Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Tests Matter More Than Students: Test-Prep Learning Cultures in Action

"Who would want to teach in a system that measures your worth as an educator by how much your students can regurgitate on a two-hour multiple-choice test and that has reduced much of the curriculum to tedious test-prep exercises?" writes Tony Wagner in his latest book entitled Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

Who, indeed, would want to teach in the kind of education system Wagner describes in this question? Perhaps a better question would be, "Who would want to learn in such a system?" Yet, with all the increased emphasis across the country on test scores as part of both teacher and principal evaluations, the kind of education system Wagner predicts is already coming to fruition, and my state is on the fast track to such a system.

North Carolina schools have had a "Learning Culture" characterized as "getting students ready for THE TEST" since it began rolling out state tests in the 1990s. Now, North Carolina has moved from using those same tests to determine student proficiency to determine teacher and principal proficiency. And, for subjects that do not currently have a standardized test, they are creating a TEST, to not measure student learning, but to measure educator proficiency. The end result  of these measures will obviously be that the state that once proclaimed proudly "First in Flight" on its license plates, can soon declare "First in Test-Prep." 

Sadly, though, one can but wonder if all this emphasis on test scores is going to totally destroy or keep us from developing very kind of "Learning Culture" that we should be fostering for 21st century learners. That culture should emphasize, collaboration, multidisciplinary learning, thoughtful risk taking, trial and error, creating, and intrinsic motivational learning. Test-Prep learning cultures are an anathema to each of these.

In my experience, schools and districts with "Test-Prep Learning Cultures" are characterized by some of the following:

  • Student learning is reduced to what can be fit within the confines of A, B, C, and D on a bubble sheet. There is no time for independent exploration and learning. Students spend their days taking endless quizzes and tests in multiple choice format. Projects? Forget it! They take away valuable time better spent getting students to bubble-in right answers.
  • Teaching is reduced to "only the essentials found on THE TEST." Nothing else matters. No room for student curiosity. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing tests and test items and build learning around what they find.
  • Teaching is about "covering the curriculum" not about whether students actually get it or find it relevant. Teachers end up repeating to students many times, "You need to learn this because it will probably "be on the test" not because it will help you be a better 21st century citizen or even help you get a job one day.
  • Signs and posters on the walls remind everyone "Days to Test Day" as if on that day, the most important event of our students' lives is going happen. What a let-down, to have the most important event of the year be one, big "Bubblesheet Fest" at the end of the year. Also, one can only imagine the pressure these kinds of things add to kids on test day. These posters and signs are a clear indicator of what Test-Prep Learning Culture Schools value the most.
  • Students and teachers participate in "Test-Prep Pep Rallies" or other similar events to fire them up to take THE TEST. In "Test-Prep Learning Culture Schools" principals and teachers will go to great lengths to motivate students to get engaged in THE TEST. These kinds of events also communicate the message to students who do not score well on THE TEST that they are somehow unworthy. 
  • Students are judged in every way by their TEST SCORES. The are classified as smart and proficient based on their last End of Course Test or End of Grade Test. Students who are creative and talented in the areas of art and music and not test-takers are at worst de-valued. At the least, they have no way to engage these interests.
  • Subjects are separated into silos, each with its own test. There's no time for multidisciplinary learning. There is only time to teach the content that is on THE TEST. The superficial boundaries between knowledge areas are reinforced in a Test-Prep Learning Culture.
  • Getting the right answer is more important than anything else. There is no room for experimentation, and the only thing you learn from a wrong answer is that "you were wrong, period." Questions that do not have only one right answer are irrelevant or ignored. Failure is not a learning experience; it is to be avoided at all costs.
I am sure there are other characteristics of "Test-Prep Learning Cultures" I have omitted. When THE TEST rules nothing else matters. Schools where "Test-Prep" is the central focus can hardly be considered desirable places to teach and learn, but our undying devotion to THE TESTS under current education policy has created Learning Cultures where nothing else matters.


  1. What if we replace "TEST SCORES" with "Objective Measure of Knowledge"? When I taught biology at Cal State, I found that students who had As in their High School Biology courses clearly had very different content coverage. Is it fair to tell a student they are an A or B student in a subject like Biology, Algebra, Geometry, U.S. History, and them have them turn out to un-prepared to start college level work in those subject areas?

    A good thing about an objective, standardized, measure of knowledge is that students & parents can see how full their glass is compared to the standard, and take steps to remediate gaps in their core knowledge before they find they are not ready for college/university level work.

    1. How do you define "objective measure of knowledge"? Is that a score, or is some kind of direct content feedback? The problem is with "Test-Prep Cultures" is that learning is narrowed down to the point of irrelevancy for both teachers and students. Then, policymakers try to use "measures of learning" to judge the effectiveness of teachers. This drives teachers to focus only on the assessment.

  2. Our ISTE special interest group for administrators is currently engaged in a discussion for Yong Zhao's newest book, World Class Learners. He reviews research on the inverse relationship between test scores and the "entrepreneurial spirit." It's a very interesting book and relevant to any discussion of a "learning culture."