Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Testing Success Trap

At our first teacher work day today, our Superintendent shared some data from the previous school year.  Most related to difficulties the district is facing due to budget cuts, as most public school districts are these days.  He also shared that according to a recent study by the Scranton Times our district has been identifies as having the sixth most economically depressed student population out of the 37 districts in northeastern Pennsylvania based on free and reduced lunch data.  More than 50% of our student population qualifies.

As a way to turn the discussion more positive, he then shared that the same paper has determined that our student achievement was fifth highest in those 37 districts based on scores from last year's state test results.

I have to admit that for a moment after hearing that I allowed myself to fall into the trap of feeling proud and enthusiastic about those scores.  After all, isn't it great to hear that you and your colleagues are doing a good job, especially if it's printed in the local newspaper?

Then I caught myself.

Are we supposed to pat ourselves on the back because 75% of our children could regurgitate facts that could be found on Google in less than 30 seconds?  Should we be proud that some of our students have mastered a math test that measures calculation instead of real math, or a reading test that demands little more than understanding of low-level questions on short passages, ignoring any critical thinking or research that would be needed to solve problems in real life?

Is it fair to celebrate a newspaper broadcasting your success when you would argue the unfairness of printing your failure?

Too often we, as educators, fall into this trap.  I've been guilty of it before.  The culture of standardized testing is not helpful in promoting the skills which are most important for students as they move forth from our classrooms and try and succeed in life.  When we allow ourselves or our students to be defined by test scores, whether the scores are good or bad, we risk losing the argument for replacing those tests with creativity, collaboration, service learning, a focus on empathy, project based learning, critical thinking, and all of the wonderful things on which our schools should be focused.

In a time when teacher morale is suffering, we cannot allow the temptation of feeling good about succeeding on something distract us from what's really important for our students.  Because, if we, as professional educators lose sight of what's important in education, what hope is there of real reform or revolution of the system?

So, thank you Scranton Times for your kind words, but you can keep them.  Come pay me a visit during the school year when my students are really doing great things by using technology to create study guides for students all over the world, running a food drive for the local food pantry, using math and research to create a proposal for an improvement to our town park, or any of the other things we do that matter immensely more than test scores.

Those are the things of which my students and I can be proud.


  1. Absolutely! Anytime I heard "achievement" or "success" or was invited to the School Board to represent my school as we were awarded our "Standards of Excellence" awards, I choked a little bit. While the other schools in the district brought in staff and kids to celebrate, I politely said, "Thanks," and walked nearly straight out the door.

    These levels of "achievements" are not that much to cheer about because they simply do NOT measure learning. How so off-target we've all become.

    Great post, Michael!

  2. Ginger,
    I remember how 12 years ago, before NCLB, most teachers would comment on how detrimental standardized tests were. Now, most teachers talk of how important it is to raise scores on the same tests. We've lost our way, and allowed those outside education to define our goals for too long. It's time for more educators to start leading when it comes to education. Thanks to you, and those like you who shine as beacons of light in a very dark time.

  3. Thank you Michael! Great post!
    I see the same thing all over the US. It doesn't matter if your school is Title I or high achieving. The focus is on improving or keeping test scores high. Who does this really benefit? Not our children.

    I wrote a blog post about "Skills and Values Employers Want" ( and no where did an employer prioritize the need to have high test scores. Our kids are being left behind, moving home after college, not finding work, in debt up to their ears. Time to get back to creativity, innovation, critical-thinking skills, and real learning!

  4. Must say I fell into a similar trap of feeling proud of published results that only tell a small fraction of the real success story of schools. I look forward to reading more posts and perhaps seeing some images of the terrific student projects you foster in your classroom. Other than tweets and blogs, how do we get the message out that testing is only one small fraction of the education puzzle--a puzzle piece that should be streamlined.

  5. Barbara,
    You make excellent points about the skills required in the workplace and what we teach in schools. I look forward to reading your post. Thanks for the comment, and the share on FB! -Mike

    It's an easy trap to fall into, and I sadly admit that I used to even give PD sessions on ways to teach test-question interpretation in order to raise scores. I'm thankful for my PLN and the constant barrage of excellence and forward thinking with which they hit me that has influenced me in changing my views. To see some of the things we've done in class over the past few years, stop by our class wiki at There's 3 and a half years worth of student work on there, and we'll be posting all of this year's class work on there as well. Thank you for your comment! -Mike