Teaching to the Test: A Hindrance in Contemporary Education?

November 4, 2011

Political Theory

I recently read an article in the New York Times, which discussed an on-going problem with standardized testing in the public schools system. The article mainly talked about Linda Rief, who has been teaching at the Oyster River Middle School in New Hampshire for the past 25 years. For several years now, Linda has required her eighth graders to complete a semester long “genre” project.  Students are required to pick a subject area, read up on different masters of that subject, study the writer’s techniques, and draft their own piece modeled after the writer’s style. At the same time, Linda explains that she has put forth only 45 minutes of preparation for state tests all year! Her philosophy on teaching is extremely interesting and has now gained a lot of attention. She explains, “The attitude was if we did good teaching and we were passionate and energetic, kids would learn and that would be enough.” However, Linda’s philosophy of passionate teaching seems to be vanishing quickly.

 The No Child Left Behind Act , which demands complete proficiency by all schools in all states by 2014, is changing the way public schools go about teaching, and Oyster River is just one instance in the grand scheme of things. The No Child Left Behind Act’s main objective is to afford quality education for poor children, mainly in urban areas. Essentially, each school must pass state standardized tests to be considered a passing or functioning institution. The absurdity of the current law is that if a subgroup–take special education students–fails to make ample progress on the tests, then the whole institution fails.

Oyster River is one of the 326 schools in New Hampshire that has been deemed a failing school. Accordingly, the school has become much more serious about test prep and less focused on specialized subject learning, which is the principle goal behind Linda’s philosophy of teaching. For their preparation, children are given advice and practice geared towards excelling on all aspects of the test. One of the more embarrassing pieces of advice I have read has been the “Fill the Box” policy. Students are encouraged to write as much as possible on the writing section of the test, filling up as much space as possible, in hope of achieving a good grade. The notion that quantity has ostensibly overcome quality has not shocked me, rather disappointed me.

Currently, it seems as if the “failing” eighth graders of Oyster River Middle are not actually “failing” after all. The eighth graders of Oyster River Middle scored remarkably when they get to high school. This past year they averaged 1,670 on the SAT test, which is above the national average. Nevertheless, Oyster River still remains a failing school, brought down by subgroups.

This leads us to question, are state standardized tests the right criteria for functioning or failing schools? Or, are they just a way of assuring the general public that our educational system is in fact doing its job well? The reality is that Oyster River Middle produces successful high school students. Perhaps the criteria for failing schools are utter delusions of the reality.

I argue that “teaching to the test” is not a progressive way of determining whether a school is functional or not. Instead, teaching to the test fundamentally strips us of our creativity and ability to learn. We are in effect learning to pass a test, rather than learning to learn. In my academic career, the belief that grades inherently come before the actual learning has both become widespread and summoned heated debate.

And, here I am again, discussing the same heated and more drastic issue.  So, how do we approach state wide standardize testing? Should we place more of an emphasis on specialized learning or should we continue to “teach to the test”? After all, John Stuart Mill asserts to us that we all are innately granted complete freedom of speech and freedom of assembly . Perhaps he would encourage us to take a bigger stance on the elimination of No Child Left Behind and standardized tests as a whole. What do we do?



About rfieds

Student at the University of Michigan

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3 Comments on “Teaching to the Test: A Hindrance in Contemporary Education?”

  1. kaitlinlapka Says:

    I personally have always thought that testing is not be the best form of learning or determining one’s quality of learning. It might be an effective way for some students, everyone is different. However, take this class for example. There are no tests, but I feel I have learned more than many of my other classes. Also, I have not just learned facts and political ideas, but also how to apply them and think about them. I think have learned more because I can focus on learning the material rather than searching for the answers needed for an exam. That being said, I can see the case for if students really learned, then they should be able to do well on a test later. That does seem logical. However, like general life, learning doesn’t just come from class. It comes from interacting, life experiences, and other sources of knowledge. Like the man with the sign out front of the ugli sometimes says: “Don’t let your classes interfer with your education.” Again, though, I’m not sure in the current education system in America how we can better assess our learning than with standardized tests. I see both sides of the problem. It is a dilemna, and obviously frustrating for teachers like Rief, who want to not prepare their kids for tests, but actually teach them. Interesting post.

  2. verlong Says:

    This is an interesting post. It was nice to hear about Rief’s way of teaching, and to see the passion that some teachers still have for learning and thinking outside the box. Her students will succeed in life, not only with test scores, but also in creativity. I agree with you that teaching to the test often causes more problems than the advocates of the standardized tests anticipate. However, from taking an education class last Fall I realized that this issue is much more complicated than it seems. First of all, standardized tests are supposed to be tests of “achievement,” rather than intelligence. The people analyzing the tests are looking to make sure that people are learning from their schools (or achieving more knowledge from their education). If it seems like a school isn’t helping students gain anything academically from year to year they are called a “failed school.” Personally, I don’t understand how the achievement of students is supposed to be found from test scores of this manner. One of my biggest issues with this method is that if a school is failing, funding is cut rather than added. It’s so that schools will work harder to succeed well, but in reality, it is only digging a deeper hole for the schools that are truly doing poorly. These schools often don’t have enough resources as is, and could really use the extra boost to give the staff development days, or buy new textbooks. The motivation that the cutting of funding gives to these schools is to do better on the tests as opposed to teaching students in a way that they will retain their knowledge better.

    Rief only spends 45 minutes in preparation for the tests? As I learned in my class, some schools literally spend the whole school year preparing for these tests. Some go so far as to only focus on two subjects per year in their classroom. For example, they will only teach science and social studies one year if that is what the test is on, and then the next year they will teach math and language arts. Is this the kind of education we want students to receive? Do the students who go to these schools remember anything they learn after that year? And if they do, is it all that important?

    The big problem is what to replace standardized tests with. Every form of analyzing a school will be flawed. What will be the lesser of all evils? I think that we need to radically change how we look at education in this country, but after years of thinking about it, I still don’t know what to change it to. What can we do that will spark the same enthusiasm for learning that Reif tries to do in her classroom everyday?

  3. weinben Says:

    The No Child Left Behind Act has, according to most pundits, been a failure. The children it declares to help have not improved in any dramatic way and more poor, urban students continue to quit school. Teachers put extreme emphasis on these standardized tests which claim to be the be all, end all measure of academic proficiency, and, as has been noted, sometimes spend entire semesters of the year prepping for them. I find this to be sad and characteristic of the whole notion of academics and school in the United States nowadays. Teachers spend enormous amounts of their time and resources trying to get their students test ready, but the students who spend more time prepping do not necessarily outperform kids who spend less time learning how to take the test and instead receive a balanced education, becoming versed in many different subjects.
    I personally believe that teaching to the test in fact hinders a child’s mind from mentally progressing and limits their ability to think outside the box. Teachers that come from programs like Teach for America often find their own success is measured in how well their kids do on a few standardized tests and will grill how to do the small set of problems that come up into the students’ minds. This type of teaching is ultimately a form of forced memorization, as the kids simply learn to recognize problems they know how to do and repeat the steps to find the answer. Learning and exploring subjects like literature, history, chemistry and calculus, for example, open a kid’s mind and teaches him not what to think, but how to think and analysis at advanced levels. It allows him to approach a problem from many different sides instead of a single, repetitious way. Furthermore, it gives children access to a breadth of knowledge that only a formal academic setting can facilitate.

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