The Problem with Teaching to the Test

20 Mar

Instead of glowing in the light of a new day, each morning thousands of educators walk the halls of schools beneath burdensome shadows. For looming not too far off on the horizon are the towering silhouettes of imminent standardized tests. And whether intentionally or not, many educators cannot help but allow the presence of such looming silhouettes to drive their teaching methods.

Their motivations are usually good, for who would fault them for trying to prepare students for success on these standards-based, institutionally important assessments. So, they type up their lesson plans, replacing engaging hands-on activities with dull practice tests and repetitive lessons on testing strategies. And as these looming silhouettes approach, more and more educators spend more and more class time reluctantly teaching to the test.

The government, and even your administration, might even commend teachers for such behavior, pushing NCLB criteria and pay for performance evaluations measured by those ensuing student test scores. Many of them have no problem selling the idea that a singular math or reading score on a written exam can measure your effectiveness. And when that is directly tied to your salary you may be inclined to believe them.

Yet, the act of teaching to the test is a futile endeavor of Sisyphean proportions, motivated by the desire to attain standards of “success” on standardized tests that will, unfortunately, always be changing. Policy makers are constantly raising the bar for compliance. One year’s success is the next year’s failure. And all of those incredible learning experiences that you put off until after the test, the ones that help students discover who they are, that help them not just to learn about science and writing, but to actually be scientists and writers, will consistently get pushed later and later until, eventually, they never happen at all.

As an educator, we must refuse to measure our own success, and that of our students, through standardized test scores alone. We must recognize that those scores are merely numbers on a continuum of lifelong learning, constantly changing and evolving. These scores capture a single moment. Their data should inform us, should direct us, but it should not measure us.

For in education, what is it that really matters? What is it that truly measures our success as educators?

Undoubtedly, students learning gains do play a role. But an effective educator who can recognize the unique learning needs of their students, can also recognize that learning takes place in unique ways, at diverse paces, and sometimes even in a singular ‘aha’ moment (often taking place days or weeks after the crucial standardized testing date). Effective educators also do not see any one test as a summative¬†indicator of all that a student is capable of, but instead as a formative narrative of a student’s momentary location in a grand lifelong journey of learning.

Yet, to be an effective educator, facilitating student learning gains is clearly not enough. More than this, the success of these educators is reflected in the excitement their students have for learning, in the kindness and respect their students demonstrate toward themselves and others, and in the degree to which their students engage the world as active members of a global community.

This is the role of the dignity-driven educator.

The effective educator, the dignity-driven educator, knows that that they are in the classroom to teach the whole child, to spend intentional time rummaging through the backpacks of student lives to uncover the unique potential buried in each student… And, ultimately, to help those very students identify and realize that potential for themselves.

For the problem with teaching to the test is that the moments in life that test us the most rarely come in the form of a multiple choice question. Instead life’s tests come as tests of our character, of our ability to do what is right in the face of pressure and stress and mixed messages about what really matters.

So, as educators, we have a choice. For, each day, the shadows will continue to loom over us; the standardized tests are already growing there on the horizon. And in the life of an educator, this is our test.

So, what answer will we give? Will we tell students that the value of their education can be measured by one test? Or by our actions, will we tell our students that their education is too valuable to be discarded in preparation for a single test? Will we give standardized tests the power to define us? To define our students? Or will you join me and stand in the face of these towers, withstanding the pressure to conform, and instead, do what is best for students?

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