Author fights uphill battle on testing

Belmont resident Alfie Kohn, the author of 12 books, including 'Feel-Bad Education,' says, 'Kids learn best in schools that are joyful places.'' Belmont resident Alfie Kohn, the author of 12 books, including "Feel-Bad Education," says, "Kids learn best in schools that are joyful places.''

(Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / May 5, 2011

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As a longtime critic of standardized testing, Alfie Kohn knows the score in his ideological battle with those who favor the exams as a way to hold students and teachers accountable.

“They’ve won,’’ Kohn said bluntly.

But the Belmont resident, with 12 books to his credit, says fighting the status quo doesn’t mean he’s a lone voice.

“More and more educators agree with this perspective and are speaking out,’’ Kohn said. “It’s just that educators have been systematically excluded from the conversation. I’m not lonely.’’

Kohn is helping to moderate a discussion tonight at 7 p.m. at the Belmont Studio Cinema after a screening of “Race to Nowhere,’’ a widely viewed documentary that is critical of the pressures placed on children to excel. Tickets to the event are $15, with proceeds benefiting Belmont’s public schools.

Argelis Roman, one of the organizers of tonight’s event, said that although she doesn’t agree with all of Kohn’s views, she thinks he is an important voice in the conversation about education issues.

“He’s an advocate, and we need advocates,’’ Roman said. “We need people who are strong and can be out there fighting for certain issues.’’

In his books, Kohn makes his case against standardized tests, homework, and rewards such as grades and praise for students.

In his most recent book, “Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling,’’ Kohn argues against what he calls the “Listerine theory of education,’’ meaning the idea that something must only be effective if it tastes “vile.’’

“Our schools are in the grip of a cult of rigor that assumes that when kids are miserable, they must be learning,’’ Kohn said. “Kids learn best in schools that are joyful places. For many reasons, we are far, far from that situation, and it’s getting worse in the name of accountability.’’

For example, Kohn said, research shows that homework provides no benefit to young children.

“Everyone knows that kids hate most homework,’’ Kohn said. “I think there are people who think the fact that kids resist what they’re made to do means there’s some value they can’t understand. I think there are a lot of parents who are reassured by their kids hunched over a table, completing a worksheet.’’

Kohn, who works as an independent scholar and lecturer, authored a book called “The Case Against Standardized Testing’’ in 2000. Yet in the ensuing decade, public policy has shifted overwhelmingly toward, rather than away from, standardized testing as a way to measure student achievement. In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law, requiring states to assess students’ basic skills and penalizing schools that fail to meet certain benchmarks.

Kohn argues that, far from improving schools, the focus on standardized tests actually has had a negative effect on students.

“If test scores go up in a given community, that’s typically because of warping the curriculum so that it matches the test,’’ Kohn said. “You can raise the scores while lowering the quality of the instruction, and that is something that we’ve been seeing with alarming frequency.’’

He added, “Standardized tests like MCAS measure what matters least, and the more effort that’s put into improving our kids’ scores on these tests, the more our kids lose in terms of a rich and engaging classroom environment.’’

Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia professor who has been critical of Kohn in the past, said student assessment is “essential.’’ Willingham is the author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?’’

“I think it’s too extreme to say that all tests currently in use are without value,’’ Willingham said. “All standardized means is everybody gets the same test. It seems much more fair if everybody gets the same test, and everybody is graded in the same way.’’

But Kohn disputes that standardized testing is the only way to ensure fairness.

“First, it’s possible to do assessment that’s meaningful without using tests,’’ he said. “And the only reason you would need a standardized test in particular is if you were more interested in knowing who’s beating whom than in supporting excellence for all students.’’

Monty Neill, executive director of the Boston-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said Kohn’s work is reaching a wide audience, even if his perspective isn’t shared by many people running education today.

“Alfie is a voice that many, many parents, as well as teachers, listen to,’’ Neill said. “They view him as one of their champions.

“I suspect most policymakers currently are not real interested in what Alfie has to say, but a whole lot of people are.’’