New Internationalist

Argument: Are exams bad for children?

July 2013

Teachers Stephanie Schneider and Matt Christison go head-to-head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.


A fellow teacher once shared with me this analogy to standardized testing: it’s like checking to make sure a plant is growing properly by repeatedly ripping it out of the ground and examining the roots. When that plant is placed back into the soil, it does not remain the same but rather is traumatized by the drastic act.

YES: STEPHANIE SCHNEIDER teaches three- to six-year-olds at a public Montessori school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US. She is also an active member of the Educators Network for Social Justice, a teacher activist group, and serves on the Executive Board of her local trade union, the Milwaukee Teacher Education Association.

Just as we know of better ways to grow plants, we know of better ways to assess children. More reliable methods of assessment can provide meaningful information that assist student learning, rather than a test that often serves as a punitive device.

If we are interested in children succeeding in school then we need to provide an education rich in context and relevance, accomplished through quality instructional time. Unfortunately, as the use of standardized tests increases, more classroom time is being dedicated to exam preparation and administration, which only results in a narrowing of the curriculum.

If we are interested in success for ALL children then we need to be clear that the current testing regime does nothing to address racial and economic inequalities and instead reinforces them. Often, we find in the US that the data of such tests is used to rationalize policy that is damaging to schools in low-income neighbourhoods and in communities of colour.

Finally, the most powerful evidence that tests harm children is the emerging resistance of parents, teachers and students who see the damage first hand and are growing louder in their collective refusal to comply.


As both a teacher and a gardener, I agree that uprooting plants – and students – serves no purpose. Yet examinations, especially standardized tests, in and of themselves are not bad – any more than examining in detail the growth of a plant is bad. What is bad is how we use examinations and the misunderstandings that surround standardized testing in particular.

NO: MATT CHRISTISON is a high school principal, sessional instructor in graduate studies at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and a lifelong questioner of the status quo. He earned a Doctorate of Education in 1996 from the University of Calgary, undertaking an analysis of gender performance differences on standardized testing.

For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to examinations in this discussion as ‘standardized testing and tests’. Well-constructed, thoughtful, standardized tests have integrity in their validity and reliability. They are reliable in that well-constructed tests provide similar performances by the students in the same grade or taking the same course, under the similar or the same parameters (time, format, etc). What standardized testing does well is provide descriptive information for thoughtful use by well-trained and well-prepared teachers.

Yet, as you point out, this does not happen with much of the descriptive information we derive from well-constructed tests. The descriptive information – which can be used in a focused, diagnostic manner to provide the next steps for student learning – is often superseded by the ills of education you have presented: time constraints, justification of rankings and placements, the reinforcement of inequities.

What we need is the hybrid: standardized testing used for its descriptive and diagnostic purposes without the simplistic and inappropriate agendas of those who wish to sort, restrict and punish; along with the contextualized, rich and robust ongoing assessment of learning. If we want success for ALL students, then we must use ALL forms of assessment for the purposes they are intended, and neither hijack them for our own agendas nor reject them because they do not fit our preferences and current understandings.


One could say standardized tests don’t kill education; it is only the use of these tests that does. But for me, separating the use and intention is a futile task. It is their current manifestation that I deal with as a classroom teacher and even if the tests were of better quality, I still see the way testing favours certain kinds of skills as problematic.

The most powerful evidence that tests harm children is the emerging resistance of parents, teachers and students who see the damage first hand – Stephanie

I am required to give my kindergarten students the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test three times a year. Each time I explain this test is very different from what we do in the classroom. It never fails that children will try to help each other and I find myself telling them: ‘You may not help your friend solve that problem.’ I am forced to administer this test that prioritizes individual achievement and disallows any collaborative learning.

These tests do not inform my instruction. Since I am not allowed to see the content of the test, any resulting information is worthless.

I disagree that it is idealistic to use contextualized assessments – if there is a lack of training and experience on the part of teachers, then the solution is to redirect resources currently used for standardized tests to implement meaningful professional development on classroom-based assessments.

Any kind of assessment beyond that would have to be low stakes and should be given to a random selection of students only in certain grades. This can still provide valid information and yet limit the amount of resources and instructional time a test can occupy.


All forms of assessment – standardized testing and teacher-based classroom assessments – are subjective. What is emphasized (creativity, arithmetic proficiency, reading abilities, neatness, co-operation, risk taking) and what is not emphasized sends a clear and often damaging message to students, parents and teachers.

I agree with and see your critiques of standardized testing as valid, no pun intended. The politics and inappropriate uses of standardized testing do interfere with the daily work of teachers and learning in schools.

However, to turn against standardized testing and reject it is, in my mind, no better than embracing it as a panacea, as the solution to educational ills and woes, and as a means to sorting, selecting and valuing students. What we must have is a balance, the complete picture of student learning in school contexts, working with others, working alone, creating, trying and experimenting, assessing processes and products in as many robust, well-thought-out and well-developed (and open to change and constructive criticisms) assessments as possible.

