Teach for the Test Versus Learn for the Test

Many have applauded the Obama administration's new education policy capping the time schools spend on testing. While well-intentioned, it is unclear that the policy recognizes the problem it is designed to rectify or the consequences of its implementation. Sixteen years of working within struggling schools in low income communities enabled me to observe middle school classes across the country. My observations reveal fundamentally two types of students: a small minority of students who regularly raise their hands and participate and a large majority of students who do not. Assuming class size is manageable, with respect to the minority of attentive students, classroom participation and homework performance may provide a sufficient barometer of whether they are absorbing the material. For them, the Obama policy would arguably reduce unneeded stress and anxiety associated with standardized testing. With respect to the majority, however, teachers have little way of knowing how much or how little of the required material has been absorbed. Without testing, schools have no means of evaluating teacher performance or rectifying the deficiencies they uncover. Without a preferable option, for the majority of students, testing remains a necessary evil.

This is not to suggest that standardized testing is free of side effects or that these side effects should be ignored. The hundreds and hundreds of middle school students we see are more concerned with managing teacher expectations and less with learning. Standardized tests calibrate approval exclusively with right and wrong answers instead of any grasp of why an answer is correct or, better yet, why the question was posed in the first place. Ultimately, kids would rather get the right answer for the wrong reason than profit from an insightful analysis of a wrong answer. Last year we took a closer look at the romantic vision of students as metaphoric miners, panning for gold in rivers of information pouring from the mouths of teachers. What made some information glitter? We asked high performing freshman on what basis they made their selections when taking class notes. What we stumbled upon was disheartening. The consensus was that anything the teacher repeated two or three times would merit a note. The example they gave was, "Like if the teacher says that salt is chloride a couple of times, we'll write it down". The reason they offered was that repetition signaled that this would be on a test. I asked them if (a) they knew what a chloride was or (b) intended to find out or (c) couldn't care less? The answer to (a) and (b) was "No". "Couldn't care less", was their honest response to (c). Learning had remarkably little glitter. What they were after was not information but rather the obvious instruction from the teacher to memorize an answer to the question--"What is salt?" So while their test scores possibly improved, in fact they had learned nothing about the nature of salt or chlorides. More troubling, they didn't care and were not persuaded that they should.

While a "teach-for-the-test curriculum" is reproachable, the deeper problem is the "learn for the test" mentality of students. Although they may feed off each other, we cannot blame the latter on the former. Once kids know how to flip a light switch, a deeper understanding of the behavior of electrons is unlikely. Their curiosity ends the moment the light bulb goes on. Their curiosity would be better encouraged if the light switch failed and they had to investigate what was going on behind the wall and enlightened themselves about electrical circuits. But, of course, that requires a radically new approach to teaching, which in turns requires a less romantic and more perceptive notion of the nature of children's minds when they enter our schools as well as a far more effective criteria for selecting and evaluating teachers.

The reality is that, given the current misunderstanding of the learning process, our schools are caught in the dilemma of ensuring that the majority of students are meeting the minimal requirements at the expense of encouraging the minority to develop the demanding thinking skills which lay the foundation for success in top-tier four-year colleges and promising careers. The needs of the majority may have to take precedent. Before we snub our noses at testing, we would be better served to address two fundamental issues: 1) Have we designed an alternative means of assessing the majority of non-participating, inattentive students?; and 2) Will the hours we steal from test prep be reallocated in a manner that is beneficial to either the minority or the majority of our students? At the moment, I am not optimistic about the answer to either question.

Unfortunately, to significantly increase the frightfully little that our students actually learn from kinder to high school graduation, it takes a lot more than the luxury of more time.