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The Obsession with High-Stakes Testing Robs Kids of Opportunities to Flourish

How do kids grow mentally? 

Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development is based on the belief that people develop cognitively by interacting with people in a social, or cultural, setting. Vygotsky argued that human activities take place in cultural settings and cannot be understood apart from these settings. Our specific mental structures and processes can be traced to our interactions with others. More specifically, he argued that cognitive development of children takes place when children interact with those more capable or advanced in their thinking. That social interaction exposes the child’s mind to mental structures and processes that they then internalize.  That causes them to develop cognitively. 

According to his sociocultural theory of cognitive development, Vygotsky argues that cognitive development appears twice: first on the social level, and later on the individual level. Development appears first between people, and second inside the child. Put another way, higher mental processes are first co-constructed during shared activities between the child and another person.  Then the processes are internalized by the child and become part of that child’s cognitive development. Therefore, individual thinking is the result of social interaction.

Because the purpose of education, as it is being practiced in many districts, is to teach kids to pass a test, it ineluctably limits the amount, type, and quality of interactions between students and teachers. With over twenty-five percent of the school year devoted to teaching students to pass a test, students are being robbed of real opportunities to interact with their teachers, and thereby to grow cognitively. The time wasted to take a test is time that could be spent teaching them how to apply, analyze, synthesize, and discover things that could help them grow holistically. High-stakes testing limits the amount of time students can interact with teachers who could really help them grow. Kohn (2014) agrees, saying “High-stakes testing structures our education system and our society so as to deny the collective nature of learning- the ways in which ideas and understanding are developed in cooperation with others.”