Saturday, April 5, 2014

Teaching to the Test*: Duh?


       “Assessment” derives from the Latin ad sedēre, “to sit next to.”  A lovely image—reading the same page or screen, together; mirroring responses; the side hug of human warmth; creating energy between us.  How very far that is from what assessment has come to mean—teachers stomping at the board or marching the aisles as they drill students, frightening them and their parents about impending test dates, proctoring (shall we etymologize that?) patrolling rows of tykes whose feet might not even reach the floor.  It’s military, hostile, intimidating, and wrong.  These assessment systems serve the bottom-line of litter-box education—coverage and control.

        Teaching to the test teaches students that knowledge is packaged into neat three and four options—all of reality suffering from the fallacies of trifurcation and quatrifurcation—boxed into tiny squares, fill-in holes. Constant choosing between others’ alternatives—not of your own devising.  Emily Dickinson, stop looking out the window and define “hope” (1) to wish for, (2) to look forward to, (3) to mistrust, (4) all of the above.  Where are the feathers?  Where is the singing in the chillest land?  Or, Will, stop nibbling on your quill: True or False, “Macbeth is the moving force in Macbeth.”  Albert failed the exam that would have allowed him to be an electrical engineer—what if that discouraged him from investigating energy?  And math: True or False: 1+1=2?  That’s only true in the decimal system: 1+1=10 in the binary.

           When we teach to the test, that’s exactly what students learn, sort of—how to take tests.  Duh!

            Honestly, if it can be teach-to-the-test assessed—it’s not important.  If it’s important, it can’t be assessed.  I’ll repeat that: if it can be assessed—it’s not important. If it’s important, it can’t be assessed. 

           That goes for assessing teachers, as well.  The most valuable lessons are the ones we can’t teach, directly. When I asked my College Writing: Theory and Practice students (including the chair of my department and several other full professors) what they appreciated most about our work together, I was hoping that they would mention my zippy take on punctuation, or the body of new research we discussed.  Their first answer was my passion for writing and respect for students.  That was not recorded on any lesson plan for the course.

            Learning doesn’t happen in neat, linear increments. I assess my learning and teaching experiences by what stays.  It’s one thing to study for and pass the test—it’s another to forget what you studied under duress, and with NO MEANING.  One student, hating Shakespeare when she entered a class, ended up having a quote tattooed onto her ankle—“And though she be but little, she is fierce.”  That’s assessment for student and teacher, both.  When, years later, I learn that a former student is quoting Emily Dickinson in her activist campaigns—that’s assessment of us all.

           True education is about helping students to develop as creative, thoughtful, compassionate, energetic human beings.  It’s flat-out mean to reduce our educational systems to numbers.  We are truly living in George Orwell’s 1984—digitalized and dehumanized by Big Brother education.

                 Which segues us to the etymology of “test”—the Latin testis for "testicles."  There was a time when testimonies (same root) were conducted by the holding thereof for lie-detection.  Let’s stop ball-busting, shall we?


  1. I agree, when you teach a child now a days, you are just teaching them to repeat what you say. And that is all they teach right now in classrooms. But some teachers want to teach the students more instead of teaching them to repeat what they say, or how to take the standardized test. So I agree withe the teachers, teach more and test the children less. That way they can learn more in the classroom instead of fear what they are going to get on a test.

  2. Thank you, Generra, for your thoughtful comments. You are a most faithful and sincere reader!!!

  3. completely is almost as if we're just expected to be in a robotic mode when it comes to learning..School systems have managed to suck the fun and the life out of teaching and most importantly out of learning...Studies have shown people learn more when being in a anxiety free environment...Really makes me wonder have they been setting students for failure all along?

  4. We have a make-wrong world, Daianna, where one-downing students is the main sport in education. And one-downing teachers, the next to main. Duh! Duh! and more Duh!

