Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 04 2013

#70: Response to EMinNM on the importance of testing

This is part five of an ongoing dialogue regarding the importance of standardized testing. This post is in response to EMinNM’s “Test scores aren’t all that matter!”

EM, before I go any further, let me apologize for my slow response. My go-to excuse for tardiness is here.

Thank you for your quite thoughtful response. I think this is a really important discussion for us to have, both as teachers and as TFA-type people(1), especially as so many new TFA teachers are reading this space and trying to make sense of things for the upcoming school year.

First, I want whatever audience we have to be clear what we’re discussing(2). When we talk about test scores, we are speaking specifically about the end-of-year summative standardized assessments each state administers to students of nearly all grade levels. We can also include the multiple benchmarks many schools administer throughout the year designed to gauge progress towards these end-of-year assessments.

In your response to me, you expounded on your point regarding the economic benefit of testing. Because exit-level testing is mandated for high school graduation, you highlight the importance of kids passing these tests in order to qualify for the vast majority of most forms of employment available. This makes sense: if they don’t graduate, they lack a very basic credential sought for employment.

However! As luck would have it, I came across some research this morning regarding this very notion since we last spoke. According to a working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research, there is no positive affect on wages or employment as a result of passing exit-level testing. In fact, with increasing rigor, exit-level testing depresses high school graduation rates and increases incarceration rates(3). It is just one study, but the findings are informative and might give you some empirical grounding to abandon a test-centered curriculum.

I think our contexts matter. I teach high school. I have students who are taking exams required for graduation every year from freshman through junior year. If you are worried about kids being able to pass these things, teaching to the test will not help them by the time they get here. One of the consequences of high-stakes testing at all levels is the narrowing of what is taught. If kids are taught test-taking strategies and content shortcuts designed to get specific questions correct, they aren’t being properly set up for the next grade, even if they are passing tests. We do have kids who cannot pass those exit-level tests, though there are not many. Their struggles with passing these exams is not for lack of focus on the tests nor is it due to years of teachers who focused on developing critical thinking skills or their love or learning.

Since you teach elementary, I know you are aware of how critical it is for them to love school and to have joy in what they do and that there is so much more that you do than prepare them for academic achievement tests. This is something that I think the corporate reform crowd pays lip service to but does nothing to cultivate. In fact, their preferred policies(4) run counter to the idea of a teacher as a nurturer.

I sense in your posts that you are looking for some impetus to teach to your values but have understandable fear what might happen to your students down the line if you do. From one teacher to another, teach your conscience. If you believe that going off the beaten path to truly reach your students and touch their curiosity is what will make them better lifelong learners, then do it! They will not suffer for it. Render unto Arne Duncan what is Duncan’s and render unto your students what is theirs. They deserve teachers as passionate as you are about their growth as people and as citizens.

I am making this sound like it is easy, and it isn’t! I fall short of this ideal constantly. I am teaching Geometry again this year. Last year, I ended up making a lot of curricular decisions based on what was to be tested or not. And I felt awful about it and my kids were often bored by what I was teaching them, though we had a good enough relationship that they were willing to go with me on it for the most part. But the test prep is not what I’m passionate about in this subject. Next year, I want to give them Euclid’s Elements, and I want them to see that they are part of an educational tradition that predates Christianity. I want them to understand that logical argumentation and intuition are just as important as formulas and calculations. I want them to do lots of constructions with a compass and a straight edge. And a lot of that is not going to be tested next year. This is a risk that I am more willing to take now because there are far fewer stakes attached to my end-of-course exam(5).

I wish I had more to offer, but I’ve only been doing this for a few years. I feel like I’ve worked pretty hard to become a pretty average(6) teacher. But I think you and I come from the same frame of mind school should be a joyful place and the pressures of standardized testing robs us of many of those opportunities for joy. I can only hope that as you and I progress through this work that we are emboldened to take more risks to steal that joy back for our classrooms.


(1) If I can’t sing an alma mater, then I am not an “alumnus.”

(2) I would not call this a debate since I think we are basically in agreement on some fundamental issues, namely that standardized tests are fundamentally lame.

(3) Hat-tip to Paul Bruno.

(4) i.e. Increase class-size for “effective” (read: good test scores) teachers (read: content instructor); increase use of technology in place of human labor (virtual charters, Rocketship, et al).

(5) Geometry is no longer required for graduation in the state of Texas as the result of some recent legislation.

(6) Some days I feel like “average” is a very generous self-assessment. There are fewer of those days now, thankfully, but they are still too frequent!

One Response

  1. meghank

    ” Render unto Arne Duncan what is Duncan’s and render unto your students what is theirs. ”

    Great post!

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