Testing teaching or teaching to the test?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted mainly because I have been bogged down with so much non-teaching work that is required of me as a teacher, that I have spent my few free hours doing as close to nothing as I can. Now, as I sit with three other teachers proctoring the PSAT (we roam the room two at a time while the other two work), I got to thinking about testing. Hey, how could I not?

The trend these days is to test the hell out of students. National standardized tests, state mandated standardized tests, student growth objective assessments, as well as school district mandated tests (in my district this means quarterlies this year) take up A LOT of class time these days, not to mention the various assessments/tests we teachers give as part of our own ways of checking on our students’ growth and abilities. With all these standardized tests — and, yes, my districts quarterlies are standardized across two high schools within each subject year and level — what are we really accomplishing?

The way I was taught all those years ago before cell phones and the Internet was my teachers would give us instruction in class along with exercises to back up the lesson. We would have homework and quizzes/tests/essays for them to check if we were absorbing the information and learning the skills necessary to each class. Then we would have midterm and final exams, written by each teacher, that would assess the accumulation of each semester’s work, as done in class with that teacher. In other words, all assessments given were testing what was taught in class. The tests made sense within the continuum of the school year.

When I went to graduate school at Teachers College, we were taught this system as well. All assessments, formative or summative, should be part of the over all education of the students. They should be learning from the testing too. By having tests that are imbedded in the class curriculum, students enhance their learning through the studying of the information for that test as well as through the processing of that information to figure out the answers on the test or to construct an essay on a particular topic related to what was taught previously. In that way, testing ENHANCES the education as well as checks the advancement of the students. After all, it’s their education, not the teacher’s.

But now, all these required standardized tests are pushing education in the opposite direction. Because they are standardized, they can’t connect directly to what happens in the classroom because every teacher is different in his method of instruction. Also, by having so many tests that are mandated by the powers-that-be, teachers are under immense¬†pressure to have their students score well on them, so they now design their lessons AROUND THE TESTS. Classes become more about test prep than actual learning. Students are taught, indirectly, that scores and grades are more important than actually imbedding skills and information in their brains, so they study for short term goals only — test scores. Parents push their children not to do well, but to get good grades, which is not the same thing. Thus, our education system has shifted in the past 25 years since I graduated from high school from testing that which is taught to teaching that which is on the test.

Tests cannot cover everything that students COULD be learning in a classroom, but with so many tests and so much pressure for the students to do well on them, teachers and parents and administrators and school boards all become focused on the scores and not on actual education. This leads to so many things NOT being taught. In the very early years, it means less time for play — the way young children actually learn — and more time for worksheets, which mean nothing in the long term for them. In the older years, such as high school, it means less time for true critical exploration of a subject and more time going over how to get right answers, answers which are quickly forgotten once the test is taken.


Short term, there is no problem with this, actually. Since the entire system from Kindergarten through 12th grade is becoming based on this, students will get good grades and advance to the next grade just as they always have. But that only covers them until the age of 18. Then it all goes downhill from there.

Remedial courses are gaining record numbers in colleges around the country, because about 40% of students that get into competitive colleges are not ready for college level education when they graduate high school. So, where does that lead, eventually?



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