  5. Really makes me wonder have they been setting students for failure all along?


  6. Dr. Rich,
    I must say that this blog post was a great read as I prepare to enter my student teaching semester. The line that stuck with me the most was, "If it’s important, it can’t be assessed." The most important things I have learned in life have either come experience, not from school. I have learned the most in my education through meaningful class discussions, not final exams. As a future educator, I worry that I might be the teacher that teaches to the test. This semester I entered my pre-student teaching. The first thing I asked my cooperating teacher was, "How do you know what to teach?" I was worried that all my teaching energy would be required to go directly into teaching to the state test. To my surprise she responded, "Whatever you want." It was a relief, to know that not everyone focuses on just the assessment portion of education. I want my students to be able to look at education as something that increases their creativity and embraces it. Not people who look at education as a way for everyone to work at the same perfect standard society has set for them. The "creative, thoughtful, compassionate, energetic human beings" you mentioned are not created through state tests or standards, but through a teacher that teaches beyond the test.

  7. Dr Rich,

    THIS NEEDS TO BE PRINTED AND POSTED EVERYWHERE. I have said it in another past blog post, but all my life as a student I was not free, I was trained. I was taught to be like everyone else and do what everyone else did. As a chid I always had troulble doing that which is why when it would come to the writing rubic, I would never follow them. I hated doing that. Teaching should not be about repeating and memorizing, teaching should be about how to use the most powerful tool we have (our brain). There is so much we can do with it. Why are we not being taught that? I don't want to know one way to think things, I want to know all the ways to think them. Which is why I enjoy your class and you as a professor, for allowing us to be free and to actually use our brians for once, because I know for me, I haven't.

  8. Dr. Rich,
    I agree with Julie! This needs to be printed and posted everywhere. I like in the post that you said, "True education is about helping students to develop as creative, thoughtful, compassionate, energetic human beings". Growing up, I was not always offered the chance to be creative and to be myself. Everything had to be my teacher's way or the highway, and I hated not having the ability to express my creative capabilities. I feel that I was finally able to be recognized and acknowledged for my writing once I entered middle school/high school. I took a Creative Writing class in high school in which I actually won a contest, and had one of my poems published into a book. Thank you for being a great Professor and allowing us to free and as creative as we like. You challenge me in a way where I really need to think outside the box, which in all my experiences, I have never really been offered before.
    -Valentina Quesada

  9. Dr. Rich,

    Learning to take a test … sucks. I can recall so many times when my teachers would be teaching, apologizing that we couldn’t ‘have fun’ that day or ‘wish they could teach differently’ if it weren’t for the tests that we had to take at the end of the year. Who were they really testing, anyway? I know they didn’t really give a shit about me … or else they would have come and talked to me about my problems and what I was struggling with. What were they going to do with these test scores if I didn’t get a good one? Remove me from school? That’s silly. Of course not. On the other hand, they were really ‘testing’ our teachers. They were seeing if they could create another military branch called education to sculpt the minds of the youth. Now, I appreciate tests. Haha. Did you really think that I meant that? No one likes taking test. Hell, why do you think I’m an English major? Taking a test is never fun. We crash for exams and never retain the information. Maybe if they took some of the damn pressure off the course (the test) the students would actually enjoy coming to class and spending their time talking about the importance of the subject rather than leaving it until the last minute when they want to rip their hair out.

    - Paige Bollman

  10. Dr. Rich,

    This post on the way we are tested in our current education is something that I have thought about myself. As we grow older, we tend to doubt our abilities and are drilled into believing that being smart means passing tests with the highest scores. High school many times felt like a watered down military school where standardized testing was used to employ fear tactics. Humans are complex and differ from one another in many ways. Why do we treat education like we are all the same? There are numerous kinds of intelligence and we wouldn’t know this about others because we measure intelligence with the ability to pass tests. I know people who are smart with language, people who are smart with movement, people who are smart with sounds, people who are smart with dealing with other people and many more. I can even connect this to my own life experience. When it comes to exams, I don't learn to actually know, I learn to be able to pass the class. Due to this, I no longer care to keep the knowledge from some of the courses I have taken. I wholeheartedly agree with your quote, “True education is about helping students to develop as creative, thoughtful, compassionate, energetic human beings.” Education has become a competition for power, and not what it should have been originally: to get the students to love learning.

