Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 20 2013

#69: All aboard the U.S.S. Test-scores-don’t-matter

I’m responding to EMinMN’s most recent post titled “Test scores do matter. Unfortunately.”  This was originally to be a comment but it got long-winded(1) and I think merits a discussion of the importance of testing in our work.

Her post is itself a response to Gary Rubinstein’s post regarding a 2012 CM’s quote:

“My vision has come a long way from just focusing on data. My number one goal is to inspire students to want to learn the material. Everything else just follows from that. At the end of the year it doesn’t matter what their scores are—but if I can see passion in the subject I would have succeeded in the classroom.”

To which EMinNM replies:

Test scores SHOULDN’T matter as much as they have been set up to matter. I agree that there are so many other things we need to do in schools, and I try so hard to balance the joy of learning with the less savory parts for my kids. But when those tests are the difference between graduating and not, between a shot at college or not, between eventual stability for your family or month-to-month welfare?  You better believe they matter.

I’ve grappled with this question myself and I’ve come to the same conclusion as the 2012 CM, Mr. John Choi. Initially, I treated high-stakes standardized testing as a necessary evil. Now I contest their necessity.

I really have to disagree with the way she has framed this argument. She seems to argue that test performance is the causal link to graduation (certainly), matriculating and/or graduating college (debatable but not likely), and improved personal socioeconomic status (no grounding for this at all). I think the major flaw is not recognizing that test scores are merely a by-product of a learning environment that leads to those outcomes.

For me, this is a classic correlation not causation problem. The kids who do well on tests are largely from “stable” (read: wealthier) homes and the kids who do poorly are generally less “stable.” I’m not saying anything you all don’t already know. But to then argue that what will get these kids from unstable environments to stable ones is to do well on tests is incomplete. Let’s say you reach your Big Goal and a whole mess of kids do well on their state tests. Maybe they’re those really lucky kids who get three consecutive years of Excellent Teachers and they Close the Achievement Gap(TM). Assuming the tests are as mediocre as we believe them to be and the kids are merely doing well enough on tests to pass but are missing critical thinking skills (not to mention the networking privilege of wealthier peers), are these kids setting themselves up to do well in college? To graduate? To graduate without a load of student debt? To get a career that will be able to pay off that debt and make their families more “stable”? Or, will they be confronted with a host of challenges not related to their K-12 public education that will stand in the way of such comforts?

Furthermore, saying that critics in more “stable” schools are criticizing the primacy of these tests from a privileged position is not altogether wrong. What is missing is that it is equally privileged to say “The tests are important!” from a position of someone who has passed them with some frequency and ease. This was the system we succeeded in. This is a system our kids don’t, as a whole, succeed in. Think about the kids who struggle with testing annually, perhaps due to a gap in their understanding or perhaps due to test anxiety. But whatever the reason, a teacher — someone who has been successful enough with tests to achieve their professional status — who tells their students “these tests are so important for your future” is ostensibly saying “and if you don’t do well on them, you’re in for a world of misery.” So when those kids invariably(2) do poorly on the test, what are they supposed to think of themselves? Of school? Of their teachers?

At another juncture in her post, she says:

But if I teach entirely from that perspective, that test scores don’t matter, that won’t help Rylie when he fails the test. Given that this is the only system that we’ve got, what are we supposed to do within it?

When we say we “don’t care what the scores are,” this is not us saying, “Kids, don’t even try on the tests; we are going to go outside and write poems about nature for the next few weeks.” We are still teaching content based on standards that will be tested at the end of the year! So this idea that our priorities are — as she says — “truly damaging” to our students is odious.

The reason why I push back against the primacy of standardized tests is because our students are the victims of this regime. These tests are measures of achievement, not learning. Additionally, these tests are not designed for universal mastery. Cut-off scores are set so that a number of kids will pass and some will fail. And a lot of those kids who fail are ours, more so than students from wealthier environments. If we accept this world where tests are how we measure our kids’ and our own success, we have resigned ourselves to defeat. If, instead, we measure our kids ‘ success based on learning, which requires a great deal of relationship building and professional judgment on our part as teachers, we can make legitimate growth with our kids regardless of what an achievement test says about them.

The standardized testing regime is powerful and in some ways inescapable. You’re not likely to go to college without having taken the SAT or ACT and meeting some minimum standard there. You need certain tests to graduate or get promoted to the next grade. Fine. This system doesn’t really help high schoolers, for instance, who are steadfast in their commitment to not go to college to see value in school. I don’t have a systemic overhaul to suggest in its stead, at least not in this space. As a teacher, I can only offer this: emphasize my relationships with my students and their relationships to each other; cultivate their love for learning; listen to their needs and concerns. If I deliver on those metrics, my student and I can measure success in a way that honors each individual and takes into account where each student started when we were assigned each other. This is what we mean by “the test scores don’t matter.”(3)



(1) Who, me? Never.

(2) There may be objections to describing this hypothetical child’s lack of success as inevitable. I certainly do not assume that a child who has struggled each year on testing is doomed to failure this year. I have plenty of personal evidence to the contrary! But, there will be students who — despite your best efforts and theirs — will not pass tests. We must find other ways to measure their success because many of them do grow in important ways regardless.

(3) This is not to say that my priorities are necessarily incompatible with caring a lot about test scores. I do feel, however, that they compete for my class time and mental energy.

2 Responses

  1. While I agree with your sentiment, I think test scores are a “necessary evil.” I’m a strong believer in the need for national standards so that we can evaluate school performance. Now, what those tests look like and the response to poor performance is another debate, but on the surface I believe they’re necessary as a measure of our work.

  2. eminnm

    Like you, I started with a comment and ended with another post…I’d love to hear what you think!


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