Texas—where I live—and many other states place great value on so-called “high stakes testing” of students throughout the public school system. In these states, such tests have become the primary metric of student, teacher, and school performance. Poor outcomes on frequently administered standardized tests can keep students from progressing to higher grade levels and even to graduation; can lead to teacher and principal firings, as well as to school closures; and can produce high levels of stress for everyone involved.
A wide spectrum of people—including school administrators, teachers, parents, various commentators, and students—object to this emphasis, which often results in “teaching to the test.” Teachers and administrators complain that they don’t have time to adequately teach their students “to think” because so much time is involved learning how to take tests and in preparation for the tests. From what I can discern, the most fervent proponents of these tests are corporations that produce the testing materials, conservative legislators and bloviators, and members of the business community who want presumptively precise measurements to assess the capabilities of future employees.
A Benign Example of Teaching to the Test?
I received my undergraduate degree from LaGrange College, a Methodist-affiliated institution in my hometown, LaGrange, GA. Prerequisites for graduation included one-semester survey courses in the Old Testament and New Testament. I didn’t object to taking these courses per se because I was raised in the Christian faith community, and because I was—and still am—curious about many subjects. My objection was the usually dull manner in which the courses were taught, often taking the form of extended sermons.
Dr. Davis Percival Melson, Professor of Religion and Director of Religious Life, taught the courses. Over time, I came to find out that Dr. Melson, a former missionary, was much more interesting outside, than within, the classroom. For example and contrary to the prevailing attitude of many pre-ministerial students in his department, I believe Dr. Melson was a theological liberal. I don’t know about his politics.
One afternoon a few weeks before graduation, I was sitting on a bench in the shady side of the campus quadrangle waiting for Andrea so we could go to lunch. Dr. Melson sat beside me and we passed pleasantries until I said, “Dr. Meson, there’s something I’d like to ask you.”
“Ask me anything you want.”
“Why is that you’ve been asking the same exam questions for decades in your Old and New Testament courses?”
“I have my reasons,” Dr. Melson replied with a twinkle in his eyes.
“You do realize that we students have access to the questions and answers for all of your exams?”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Why doesn’t this fact bother you?” I asked.
“Mike, I decided a long time ago the minimum knowledge I wanted my students to have after taking my courses. Going to the trouble of memorizing the answers before the exams will allow the students to leave LaGrange College with that minimum knowledge, the knowledge I think is truly important. So, no, I’m not bothered.” He paused and smiled. “And, occasionally, I find someone like you who expresses different insights. For that reason, I very much enjoyed having you in my classes.”
After wishing me well in my graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we shook hands and Dr. Melson walked away. I don’t think I ever saw him again.
In a very profound sense, Dr. Melson “taught to the test” for valid reasons in his mind. I’m not sure how successful his approach was over the long term; but, if students retained the bulk of the knowledge in the hand-me-down answers to his exam questions, some good would have been accomplished. The difficulty with his approach related to the fact that his students in these basic courses were not often introduced to the insights that could be generated from discussions of controversial issues in Holy Scripture.
Tests as Teaching Tools
Throughout my long academic career as a student through graduate school, I often heard the mantra, “Tests are learning tools for students and teaching tools for teachers.” That is, except for various qualifying examinations—e.g., dissertation defenses for Ph.D. degrees, licensures for lawyers and medical personnel—tests should be used to determine where students need further instruction and areas in which that teachers may need to revise their teaching methodologies.
My aging memory banks cannot come up with a single clear example when one of my teachers ever took up classroom time—individually or as a group—to go over “bad” test results. I remember tests being handed back to us students with grades and comments before the teachers moved on to new subject materials without going over deficiencies the tests revealed. Yes, on a few occasions, I asked for and received further help after school, especially in mathematics. Perhaps some of my classmates at LaGrange High School and LaGrange College have different recollections from mine? Do any readers of this blog who are teachers actually use test results for remedial instruction and professional development? I hope so.
I received the most outstanding freshman award at LaGrange High School. During that year, I guess the faculty thought I was a model student. By my sophomore year, I had become extremely bored with classes that primarily involved route regurgitation of facts. I had become something less, or more, than a model student. I do remember how some of my teachers seemed to object to my classroom comments and questions. One of my questions that was not well received took the following form: “If our tests are tools to show where we need more help, why do we receive grades before that additional help?” I had discovered most tests definitely were not learning or teaching tools.
Unless the situation dramatically changes in Texas and other states employing high stakes testing through high school, we run the risk that the great majority of our current students will not be exposed to, much less utilize, critical thinking tools prior to college, if even then. One primary objective of high stakes testing focuses on weeding out ineffective teachers. I fear this objective will not be accomplished on a wide scale: If teachers know they must teach to the test, they simply will focus their energies in that direction rather than exciting students intellectually. Further, the recent conviction and sentencing of teachers and principals in the Atlanta, GA, school system for altering student test scores exemplifies one of the more obnoxious unintended outcomes of the current high stakes testing.
I know our public school systems in many states definitely need improvement, but I don’t see how high stakes testing can be truly effective in this area. Being of an iconoclastic nature, I wonder if a linkage exists among high stakes testing, refusal to adequately fund public schools, and the politically conservative drive to use tax monies, in the form of vouchers, that will promote establishment of private for profit schools?
I welcome comments on this question and other aspects of this post.