    1. This post is so dear to my heart because I feel bad for the future teacher in me. Going to teach fourth grade in the near future I am very torn between knowing that ASSessments are BS!
      “Learning does not happen in neat, linear increments”.
      I have learned this through my life and now it has been reassured but what am I going to do with all of the standardized tests given to students in elementary school. I am very frustrated knowing that this is an unfair way to assess students. I will make it a point to remember that I can teach my future students things that are important that cannot be assessed and things that aren’t as important that UNFORTUNATELY have to be ASSessed. Meaningful contestations and lessons are the ones that have stuck the most in my education life and I know that the teachers which I have hated the most are the ones who have been really tough on but usually to make me a better human being and never because of grades. Looking back into my experiences with teachers, I remember the ones who have treated me like a human and not like a test grade.

  11. As a Student, I can definitely relate to your notion that the education system is mean by making it's students feel like they're being downgraded, thus suppressing their drive for creativity. I am a bad tester; a terrible one I may say. Unfortunately, for me I was one of those students that had to study for and pass the test with no Meaning. I even wrote a paper suggesting using a child's creative skills for learning instead of being assessed like you are some kind of object that they have to categorized. Such BS, really that reprogramed my brain in a way that it has become difficult to deprogram. It's time for a change really they are people like you out there Dr. Rich, to start shedding on this issue.

  12. This blog post really made me think. My career goal is to teach kindergarten, first grade or even teach ESL to elementary school children. But I can’t help think that they may look back on my teaching or any teaching, during that period in their life and feel judged for the things they may not have needed to be judged on. I want my students to truly learn, but also learn that they are growing as little people and they will improve as time goes on. I want them to look back and think that I taught them more than the typical subjects in school, but that I taught them to be themselves. I picture myself as a teacher and receiving cards and thank yous, even after not teaching them for some odd years. Those are the types of teachers I remember and still recall to this day. They will come across educators that will teach them BS, but I hope they remember the ones who haven’t. Such as myself, and what kind of teacher I will try to be. Assessment is a big part of teaching, but I will not forget why I became a teacher. Assesment will not be all I have to offer.

  13. My heart became heavy as I read this post. Heavy for the education and learning for students. How we were taught and how kids are being taught now, was and is like we are robots. Don't read like this read like that, don't compute math this way, do it that way. Writing? For the love of God! Writing has always been my escape from life. To FREELY be able to communicate my thoughts feelings and emotions through many styles. From Poetry, Essays, free writing, Im sad to say NOTHING is really free unless you are alone and away from anyone who can ever view your writing. School has taught us to be these modeled students that follow curriculums to the T and if not, fail. Teaching has become a horror story for me as Im following "curriculum", meanwhile, trying to help my students shine from self expression, creativity and free will. Will this system of learning ever change? Probably not, so I feel an extra responsibility to my students to undue the BS they have been taught! it is my responsibility to help them dig deep for who they truly are and shine from within. Tests don't really determine a damn thing. It teaches students to remember what will be on the test , but as someone mentioned above, thus style learning doesn't teach life lessons, or truly apply concept.

  14. Dr. Rich,

    This post speaks to me on a very personal level- I have been a victim to state mandated testing since the 2nd grade. I know that sounds very dramatic, but it's unfortunately so true. Ever since elementary school I have never been able to score high enough on the math sections of standardized testing- in turn landing me a first class ticket into remedial math classes my ENTIRE life. Now, to some having "extra" help through remedial math classes would come as support, benefitting a struggling student. Well that was never the case for me. Being pulled from my normal classroom to have math explained to me in a hectic, uncomfortable , "dumbed down" environment by teachers who strictly taught to the test not only lowered my self esteem, but also lessened my abilities to learn math the right way, so that i'm ACTUALLY understanding.

    Fast forward to college, taking my state mandatory mathematics section of the Praxis Core test (which is required in order to become a teacher) which yet again, I cannot seem to pass. Flashbacks to 2nd grade, sitting in the classroom being told- "you don't have time to learn this way, because the state needs you to pass this test."

    As an adult I now understand that test scores, grades, and grade point averages don't equate to intelligence levels, and most definitely don't reflect how much has actually been learned. It's a shame we are producing learners who are told they need to pass a test in order to get the job they want, or even just to be successful.

    Teachers and student's should not have to be assessed through performance on a test, yet everyday both are ostracized if scores aren't high enough. It's truly heartbreaking that the education system puts such an emphasis on numbers instead of assuring students are actually learning.

    Thank you for this post!

    Jessica Jardonoff