2017 Creativity Crisis Update: How High-Stakes Testing Stifles Innovation

2017 Creativity Crisis Update: How High-Stakes Testing Stifles Innovation

Education April 17, 2017 / By Dr. KH Kim
2017 Creativity Crisis Update: How High-Stakes Testing Stifles Innovation

This is an executive summary of a follow-up report (2017) of “The Creativity Crisis” (Kim, 2011) that discovered American creativity in decline since the 1990s. The full report has been reviewed by several researchers, but it will not be public until it has gone through a lengthy review process.

Executive Summary

Children are born to be creative, like eagles are born to soar, see the world, and find food, not scratch and fight for scraps in a coop. When children utilize their creativity to its full potential, instead of competing against each other on memorization tests, creativity can contribute to healthy lives and future careers.

How High-Stakes Testing Has Caused Exam Hell in Asia

 For over 1400 years, high-stakes testing has shaped the main Asian cultural values: 1) filial piety (e.g., to be a good son or daughter by achieving high scores), 2) social conformity (e.g., to think and act like others); and 3) social hierarchy (e.g., to obey the authority). When China established the first high-stakes testing, to control its people, it made millions of young men focus on preparing for tests, instead of challenging the social hierarchy. It has resulted in Asian exam hell, students' excessive rote memorization and private tutoring to achieve high scores, starting in early childhood. This situation has forced social conformity and hierarchy. It has cost Asians their individuality and creativity.

How High-Stakes Testing Has Caused The Creativity Crisis in the U.S.

During the 1990s, American politicians, fearing the educational and economic success of Asia, began to focus on test-taking skills to emulate Asian success.  Today, high-stakes testing costs American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year, but the real cost is much higher

Highly-selective university and graduate school admission procedures rely on high-stakes tests such as the ACT and the SAT. Testing companies and test-preparation companies have reaped enormous financial benefits and lobby Congress heavily for more testing. 

American Education Before and After the 1990s

Creativity is making something unique and useful, which often produces innovation. Prior to the 1990s, American education cultivated, inspired, and encouraged.  However, since the 1990s schools have:

Killed curiosities and passions. Because of the sanctions on schools and teachers based on students’ test scores, schools have turned to rote lecturing to teach all tested material and spent time teaching specific test-taking skills. Students memorize information without opportunities for application. This approach stifles natural curiosities, the joy of learning, and exploring topics that might lead to their passions.

Narrowed visions. Making test scores as the measure of success fosters students' competition and narrows their goals, such as getting rich, while decreasing their empathy and compassion for those in need. However, the greatest innovators in history were inspired for big visions such as changing the world. Their big visions helped their minds transcend the concrete constraints or limitations and recognize patterns or relationships among the unrelated.

Prior to the 1990s, many schools had high expectations and offered  many challenges. However, since the 1990s schools have:

Lowered expectations. Schools focus on students whose scores are just below passing score and ignore high-achieving students.

Stifled risk-taking. High-stakes testing teaches students to avoid taking risks for fear of being wrong. However, the willingness to accept failure is essential for creativity.

Prior to the 1990s, educators sought to provide students with diverse experiences and views.  However, since the 1990s schools have:

Destroyed collaboration. Because teachers have been compelled to depend on rote lecturing, students have few opportunities for group work or discussions to learn and collaborate with others.

Narrowed minds. Schools have reduced instruction time on non-tested subjects such as social studies, science, physical education, arts, and foreign languages. This contraction not only narrows students’ minds but gives them few opportunities for expressing their individuality and cross-pollinating across different subjects or fields. Low-income area schools, especially, have reduced time on non-tested subjects to spend more time on test preparations. Even worse, time for non-tested subjects for even very young children have been significantly reduced.

Prior to the 1990s, schools provided children with the freedom to think alone and differently. However, since the 1990s schools have:

 Killed deep thoughts and imagination. With pressure to cover large amounts of tested material, teachers overfeed students with information, leaving students little time to think or explore concepts in depth. Test-centric education has reduced children's playtime, which stifles imagination. It has also reduced 3 to 6-year-olds' playtime due to increased instruction time, leaving them little time for imagination. Some of them already feel like a failure.

Forced conformity. American education has increasingly fostered conformity, clipping eagles' wings of individuality. All schools focus on preparing students for the same tests. High-stakes testing has stifled and punished original thinking. Wing-clipped eagles cannot do what they were born to do – fly; individuality-clipped children cannot do what they were born to do – fulfill their creative potential.

Solidified hierarchy. Students’ low scores are often due to structural inequalities, which start in early childhood (e.g., the number of words exposed to by age 3), impacting later achievement. Their scores on high-stakes tests (including the ACT and SAT) are highly correlated with both students’ family income and spending on test preparations. High-stakes testing has solidified socioeconomic barriers for low-income families. Yet, high-stakes testing has determined the deservingness and un-deservingness of passers or failers. The claim of meritocracy has disguised the structural inequalities by conditioning disadvantaged students to blame themselves for their lack of effort. Most importantly, social hierarchies unknowingly stifle creativity: individuals in those countries that value hierarchies expect authoritarian figures to make decisions, instead of taking their own initiatives, using free and equal discussions or debates, or challenging top-down decisions. These countries, such as Asian countries, have resulted in few innovations.

Results of The 2017 Creativity Crisis Study

In “The Creativity Crisis (2011)”, I reported that American creativity declined from the 1990s to 2008. My new research reveals that the Creativity Crisis has grown worse since 2008. The results also reveal that the youngest age groups (5 and 6-year-olds) have suffered the greatest.

The significant declines in outbox thinking skills (fluid and original thinking) indicate that Americans generate not only fewer ideas or solutions to open-ended questions or challenges, but also fewer unusual or unique ideas than those in preceding decades (Figure 1). 










The significant declines in newbox thinking skills (elaboration and simplicity) indicate that Americans think less in depth, with less focus, and they think less critically and in more black-and-white terms than those in preceding decades (Figure 2).










The significant decline in open-mindedness (creative attitude) indicates that Americans are less open to new experiences and different people, ideas, and views than those in preceding decades (Figure 3).










The greatest declines in creativity among the youngest age groups suggest that the younger children are, the more they are harmed by American test-centric education. Similarities between American high-stakes testing and Asian exam hell have appeared, especially in early childhood education. This indicates that increasingly fewer American innovators will emerge. The longer test-centric education continues, the fewer will remember that eagles can fly, and the more we will see creativity and innovation decline.  

America must not abandon its traditional way of raising eagles. Eagles that soar high will see the whole big world, and children who maximize their potential will become world’s greatest innovators. The world has improved from breakthroughs made by eagles, not by wing-clipped chicks.

Dr. Kim is a professor of educational psychology at the College of William & Mary.  (kkim@wm.edu or Tweet @Kreativity_Kim)  

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