The 2017 Creativity Crisis: How High-Stakes Testing Stifles American 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

Dr. KH Kim, Professor, The College of William & Mary (Email or Tweet @Kreativity_Kim)

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. Instead of competing against each other on
memorization tests, when children utilize their creativity to
its full potential, creativity can contribute to healthy lives
and future careers.

How High-Stakes Testing Has Caused Exam Hell in

Test scores that greatly impact individuals’ potential options
and opportunities are high-stakes tests. Asian culture has been
built on Confucianism, yet for over 1400 years, high-stakes
testing is what has shaped the main Confucian cultural values:
1) filial piety (being a good son or daughter by achieving high
scores), 2) social conformity; and 3) social hierarchy.
High-stakes testing is based on meritocracy, the belief that
hard work and effort lead to success. However, China originally
established the first high-stakes testing (i.e., civil service
testing system) in the 600s to make its millions of young men
focus on preparing for the test, not on challenging the social
hierarchy. High-stakes testing has resulted in exam
, the excessive rote memorization and private
tutoring, starting in early childhood, to achieve high scores
among students in Asia (e.g., China, Japan, Korea, Singapore,
and Taiwan) , which has fostered social conformity and
structural inequalities. Asian students’ high test scores have
cost them their individuality and creativity.

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

During the 1990s, American politicians decided to focus on
test-taking skills because: 1) the economic success of East
Asian countries’ (especially Japan’s) in the 1980s; 2) Asian
students scored higher than American students on international
assessments; 3) Asian American students achieved higher
academically than non-Asian students; and 4) large achievement
gaps among ethnic groups. Rather than focusing on
creativity that caused America to flourish, they
decided to emulate Asian high-stakes testing, which led to a
flurry of legislation. High-stakes testing costs American
taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year. Because the
sanctions on schools are based on students’ test scores, many
low-income area schools have been defunded, decreasing
disadvantaged students’ educational opportunities.

Highly-selective university and graduate school admission
procedures have increased their reliance on scores from
high-stakes tests such as the ACT and the SAT. American parents
have increasingly spent more money on testing-related expenses
each year. Testing companies and test-preparation
companies have reaped enormous financial benefits from
high-stakes testing and have increased spending on
lobbying, increasing their power. More students take the ACT or
the SAT each year. However, these scores have been highly
correlated with both students’ family income and spending on
test preparations (that increase test-taking skills).
High-stakes testing has solidified structural inequalities and
socioeconomic barriers for low-income families.

American Education Before and After the 1990s

Creativity is making something unique and useful. The
successful result of the creative process is
innovation. Kim’s research-based CATs framework (2016)
illustrates how creativity develops into innovation: 1)
cultivate creative Climates; 2) nurture
creative Attitudes; and apply creative
Thinking skills. Cultivating
the sun, storm, soil, and space climates that
nurture or enable creative attitudes and thinking skills is
what resulted in generations of scientific discovery,
invention, technology, entrepreneurship, businesses,
leadership, sports, and the arts in the United States.

1. The sun. Prior to the 1990s, American
education cultivated the sun climate that provided innovators
with inspiration and encouragement.  However, since the

Losing curiosities and passions.
Because of the incentives or sanctions on schools and teachers
based on students’ test scores, schools have been dependent on
rote lecturing to teach all tested material and have spent time
teaching specific test-taking skills. Students have memorized
information for the tests without opportunities to apply it to
real-world situations. They have lost their natural curiosities
and opportunities for the joy of learning and exploring topics
that might lead to their passions.

Narrowing visions. Making test scores
as the measure of success has fostered students’ competition
and narrowed 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. This enabled a connection between unrelated
things, which led to innovation.

2. The storm. Prior to the 1990s, education
cultivated the storm climate that provided innovators with high
expectations and challenges. However, since the 1990s:

Lowering expectations. Because
teachers are judged by the percentage of students’ passing
scores, they focus on students whose scores are close to the
passing score and ignore high-achieving students.

Avoiding risk-taking. High-stakes
testing has increased students’ test anxiety. Moreover, to
prepare students for tests, teachers often use messages
conveying the consequences of failing the tests, increasing
their anxiety even more. This prevents students from not only
accepting mistakes or failures but taking risks that creativity

3. The soil. Prior to the 1990s, education
cultivated the soil climate that provided innovators with
diverse experiences and views. However, since the 1990s:

Avoiding collaboration. Because
teachers have depended on rote lecturing, students have few
opportunities for group work or discussions to learn and
collaborate with others. High-stakes testing has also made
students, teachers, and schools compete against other students,
teachers, and schools, instead of collaborating.

Narrowing minds. Schools have
decreased or eliminated instruction time on non-tested subjects
such as social studies, science, physical education, arts, and
foreign languages. This not only narrows students’ minds or
views but gives them few opportunities for finding or
expressing their individuality and cross-pollination across
different subjects or fields that can lead to Big I
(Innovation). Low-income area schools have even more decreased
time on non-tested subjects, increasing more time on test
preparations, due to even greater pressures to raise test
scores. Test-centric education has widened the achievement gap
between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

4. The space. Prior to the 1990s, education
cultivated the space climate that provided innovators with the
freedom to think alone and differently. However, since the

Losing imagination and deep thought.
Test-centric education has reduced or eliminated children’s
playtime, which has stifled imagination. Due to the pressure to
cover large amounts of tested material, teachers overfeed
students with information, leaving students little time to
think or explore concepts in depth.

Conforming to others’ control.
American education has increasingly fostered conformity,
clipping eagles’ wings of individuality. It has stifled
uniqueness and originality in both educators and students by:
1) forcing school accountability to ensure uniformity; 2)
forcing teachers to do what is against their own educational
values and controlling the content they teach and their
teaching methods and practices; 3) forcing students what and
how to learn (rote learning) and selecting conforming students
for universities and graduate schools; and 4) giving
disadvantages to nonconforming teachers and students and
marginalizing them by the in-group or out-group mentality.
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.

Fostering hierarchy. Meritocracy
rationalizes the use of test scores and justifies the results
of high-stakes testing as uniform and fair to everyone often
using the word, standardized.  However, 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), which, in turn, significantly impacts their later
academic achievement. Yet, high-stakes testing has determined
the deservingness and un-deservingness of passers or failers
based on meritocracy that failers lack effort. Meritocracy has
disguised the structural inequalities by conditioning
disadvantaged students to blame themselves for their lack of

Results of The 2017 Creativity Crisis Study

“The Creativity Crisis (Kim, 2011)” reported that American
creativity declined from the 1990s to 2008. To examine any
change since 2008, the present study analyzed 273,441 scores on
the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking from examinees ranging
from Age 5 through adult (Age 18+). Results showed that the
identified Creativity Crisis has grown even greater since 2008.
Also, the results revealed that the youngest age groups (5 and
6-year-olds) suffered the greatest.

The significant declines in outbox thinking skills (fluid and
original thinking) indicated 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) indicated that Americans not only think less in
depth or with focus, but also think less critically and are
more single-minded (e.g., black-and-white thinking) than those
in preceding decades (Figure 2).










The significant decline in open-mindedness (creative attitude)
indicated 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 suggested that the younger children are, the more they
are harmed by American test-centric education.


The full report discusses numerous research findings (with the
references) that show the similarities between American
high-stakes testing nightmares and Asian exam hell. This might
suggest that increasingly few American innovators will survive.
The longer test-centric education continues, the fewer will
remember or know that eagles can fly, and the stronger the
detriments will be.  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.

Tags: dr. kh
, testing, the creativity crisis

blog comments powered by

Add Comment