Teaching to the test has cost — and not what you might think.

I spent a good part of my professional career trying to convince myself the standardized test we subjected our kids in schools every spring mattered.  My staff and I each summer would anxiously await the official release of the results. We would pour over the data like veteran statisticians. We crafted grandiose statements of praise to staff and students when we did exceptionally well and heaped a whole lot of blame on the curriculum or course sequences when we did poorly.  We got excited when our school district was featured in the newspaper as moving up in the numbers and relished in the defeat of our neighboring schools who might have not fared as well on the yearly test. We placed huge banners on the school building declaring our victory and celebrating our empty excellence.

I was seduced into believing this yearly one-time test was preparing kids for future success and we needed to be competitive with other countries.  If I suggested otherwise, my colleagues would give me the look of disgust as if I was un-American and did not care about the success or failure of this country.  This of course is a global world and we are competing with other kids from other countries you have to care about those results and I tried to care.

I really tried to care and I sheepishly admit I took credit with “my bosses” for up ticks in test results even though I knew I had nothing to do with it at all….it is an artificial construct and does not reflect student growth, learning or success.

Schools are living under this mindset that teachers and administrators can and should be held accountable for the student results on “the test.”  This errant thinking is imposed upon us by those who are outside of education and is the core thinking in NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and  RttT (Race to the Top).


On the surface this seems reasonable.  Why should we not expect our educators to be held accountable to student results via standardized test?

The problem with this thinking is so deftly hidden that shedding light on this wrongheaded idea is complicated.

We know from years of research that socioeconomic status plays an important role in determining how students perform on standardized exams.  So, if you ranked the performance of schools from the top to the bottom in any state in the union — you will see the most affluent communities on the top of that list with the least affluent at the bottom.  Achievement on standardized test and socioeconomic status are just wedded together and to suggest we should rate schools, districts, administrators or teachers using this metric is simply unfair and ludicrous —  yet we are all culpable when we give an ounce of credibility to district report cards or ratings.

But wait…hold on…..at least once a year we lift up and highlight a building or teacher that manages to knock it out of the park despite the poverty of their students.  We give them accolades and celebrate the success and wonder “how did they do it?”   “What is the secret so we can replicate it?”

Truth be told they simply “taught to the test” plain and simple.  In one of the more public exchanges over this issue was  David Brooks of the New York Times versus Dr. Aaron Pallas Sociology Professor at Columbia University.  David Brooks had penned a piece that declared the end of the achievement gap in New York City Public Schools thanks to the Harlem Children’s Zone success.  It was true the student in the Zone performed at or above their more affluent peers on the New York Test but what Dr. Pallas pointed out was this — those very same students also took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and performed abysmal.

If students in the Harlem Children’s Zone truly acquired skills and knowledge then regardless of the assessment they should perform reasonably well.  So….what happened?

It is a simple answer….those students in the Harlem Children’s Zone had teachers who were good at “teaching to the test.”  We trained those students to perform well on that specific assessment…….training is way different than educating.

We desperately want success for all children and especially those who come from impoverished circumstances — but right now our system of education is obsessed with competition, choice and holding everyone accountable. This serves no one other than mega-testing giants like Pearson and ETS.

I already hear some of my colleagues headed down this path with the new batch of  assessments.  I hear them say things like — “what we need to do is deconstruct the standards to determine which of these will be tested via multiple choice and which of these can only be assessed via an essay.” Or “what we will do after the first administration of the assessments we will mimic in all of our classes the look and feel of the test giving kids a better chance to pass.” or “we need to pair down our curriculum and only teach material that is on the test!”  Not tested = Not taught!  How tragic if you think about it….a narrowing of an already shallow curriculum.

This kind of mindset will literally waste countless hours looking for ways to “beat the test.” And what is more depressing for all of us that care about the education of children is the new teacher evaluation has married student results to a teachers personal rating.  Teachers jobs are now on the line so to speak and we will have more and more schools that look like test-prep centers with deskilled teachers as we focus all of our energy on passing the battery of  “test.”

Is this what we want from our educators and schools?

What it means to be educated has nothing to do with the results on any standardized test and schools will respond to this new battery of test by finding ways to train kids to pass the test at the expense of true education.   This fanatical  obsession with testing has created an environment in our nations schools that lacks creativity, inspiration, critical thinking, completely squashes innovation and invention.  Not one teacher or school administrator will do anything innovative unless they believe that it will improve how kids perform the “test.”  It will not be about learning, discovery, collaboration or development all efforts by teachers will be about the “test.”

There is a cost associated with our obsession with competition, and accountabilty via testing and it is not monetary — we could lose what makes American Education truly great. Our greatness and strength comes from our innate ability to invent and create.  Our stick-to-it-ness and can-do spirit.  It is the belief that our personal history is ours to write…and we can be whoever and whatever we wish to become.  No standardized test can ever measure those truly American qualities — but once lost we will all feel the impact.

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About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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2 Responses to Teaching to the test has cost — and not what you might think.

  1. Jena Ball says:

    Brilliant and SPOT ON. I know it took courage to write this, but I am so grateful to have the myth of assessment and testing exposed. We work with dozens of schools across the U.S. and not a day goes by that a teacher doesn’t call in a panic (sometimes crying, always outraged on behalf of his/her students) to say how how detrimental testing is. You are absolutely correct when you say, “There is a cost associated with our obsession with competition, and accountability via testing and it is not monetary — we could lose what makes American Education truly great.” Thank you.

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