Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: Should We Use Research Based on Standardized Testing?


Although I enjoyed reading “Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and the Persistence of America’s Permanent Talent Underclass” released this week, I scratched my head when I saw some friends enjoying the report.

I wondered how those friends, who have spoken and written against standardized testing, could promote the results of a report based on such testing. Then I remembered that I, too, have reservations about standardized testing, and yet I, too, want to use those reports in my arguments for policy change. In the midst of my cognitive dissonance, my education thoughts intertwined with my legal training and out popped “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

In 1939 United States Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter used the term “fruit of the poisonous tree” as a metaphor for evidence gained as the result of an illegal search or seizure. See Nardone v. United States — 308 U.S. 338 (1939). Although civil liberties violations are far more serious matters that standardized testing, can we not borrow the metaphor for a moment?

If we object to standardized testing, should we not refrain from using the fruits from standardized testing? Exactly how bad is standardized testing anyways? According to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, more and more people are questioning the fairness and efficacy of high stakes tests.

This week a group of 120 children’s book authors and illustrators, including authors Maya Angelou and Judy Blume, wrote a letter urging President Obama to curb standardized testing. In the letter, they expressed alarm at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates. They wrote:

“This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change. We offer our full support for a national campaign to change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation.”

My cognitive dissonance remains. If we are opposed to schools giving children standardized tests for umpteen many weeks of their K-12 lives, and if we are opposed to schools spending weeks teaching to those tests, then do we not have a duty to start questioning reports that arise from the “negative-effects” of those tests? Might legislators welcome alternative measures of educational progress? Do legislators really crave numbers produced on the tiny backs of children?

Also, do we not have a duty to move towards the future as envisioned a few weeks ago in Equinox Communique: Learning 2030 ? The entire report from that recent five-day meeting of forward-thinking educators, researchers, policymakers, and students from six continents is well worth reading, but two points shine light on what participants envision as the role of standardized testing and education research in the future:

(1) Learning focuses on the development of lifelong learning practices and a sense of self, rather than facts and figures.
(5) Learning progress is measured through qualitative assessment of a student’s skills and competencies that document the learner’s entire experience, rather than measuring a discrete outcome.

Perhaps the children’s book authors will write stories from children’s points of view about standardized testing. Perhaps those stories will have happy endings, maybe telling of a day in the future when children and legislators write their own letters asking the White House to measure educational success not by looking at test numbers, but instead by looking at children’s lives.

When we focus on children’s lives instead of test scores, learning beneficial to society occurs naturally. As John Locke (1632-1704) wrote long ago, “A child will learn three times as much when he is in tune as he will with double the time and pains when he goes awkwardly or is dragged unwillingly to it.” For an excellent example of “in tune with the child” learning, see an October 15th article in WIRED, “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.” Ironically, the students described in that article earned some of the best test scores in their country.

Note: This post was first published on October 24, 2013 and then revised on October 29, 2013 in response to comments posted elsewhere. Thank you to all who commented.

Before You Teach, Erase Your Memories


As I write, I am wearing many hats—those of mother, grandmother, teacher, gifted advocate, and education policy researcher. What I am about to say might be revolutionary, but it is the deep-down truth, designed to shine sunlight down on the flaws of education-as-we-know it. By “education” I mean both education that happens in schools and education that happens in homes by parents who choose to homeschool their children.

No Brains of Their Own

Even though I teach inside a classroom, inside a school, and even though I give assignments, assessments, and grades, I wish that all parents and students in the world would erase the trappings of traditional education from their minds. I wish everyone would take a collective deep breath, and blow away all thoughts of education-as-we-know-it.

Our schools-as-institutions have no brains of their own to comprehend and execute what I believe is a basic, bottom line truth: each child is an individual. In my ideal world, with unlimited funds for education, each child’s education would be individual.

Notice I did not write “each child’s education would be individualized”—the word “individualized” implies a starting point—the starting point of a typical education—and deviations from that point. In my ideal world, each child’s education would start from nowhere except the interests, desires, and abilities of that particular child. When we teach children with exceptionalities, whether those children are intellectually gifted or have learning disabilities or both, we have even greater reason to provide children with individual educations.

