Editor's Page  
  January 31,  2005
Volume 83, Number 5
p. 3

  Test Takers Or Scientists?  

This guest editorial is by Richard N. Zare, Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford University's department of chemistry.

We all know that few americans are choosing careers in the sciences, yet we know how critical those careers are to economic growth. But why is that so and what can we do about it?

It’s high time to realize that standardized tests are overhyped. While educational institutions compete in training their students to become even better test takers, skills that are difficult to quantify in test results—like lab talent—are increasingly being neglected. Sure, it’s important to look good next to others, and rankings can be useful sometimes, but please, let’s not forget the reality of science: Students don’t become brilliant scientists by being excellent in doing the same things other people do. They become brilliant scientists by being excellent in doing different things than other people. And we will never be able to measure that in standardized tests
In the U.S. as well as in China, Korea, and Japan, government officials and the public increasingly rely upon local, regional, and national tests to measure scholastic performance. This trend should not be stopped. On the contrary, I welcome standardized testing. Such tests ensure the competency of instruction, and they set standards that can be trusted and that do not depend on geographical locality. Who of us can be opposed to accountability? But all good ideas can be carried to excess.

I find that standardized examinations in high school sharply focus the attention of the students, their parents, the teachers, and the educational administrators on the outcome of those exams. These outcomes are used to assess not only the talent of students but also the skills of the teachers and the quality of the school district. Admission to choice colleges for the students, merit raises for the teachers, and the reputation of the school system for the public depend on student scores.

It’s no wonder that teachers are advised to devote their energies to coaching their students to do well on these exams. And teachers do just that—to the exclusion of many other activities. As a result, our students become ever better test takers. But an unintended consequence is that students lose much creativity, especially the ability to experiment.

Because it is hard to judge laboratory skills and because it costs too much in terms of staff, time, supplies, and safety to maintain meaningful laboratory programs, that component of high school education quickly becomes deemphasized, if not abandoned. Next to go are the skills of inquiry and independent thinking. It is much easier to train students for test taking than it is to foster inquiry and independent thinking. Consequently, it is a natural temptation for overworked teachers to place more emphasis on preparing for standardized tests. As a result, we are producing outstanding test takers, some of whom win chemistry and physics Olympiads, but many of whom cannot take apart and put back together common objects and who cannot design simple experiments.

This emphasis on testing and academic accountability is creating a generation that is very clever and can give quick answers to many problems. But it is also a generation that is not very curious about the world we live in. We need to give each student the opportunity to explore and to pursue the answers to open-ended questions. In that way, we will find and nurture the next generation of independent thinkers, some of whom will become our scientific leaders.

A world-leading industrial society today needs to be excellent in innovation. We pay dearly for the unintended and unwanted consequences of overemphasizing the testing of students in our classrooms. The devaluation of independent inquiry and the lack of a hands-on approach to solving problems affect students as they move into higher education and eventually into the workforce.

As someone who has taught chemistry to entering students at Stanford University for the past 25 years, I am telling you that we cannot afford to play this game of “Jeopardy” with our country’s future. I have seen too many students who have superb book learning yet are disasters in the lab. Standardized tests can help provide a solid floor of academic achievement, but we must be very careful that it doesn’t produce an artificially low ceiling as well!

Richard N. Zare
Stanford University

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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