How Testing Is Hurting Teaching

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The New York State tests, going on now in middle and elementary schools, have always been high stakes for students, particularly in fourth and seventh grades, when their scores determine whether they end up in the very awful school they are zoned for or the very attractive magnet school that draws from a larger and more competitive pool. But the stakes have recently become equally high for teachers, whose ability to teach is being determined by their ability to improve students’ test scores.

Many people think it’s about time. Teachers need to be held accountable for the work they are being paid to do, and many, many teachers need to get better at teaching.

But tying teacher performance to student test scores is having an opposite effect: It’s producing worse teachers.


We all know the old needlepoint saying, 'children learn what they live.' Well, it turns out that adults learn what they live, too. And now that teachers are living in a system that evaluates their performance based on the test scores of their students, they are learning that all that matters are test scores.

I see this every day in my work as a staff developer. It’s my job to make sure that teachers continue to learn and grow so that their students can learn and grow.

This year, I have seen more and more teaching that is about answers. No inquiry, curiosity or study. No thinking. Just answers.

In a third grade class, for example, the teacher goes over a practice test. Students compare their answers and tally their scores.

Some of them high-five each other; others erase and put the correct answer on their papers. No one, least of all the teacher, is interested in how or why those answers are the right ones.

In a fifth grade class, the teacher is attempting to get his students to understand a non-fiction article. He asks students what the main idea of the piece is, a common test question.

When no one gives the answer he’s looking for, he coaxes, “It begins with a T.” Students started calling out words that begin with T, most of which have nothing to do with the passage.

The teacher finally gives the answer, students copy it on their paper and move on to the next question. Again, no explanations given; no thinking taught.

In the past when I have worked with teachers in scenarios such as these, I would demonstrate lessons where students would be challenged to uncover and construct answers rather than copy or guess; I would help plan units with skills embedded in authentic reading and writing rather than test prep workbooks that cover a skill a day; I would assist in designing curriculum around questions requiring study and inquiry rather than prompts that teach rephrasing and repeating.

This year, many of my attempts have been met with replies along the lines of, “Oh, I’d love to do that, but this is the only way my students will be able to pass the test.”

This bodes very poorly for our students. The tests have gained an outsized influence on what happens in classrooms. They are not measuring student learning, as any good test should, but rather determining it. And in so doing they have shut down the most important quality of a good teacher -- the ability to learn.

This is because teaching doesn’t consist of passively transferring knowledge from one receptacle to another -- from the teacher’s brain or the textbook to the student’s brain -- but rather actively facilitating a process that allows students to construct knowledge. And to do that, teachers have to simultaneously know and learn.

They have to know the content of what they’re teaching -- the causes of the Great Depression; how to solve for x; how a writer organizes an idea for a reader -- but they also have to know how to help students access that material.

This is constant work requiring constant learning: What is Troy’s brain doing as his eyes scan a page of text or look at a column of numbers? What sparks Judith’s curiosity? What makes Maria shut down? How does Alex respond to feedback? What part of this concept does Jamie get? Why is William suddenly missing so much school?

Teachers also have to teach students how to learn; they need to be the model learner in the class. Unfortunately, by the time the students in those third and fifth grade classrooms get into eighth grade, they will have learned the following lessons about learning:

  • the right answer matters more than thinking;
  • the right answer is inside the teacher’s head but not theirs;
  • once they are the kind of student who doesn’t get the answer, chances are they will always be that kind of student;
  • because the right answer is not connected to anything the student does, then it’s not connected to anything they’ll do in the future, so why bother?

If we want our students to learn, we have to enable our teachers to learn. We have to provide them with a vision of what to work toward and allow them to approximate that vision through practice.

We have to allow them to take risks, to extend effort and to fail, if that failure can allow for reflection and self-evaluation.

If we want our students to value learning, we have to enable our teachers to value learning. We need to look at how administrators support teacher learning and facilitate professional conversations.

Are teachers urged to attend conferences and read professional books, articles or blogs? Are they participating in lesson studies with colleagues to work through teaching conundrums? Are they allowed to say, “I don’t know” or “Let me try that again”?

If we believe that schools are places where learning is taught, we have to reestablish the role of the teacher as the one whose job it is to teach students not just what to know but how to know.

Unfortunately, conditions that allow for teacher learning have been replaced with humiliation and fear in New York City schools. Teachers’ rankings have been published in newspapers and used by administrators to threaten dismissal or deny tenure -- never mind that they are based on what is widely considered to be a flawed statistical model.

Any attempt to get schools to value learning will be in vain unless we first divest teacher evaluations from test scores. Only then will teachers be able to take the risks necessary to learn and grow.

As they do, our students will surely learn and grow -- and maybe then we will truly be able to measure a teacher’s ability to teach.