016
13 Ways High-Stakes Standardized Tests Hurt Students, Valerie Strauss and Jessie B Ramey, Washington Post, 2014
The Tortoise And The Hare, Malcolm Gladwell, 2019
Standardized Tests "Narrow," Don't Assess Creative Skills, Sternberg Contends, Ben Isenberg, 2015