What’s Wrong with Tests?

BellCurveA Lot of things. The longer I am an educator, the more I dislike tests. I’m not talking about standardized tests like SAT’s and so forth, which of course have their own problems. I’m talking about my own tests that I give to students in my classes.

And I give many tests.

It’s starting to bother me. A lot.

Back in 1987, when I was only a pup, having been out in the world for just two years, I went back to college to study for an extra year to become certified as a biology teacher. Here is what we were taught back then about tests. Graph your class’s test scores. If you get a nice bell curve, then you are doing a good job.

I believed that.

For a long time.

Not anymore.

(I also used to believe one has to write grammatically correct sentences all the time. Now that I am over 50, I am rebelling and using “writer’s license” for effect. )

Here is the problem with the “bell curve” concept for tests.

First we are told that those upper end grades demonstrate the teacher is “stretching and challenging” the class, and only a few students can make that “A” mark. Second we are told that most kids will fall in the middle, because they are medium level students and that is the best they can do. Third we are told the kids on the low end probably were not really working hard so they deserve what they get.

In my experience, much of the above is poppycock… deer raisins… cow patties. I’m not saying there is never truth to any of this. Most lies start with a bit of truth. Sometimes it is indeed true that the kids getting C’s or D’s did not try hard enough, but just as often, those kids are actually working as hard or even harder than the kids getting A’s. They simply don’t have the skills yet to get much traction with their efforts.

(As an aside, shouldn’t we also be asking ourselves why kids who are not working, are so shut down, that they no longer try?  What has their experience of school been like, to turn off their natural human zest for learning and how can we bring it back?)

On the upper end teachers really should not take credit for most kids who get A’s. Those students are often gifted academically and will learn the material even if the teacher’s handling of the curriculum is only mediocre. Those are the students one could hand the book to at the start of the semester,  give them a final exam two months later and they would do just fine. So we teachers need to quit taking credit for our high achieving kids. We probably didn’t make that happen.

In practice, as an educator, I have found there are basically two options for creating the “bell curve” in a set of test grades.

1) Adjust the pace of the course so a few kids are always left behind struggling to keep up, a few are still excelling and the rest are left floating somewhat uncomfortably in the B to C range.


2) Adjust the amount of support you offer kids as they are learning. That means you withhold instruction, materials and so forth, so only the most gifted and tenacious learners can push through and master the material.  (Sometimes we inaccurately label this method as “discovery learning.” )

I don’t like either of these options.

The problem from a Learning Theory standpoint is that our least confident, least resilient learners are the ones getting the bulk of the low grades on tests.  We hope that these experiences motivate them to work harder for the next test, but in fact that is Negative Reinforcement type of learning (behavior motivated by the desire to avoid a painful stimulus).  The best one can hope for in this situation is the bare minimum effort to avoid the pain. Thus we see kids simply squeaking by with low, but passing grades.

There is no joy there.  We are not lighting up our students’ “seeking circuits” or sparking their curiosity by setting up a situation in which a certain percentage of our students are guaranteed to always be doing poorly.  Its a self perpetuating spiral of defeat.

There is something deeply wrong with this educational model.

What if our job as teachers does not involve “sorting” kids into bell curves at all? What if our job is actually to create a “learning platform”, which sets kids up for success? All of the kids!?

What if our job as teachers is about creating an atmosphere in the classroom where students are motivated and excited to learn, not out of fear of failure and embarrassment, but rather because they have become biochemically “addicted” to the joys of the learning process?

What would happen if everyone in the classroom succeeded? What if all of the students met the goals of the curriculum, not because standards were lowered, but because the whole experience of learning was made powerful for everyone? What if everyone truly earned A’s?

What would that be like?

I want to know.  Do you?


About Sue Houston

I've been teaching high school science for over 25 years. The more I learn, the more questions I have about how good education really works. This blog is an attempt to explore the fundamental question of "How do Kids Learn?" This blog will include posts related to technology in education, neuroscience, behavioral science and real life experiences in the classroom. Please, I invite you all to join the conversation in the comments sections. Perhaps together we can find more insights into how kids learn! If you are a student, educator, or past student (that covers everyone, right?) you have something to contribute! :)
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9 Responses to What’s Wrong with Tests?

  1. maisymak says:

    Awesome post, Sue! I remember being so ticked off with a college professor. I failed a final, earning something like a 42% and it was a “B” because of “the curve.” I learned so little and wondered if the professor felt good about himself… This quote “The best one can hope for in this situation is the bare minimum effort to avoid the pain.” Yikes. I never want to be that teacher. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lynne Bartlett says:

    You’re right, Sue. What can we do about tests and general assessments?
    I like the idea of students being biochemically addicted to our materials.
    Keep up the good work, Sue. Your blog is thought provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue Houston says:

    Maisymak, thanks for sharing your experience in college. That certainly is the idea of a bell curve taken to a very discouraging extreme! There has to be a better way to inspire students than fear of being at the bottom of the class, aye? ;-o

    Lynne, that’s exactly what I’m thinking lately… how to set up our curriculum so kids’ curiosity is sparked, followed by an attainable learning experience, that creates rewarding neurotransmitters, thus starting the “addiction.” This is something I have been able to achieve with my dogs, because dogs are relatively uncomplicated creatures to work with, but I’m still trying to reach my human students in this way!


  4. Adam Jones says:

    Preaching the choir, for sure! Makes me think deeply, again, and WHY we grade. What is the purpose and reason? I liked this section, “What if our job as teachers does not involve “sorting” kids into bell curves at all? What if our job is actually to create a “learning platform”, which sets kids up for success? All of the kids!?”

    Love your blog! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. ecovespid says:

    I honestly don’t understand why any teacher would alter grades to fit into a bell curve model. How can it honestly give feedback on what or how the student is progressing when it is inflated or altered? In fact I do not even know of teachers who practice this. As an AP teacher I am bound by the test taking model. I love it and hate it. I love grades because of the feedback it creates. However when grading systems are not transparent, honest and used as means to guide success in learning, then I question them as tools for learning.

    The question of WHY we grade is vital! Thanks for posting and pushing the edges of how we assess and evaluate student learning!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Houston says:

      Vespid, as you say we don’t seem to have teachers here who are retroactively adjusting their test grades in order to create a bell curve. Truly that is a barbaric practice! However, I do see them adjusting the pace and difficulty of the course to achieve the same outcome, and I am among those who have done this. Lately I’ve become interested in the concept of “Standards Based Grading” where students know ahead of time what are the goals, and their grades will be based on how close they come to reaching these standards of proficiency. If all the students in the class meet these goals, then it is OK for them all to earn “A’s”… that is the teacher does not need to respond by moving the goal posts next time around. Of course then the task becomes establishing what are the specific, measurable goals for student achievement, but I’d much rather be engaged in that exercise (hopefully in collaboration with fellow educators) than trying to adjust the difficulty level of my class in response to a particularly strong or weak group of students. Also I think this is a more transparent and fair-minded way to work with the students, empowering them rather than keeping them wondering how to succeed fully.


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