Although 100% individual education will not happen within institutions during my lifetime, I feel compelled to write this blog article. Why? Because if just one parent of an exceptional or twice exceptional child hears my voice and consequently feels emboldened to erase education “as-we-know-it” from his or her mind and instead create a totally new vision of education for a particular child, my time writing this article will be 100% well spent.


Persistent Prior Knowledge

Some people claim, “I have the ability to disregard ‘education-as-I-know-it.’” Ignoring your own ideas of education is easier said than done. In “Testing Teachers” Emily Hanford writes:

“Most people’s instinct is to teach the way they were taught, says Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson. But education researchers and scientists know a lot more now about how people learn than they did thirty years ago. And teaching is changing — or at least it should be, says Johnson.” From:

Years ago I remember reading about the frustrations of education professors who realize that their limited hours with prospective teachers in education courses are insufficient to undo twelve or thirteen years of those prospective teachers’ experiences as students in K-12 education:

“The sociologist Dan Lortie pointed out over twenty years ago that teachers go through a lengthy apprenticeship of observation in that they spend their entire childhoods observing teachers teach. Lortie suggested that the endurance of traditional teaching practice derives in part from the fact that teachers are highly likely to teach in the way they themselves were taught.”

From: Kennedy, M. M. (1999). “The role of preservice teacher education.” In Darling-Hammond, L. and Sykes, G. Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Teaching and Policy (pages 54-86). San Francisco: Jossey Bass. See, also, Oleson, A., and Hora, M. T. (2012). “Teaching the way they were taught? Revisiting the sources of teaching knowledge and the role of prior experience in shaping faculty teaching practices,” (WCER Working Paper 2012-9). Retrieved from


Hints for Erasing Your Education Memories

Although we cannot literally erase memories from our minds, we can dismantle our education belief systems, bit-by-bit. In the sections that follow, I try just that. Your mind and memories might vary from mine.

As you read my thoughts, I encourage you to think how you might tear down your own education belief system bit-by-bit until all that remains is one question, devoid of “traditional education institutional trappings.” The core question hopefully will be this—what is the purpose of education for one particular child?

Grade Levels

Few parents realize that in any seventh-grade classroom there may be ten or more different grade levels of reading comprehension. A seventh grade student at the 25th percentile in reading comprehension typically has the same reading comprehension ability as a student at the 50th percentile in fifth grade. Conversely, a student at the 75th percentile in seventh grade typically has the reading skills of a ninth grade student at the 50th percentile. The reading comprehension overlap is so great that I question what educational purposes, apart from “institutional-convenience,” might exist for separating students into language arts classrooms based on age rather than on reading comprehension ability.

Report Cards

Although in my ideal world the grades on a report card reflect knowledge acquired and nothing else, that is seldom the case. Many teachers include participation and homework assignments in their course grades. Some students who make mistakes on quizzes and tests go back and learn from their mistakes to such an excellent extent that the grade on the test or quiz is no longer indicative of their knowledge of the subject. Teacher judgments about student writings almost always include subjective elements. Sometimes students with handwriting or other difficulties are unable to fully express their thoughts on timed assessments.

Grades given by teachers remind me of the quote attributed to John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) : “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” I believe that grades on report cards, like laws and sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.


What students learn and when they learn it is often a matter of local politics or teacher preference. Students in the USA typically learn biology, then chemistry, and then physics. Why? Because somebody long ago decided to place those subjects in alphabetical order, presumably so students moving from town to town would encounter the same subjects at the same grades in high school. I once heard a principal complain that a teacher came to his office crying because the dinosaur unit had been moved from her grade level to another. Teaching the dinosaur unit was that teacher’s high point in life. Many schools respect teacher preference when deciding what to place where in the curriculum.


You might be thinking that I would not possibly argue that diplomas are unnecessary. Guess what? In many instances, colleges do admit students without high school diplomas. Some of the students without diplomas are home schooled, and others have failed to graduate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a student has moved from school to school and the newest school cannot fit a required course in the student’s schedule before graduation.

