EVER since ``Why Johnny Can't Read'' appeared, American education has been criticized as a failure. Best-sellers argue that our students don't know enough. From kindergarten to college, educators have examples of unacceptable ignorance and reform proposals to achieve educational excellence. The proposals share an emphasis on course content as the key to improving education. The presumption is that our students are ignorant because we don't teach enough. What students learn and retain is more complex, however. Ultimately, the incentives students face determine what they learn. And learning incentives are intertwined with testing procedures.
For most students, grades are the primary motivator for educational achievement. Good grades require mastering test material, not mastering all that is taught. Therefore, while expanding the curriculum makes it possible to learn more, unless tests better reward learning what is important, the results will be disappointing.
Students often face test questions that reward less important forms of learning than those emphasized in education-reform proposals. Tests give serious ``why'' questions (the ultimate goal of education) insufficient attention, substituting objective, memorized minutiae of who, what, when, where, and how. Such questions reward neither depth nor breadth of understanding, much less retention. They stimulate excellence in the wrong kind of learning (regurgitation of isolated, memorized, quickly forgotten facts), at the expense of the kind esteemed by reformers (coherent, retained understanding). While inappropriate testing is little noted in reform discussions, current educational results strongly confirm both its prevalence and importance.
Evidence indicates that even good students retain beyond the school years (or even the class period) a remarkably small percentage of what is taught. If students were taught about and tested on understanding important ``why'' questions, they would see their education's value and retain it far better than they do now.