Why Schools Test Often

The latest Science:

We modified the dictator game … and studied how inequality acceptance develops in adolescence. We found that as children enter adolescence, they increasingly view inequalities reflecting differences in individual achievements, but not luck, as fair, whereas efficiency considerations mainly play a role in late adolescence. …

We assumed that there were three salient fairness views in this situation: strict egalitarianism, finding all inequalities unfair; meritocratism, justifying inequalities reflecting differences in production; and libertarianism, justifying all inequalities in earnings. … The large majority of 5th graders were strict egalitarians, and, remarkably, there were almost no meritocrats at this grade level. In contrast, meritocratism was the dominant position in late adolescence, and the share of strict egalitarians fell dramatically. The share of libertarians was stable across grade levels. … From 9th grade, … efficiency considerations played a more important role for males than females. (more)

This seems support for my view that frequent school scoring serves the function of making kids accept dominance and inequality:

At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning! It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance. Modern workplaces require workers who are far more accepting than are foragers of being told what to do when, and of being explicitly ranked, and our schools prepare kids to accept this more primate-like environment. (more)

The evidence strongly suggests that students learn better when they are not graded and certainly not when they are graded on a curve. (more)

Subjects worked on different tasks and received performance-contingent payments that varied in amount from small to very large relative to their typical levels of pay. With some important exceptions, very high reward levels had a detrimental effect on performance. (more)

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  • Dan in Euroland

    Seems to confirm the Gintis Bowles view of education.

  • I feel like you’re being deliberately sloppy here to get some more counter-intuitive pop out of your position.

    What are the optimal levels of testing? What are the the best ways to assess and maximize student learning?

    I thought you were going in a more useful direction with comments like this:


  • ” It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance”

    Given that our modern public schools were largely influenced by the 19th century Prussian educational system, designed to produce good little soldiers for the wars that the Prussian military was constantly involved in, that’s not particularly surprising.


  • So my idea of separation of testing and education could lead to a more rebellious society?

    • BTW It seems to me that more rebellious societies are less wealthy and have more crime.

    • anon

      The article doesn’t imply that separating testing and education would lead to a more rebellious society. It doesn’t even imply that such a society would be more egalitarian, since the authors don’t show any correlation between amount of testing and meritocratism: all they show is a correlation with age and presumably years of education.

  • Dan, the data does confirm. I elaborate via the testing-frequency detail of how schools socialize for work.

    Hopefully, I’m sloppy if I don’t give a formula for optimal testing frequency or maximal student learning?

    Floccina, yes.

    • Professor Hanson,
      I think you’re being sloppy by choosing a binary framing just because we tend to allow explainers to get away with them. Optimizing testing frequency to maximize student learning is a more interesting angle than the weird binary framework of frequent testing = bad for learning

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  • Matt

    No control group.

  • Tracy W

    It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance.

    Okay, modern schools, for the masses, started in what, the early 19th century?
    Since then we have seen mass movements for
    – universal male suffrage (19th century)
    – universal female suffrage (19th century/early 20th century)
    – rise of Communist parties in the late 19th/early 20th centuries
    – mass general strike in Britain in the 1920s (in Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Whimsey novels, the hero is frequently joking about the coming revolution, and while the Russian revolution did introduce its own hiearchary, the participants did destroy the aristocracy along the way, and I think the maintenance of the Russian Communist party was not because of schooling but because they were willing to kill everyone who disagreed).
    – civil rights movement of the 1950s
    – second wave of feminism movement of the 1960s/70s
    – counter-cultural movement of the 1960s
    – gay rights movement
    – neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, with the shocking ideas of people like Margaret Thatcher and Roger Douglas that ordinary individuals might be able to make better economic decisions than their bureaucratic masters.

    You might not agree with any or all of these movements (I don’t know anyone who favours both Communism and neoliberalism), but none of these actions seem like a population of humans who are fond of hierarchy and dominance. I am prepared to believe that schools were intended to function as described, but no one has ever convinced me that schools actually do manage to suppress independent thinking.

    I keep coming across theories like this one you quote from the Scientist, but their proponents never appear to check if their hypothesis fits in with reality. I would be delighted if the Science article does attempt to explain away the events of the 19th and 20th century.

  • Jess Riedel

    Is there data to distinguish between this hypothesis and the hypothesis that tolerance of merit-based inequality is simply a more advanced concept which develops with age (rather than being caused by schools)? I couldn’t find any following the links.

    • Edward


      Correlation does not prove causation. It is such a simple principle!

      I may as well say that school causes children to develop heterosexual and homosexual feelings towards one another!

      Does home-schooling create relative radicals/anarchists?

  • Metacognition

    It’s sad and a bit funny how many people adamantly hold to the position that schools are only there to make well-educated people. I guess they’re just living in the land of rational ignorance since there isn’t much they can do about it.

  • link goes through GMU’s proxy server which breaks it for most of us.

  • How much math do hunter-gatherers learn?

  • The evidence strongly suggests that students learn better when they are not graded and certainly not when they are graded on a curve. (more)

    Prof. Hanson cites the book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense. I looked in that book and saw that the only relevant citation they gave was an Alfie Kohn book. I haven’t read that book but based on what I know of Alfie Kohn, I’m certainly not ready to take that on faith.