Many colleges and state-wide post-secondary enrollment programs allow students to start college before their senior year of high school. Last year I read a news article about a West Virginia high school student, Katelyn Campbell, whose high school principal threatened to call Wellesley College to complain about Campbell’s character after she protested against an assembly held at the school. In response, Wellesley College tweeted “Katelyn Campbell, Wellesley is excited to welcome you this fall!” Wellesley College, like many others, have a quiet  history of admitting promising students after their junior year of high school–no diploma necessary. A few years ago another brave young woman refused to take standardized testing required for high school graduation in Texas. Although she did not graduate from a Texas high school, she was warmly welcomed into a selective private college in another state.

Many young adults without high school diplomas have the option of taking the GED test. Community colleges around the USA routinely admit students without high school diplomas. I could go on, but the point is that thousands of families have learned that the high school diploma is not the be-all and end-all that “education-speak” makes it seem.



Parents often measure their children’s milestones against those of other children—trying to discover whether their toddlers walked or talked earlier or later than other toddlers, and trying to discover whether their school-aged children earned grades better or worse than other children.

If we truly believe that each child is an individual, can we not celebrate milestones independent of where those milestones fall in the eyes or experiences of others? Can we not focus on individual children? Has a baby’s joy at taking those first few walking steps ever depended on the baby having knowledge of when other children learn to walk?

Before we teach individual children, should we not erase from our memories what we expect their education to look like? Should we not forget about grades, curricula, report cards, credits?

I dare parents everywhere to look education straight in the eye and ask: What purpose do you serve for my particular child?


Epilogue:  What is Possible & Thanks to Diana Falk

While I was struggling with writing this article, my friend Diana Falk sent me some ideas. Diana understands the necessity of matching education to the child, and understands how to erase the trappings of traditional education from her mind. What she writes is just a small sample what is possible when we erase education-as-we-know-it from our minds. What is also possible is learning a language by interacting with a new friend who speaks that language, cherry-picking offerings at your local high school (provided part-time attendance is allowed), diving into programming via MIT’s Scratch, focusing head-strong on solving a local or wider issue, working as an apprentice, reading scores of books from the public library, taking online courses of interest, participating in a community orchestra, and/or writing a blog. Diana, thank you for allowing me to share the following small slice of your many wise thoughts:

“How about the idea of coming into education from new angles, such as using the real world as an educational backdrop which has many advantages not available at a brick & mortar facility? Going to a forest, beach or other setting for the sciences allows a blend of learning modalities including: kinetic involvement, visual stimulation & physical expression. Also adding experiences with long term goals, such as going to a bank & opening an account, buying a bond or CD at a minimal $ amount which can be incorporated into various math lessons on top of giving a child firsthand experiences in real world functioning. This is a more open-ended format which allows the freedom to explore within the experience, based on the child’s understanding and preferred expression choice.”

Photos by Wenda Sheard, taken on October 6, 2013 in Surrey, United Kingdom

I wrote this blog article as part of the October 2013 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop on “Homeschooling a Gifted or Twice-Exceptional Kid.” Many thanks to Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Bloggers Group for encouraging me to write for the Blog Hop. Here’s the link to a list of all articles in this month’s Blog Hop: and here are links to each of the articles:

5 Things You Need to Know Before Homeschooling a Gifted/2E Kid –

A Cattle Prod or a Magic Wand? – A 2e Fox Revived

A Dyscalculia Story and Aggressive Acceptance – Chasing Hollyfeld

Acronyms R Us – Buffalo Mama

Before You Teach, Erase Your Memories – Wenda Sheard, J.D. Ph.D. Thoughts on Life & Learning

Homeschooling an Early Learner – Sceleratus Classical Academy

Homeschooling and the Situational 2E – Crushing Tall Poppies

Homeschooling Gifted Learners – Eclectic Homeschooling

Homeschooling My Gifted Children (Newly updated!) – Corin Barsily Goodwin, GHF

Homeschooling my gifted/2e son for one month so far – San Antonio Charter Moms

Homeschooling Your Gifted Child – Modern Homeschooling

Nine things I love about homeschooling my 2e son…and four things I despise. – Laughing at Chaos

What Anxiety Looks Like – Quarks and Quirks