Standardized testing is unlikely to disappear: and as such, we all need to take from it the insights it can provide while fighting against the political and power-based misuses that overshadow and stifle what standardized testing has to offer: descriptive information to help inform practice and support learning.


Imagining school without standardized testing (or very minimal testing) isn’t too difficult because examples already exist. In fact, in some of the most highly regarded private schools, standardized tests are few and far between. Additionally, in the much-lauded example of education innovation, Finland, the standardized test is used infrequently and with low stakes.

Jake Lyell/Alamy
Head in the books: do standardized exams have anything to offer students? Jake Lyell/Alamy

I know that both these examples have their own circumstances but I suggest them because I want to demonstrate the possibility. Places do exist where teachers are trusted to educate students without the reliance on a standardized test.

That said, I do appreciate your effort to mitigate the misuse of such tests and I could certainly find a test more palatable if it really did provide valuable information and did not serve to punish and reward. If such a test were to exist I would require a few additional criteria.

First of all, a standardized test should not provide a lucrative profit to some entity. I would trust a test a lot more if I knew that no-one was making money off something that was potentially damaging to my students or school. Second, the test should be clear in its intent and not be used to determine a school’s funding, a teacher’s livelihood or a student’s future. And finally, a test should be thoroughly vetted for bias with continued reflection coinciding with its use.


Ideally, you and I, as well as other parties, would work collaboratively so that the forms of assessment used would present the most well-rounded, helpful and bias-free information to support student learning. As such a situation is unlikely to occur in the immediate future, I would add the following to your criteria.

We must use all forms of assessment for the purposes they are intended and neither hijack them for our own agendas nor reject them because they do not fit our preferences – Matt

First, standardized testing would be done outside of schools and school settings. It could be done as it is conducted in Finland: students write those tests when they are ready, having completed the requisite courses, and the examinations are held in community sites, with the test questions and answers published the following day for all community members to see, discuss and review. Thus the standardized testing would be open to all types of scrutiny and transparency in and of its format, structure and presentation.

Second, standardized testing would be voluntary, with those who wish to utilize the results paying for the costs of administration, creation and development. Thus those who wish to use it would be known, and their intentions would be clear and connected directly with the testing. Should the results be used for admissions to post-secondary institutions, or ranking schools or other purposes, then those who participate would do so knowing who was to use them and why.

Perhaps this is idealistic, yet I know that open discussion about assessment and standardized testing will lead to improvements for students, learning, teachers and the community at large.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 464 This feature was published in the July 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Jack Thompson 04 Jul 13

    I don't think exams themselves are inherently bad, but when students are subjugated to *just* exams the problems arise. A good, balanced education should include a number of assessment methods. The majority of jobs after education will not consist of exams every few months, but rather research and analysis. Many see 'coursework' as an easy way out, but I'd say it's actually a better way to a) teach children and b) prepare them for life after school.
    I can still remember by GCSE and A Level English and History coursework, yet the exams? Not at all. The months of analysis and research that went into a dedicated piece of work stayed with me, and not the hour long exam where I regurgitated facts.

    Exams serve a purpose in standardising education. However, any credible education system will embrace a variety of methods to teach children, but also prepare them for life beyond the classroom. Alone, exams do not achieve this.

  2. #2 Fred Williams 05 Jul 13

    I am in Canada and 63 years old. School was a nightmare for me in the 50s and 60s. We were given a servile education to prepare us for corporate enslavement. Above everything was taught a subservience to authority. Still, we came out knowing our multiplication tables, but I see students today who are much more confident and just with more positive attitudes, so somebody must be doing something right here in Canada.
    The best students come from the Montessori tradition and that should be adopted universally with some minor variations. It just works well. It could change society for the better.

  3. #3 Nicholas 08 Jul 13

    To make a quick comment: the issue with regimented testing - as being increasingly implemented in Australia - is that students are 'learning to test'. Education is becoming one-dimensional an unnessarily competitive mimicking business models etc. Lateral thinking is out the window. We are not nurturing plants but manufacturing robots. Assesment is necessary but not at the expense of denying the freedom for real multidimensional/multidisciplined integrated learning. Best regards. Nicholas. P.S. Thank you for an excellent article and to both very professional contributers. The Wire series with Education as its focus says it all....

  4. #4 Alexandra 11 Jul 13

    When I look back at my high school days, those useless and anxiety inducing they were! I always did terribly on them and they made me feel incredibly stupid. But I was anything but! Today I am a successful business woman and writer who reads a book a week and you would never have known it from how I preformed on those tests. They were so discouraging. I'd love to see the future generations be spared them.

  5. #5 saranya 02 Apr 15

    because its too stressful thing

  6. #7 divyashini 06 Apr 15

    I think exam is good students because by exam that we are at which level.

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This article was originally published in issue 464

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