    What would “strong evidence” that students learn better when they are not graded look like? Perhaps a number of schools that switched and subsequently had better performance on standardized tests? I doubt there are any examples of that. I’m willing to consider other forms of evidence, any suggestions?

    I have more experience in education research than most people, and I am skeptical that eliminating grades from school would improve learning. As for Hanson’s claim that one of the purposes of grades is to socialize students, I’m not ready to endorse it, but I’m not hostile to it either.

  • Robin

    How does this square with the astonishingly close correlation between test scores and IQ? Is grading then simply a dampening function that operates on the variable IQ or, rather, its expression in learning?

  • Tracy, the claim is not that schools create an absolute acceptance of all possible dominance, but that ex-students accept more dominance from certain sources.

    Steve, as you know hunter-gatherers learn a lot.

    Contempla, why would students be tested daily year after year in order to reveal a stable one-dimensional feature? Surely you could then just wait until a later age, test them once, and be done with it.

    • Tracy W

      Robin – what sources are these? If the proponents don’t name them then the theory is effectively non-falsifiable, as whatever evidence I dig up along the lines I just did, the proponents can just claim “no, no. no, I wasn’t referring to those sources of hierarchy and dominance, but to some others.”
      If they’re talking about work forces, were workforces more hierarchical and dominance-based than before the event of modern schooling? From books like Lady Barker’s “Station Life in New Zealand”, 1870, where she comments on how non-hierarchical NZ workers were compared with those from Britain, I’d say that workplaces have become less hierarchical and dominance-based.

    • Professor Hanson,
      Testing at the classroom level (not state or national policy) to me seems to primarily serve two functions:
      (1) a paternalist function that helps the students, giving them a carrot/stick incentive to learn where the award is status, on the short term. I suspect many students learn better in a class with weekly quizes than just one final at the end.
      (2) payment in status and power to the teacher. I think many people become teachers to have a microsocial environment they dominate. This is different from some macrosocial end.

      Talent privilege may blind you to (1).

  • I teach middle school in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, and I abolished grading from my classroom 5 years ago. It was the best thing I could have ever done for my students’ learning. I blog about education everyday at http://www.joebower.org

    Here is a page of blog posts where I document the anecdotal evidence and observations I made during this 5 year: http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html

  • Steve, as you know hunter-gatherers learn a lot.


    There are tribes where nobody can count past three.

  • Konkvistador

    @Steve Sailer: Are you saying that knowing math and being able to quantify things one sees in the world helps one accept meritocracy since it helps distinguish the concept from just a grab for power by the well to do?

  • BTW my problem with teachers testing and grading is that it creates a duel allegiance one to the students to help them learn and one to the overall society to grade the students. According to Deming duel roles are very difficult for people to balance such roles, they cannot do both well.

  • @Steve Sailer: Are you saying that knowing math and being able to quantify things one sees in the world helps one accept meritocracy

    I’m saying that, as Barbie so acutely pointed out, math is hard.

    Hunter-gatherers tend not to learn much math, so non-hunter-gatherer methods of learning math (such as being tested frequently, so you get feedback) may well be necessary.

    • Leif Johnson

      Disclaimer: I am not an education professional or anything like that, although I grew up in a household full of pedagogy discussion.

      I was homeschooled, and was given no formal (or informal) math instruction until 8th grade (In the US, so I was about 13 or 14.) From there, I took “advanced” math classes, ending with calculus in high school. I was never particularly good at the computational elements of math as taught in school, but I was always more than capable of understanding the concepts and operations, and I got good grades in math generally. I may be an anecdotal sample, but the question of “how much math do hunter-gatherers learn” is a strawman argument. Math is hard – in a society where math is unnecessary. In a society where we deal with money often, base our conceptions of self-worth on income, square feet and number of cars owned, (basic) math is easy.

      To take this a little bit out of my own experience, I do remember long discussions of a study (conducted in a scandinavian country – sorry I don’t remember more details) in which a group of students in public schools received no math instruction until early adolescence (around the same age of 13-15.) They were then given a rapid run-through of the math they would have learned during the intervening years. When tested a few years later, they received scores that were not substantially different from the norm (their peers, who had been given math instruction since entering school.)

      Hunter-gatherers are not the only examples of people who aren’t tested frequently. Similarly, not being tested frequently is not the only difference between them and us. Tests are a very specific (and judgmental) form of feedback, and I think that people are generally very capable of determining their own capacity. The need for tests is to allow outsiders to determine people’s capacity, in order to rank them, set them on specific tracks, and generally control them. Small wonder that people who have been subject to this model of “education” are more likely to obey authority and accept inequality.

  • A super-cynical view:

    perhaps constant testing implicitly reinforces the social hierarchy, but it could just be developmental. Also, as your reasoning abilities increase so does your ability for self-deception: i.e. “I’m better than other people, and better people deserve more.” instead of the juvenile “I want more than he/she has.”

    testing is also for the teachers; it shows that they are doing something (the number 1 priority of a bureaucracy is to look busy.)
    Sometimes rationality is not the prime decision maker, it’s ease of implementation, and it’s very easy to generate paperwork.

  • You might be interested in a post that I have just put on my blog on education (anlagen):
    “School is a system: projects, tests, grades, within which what we are doing can be forgotten; you use your intelligence to survive: do what is necessary to survive the system and live your lives in the space around it, detached from the process.”

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