Special Report

May/June 2012 A Test Worth Teaching To

The race to fix America’s broken system of standardized exams.

By Susan Headden

When Caryn Voskuil first reported for duty at Washington, D.C.’s Charles Hart Middle School in 2009, she was a twenty-two-year-old first-time teacher from Green Bay, Wisconsin. With her head of long, fiery red hair, she looked so out of place in the predominantly black institution that one of her students asked, in apparent seriousness, whether she was a leprechaun. A struggling school in one of the capital’s poorest neighborhoods, Hart had a reputation for violence, mismanagement, and low test scores: in 2008, only 17 percent of its students could read at grade level. But in Voskuil’s three years at the school, Hart has made a modest turnaround: its test scores have begun inching up. For her part in that improvement, Voskuil—now a seasoned hand in the classroom—has been deemed a “highly effective teacher ” and rewarded a substantial bonus. What’s puzzling about Voskuil, and about American education today, is how conflicted she feels about what it means to be “highly effective.”

Consider two different weeks in the life of Voskuil’s classroom: early this March, she and her sixth-grade English students were making their way through a slim novel called Seedfolks. The book tells the story of a young Vietnamese immigrant girl in Cleveland who furtively plants six lima beans one day in a trash-strewn city lot. At first her neighbors spy on her with unalloyed suspicion. But once they realize what she’s doing—that she isn’t stashing drugs, money, or a weapon—they begin to feel responsible for keeping her seedlings alive. By the end of the book, the rat-infested lot has become a community garden.

“The value of the way I am teaching this week,” said Voskuil, “is that kids are falling in love with books. They’re making important connections between ideas and having this emotional connection with the narrators. They also get the satisfaction of starting and finishing an entire book, which is something many of them have never done.”

And yet whenever Voskuil spends time teaching a novel—or grammar and syntax, for that matter—she says she feels a vague twinge. “I have the sense that this is not a meaningful use of my time,” she says. “I have that sense because it’s not going to be on the test.”

The test in question—a standardized exam called the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS), made up almost entirely of multiple-choice questions—was coming up in early April. And so the week after she taught Seedfolks, Voskuil’s teaching style underwent a dramatic change. She began by physically rearranging the classroom: the students who had scored just below the “proficient” level on earlier tests were brought front and center; the students who had scored “below basic” were clustered in a small group near the window; and the few students who were already on record as proficient lined the perimeter, their desks facing the wall so they could work quietly on their own. Like a politician who spends all of her time in swing states, Voskuil wanted to concentrate on the students who were on the cusp.

Working within a tight agenda, with five-minute intervals marked by a stopwatch, Voskuil began drilling the group. Together, the students read aloud an eleven-paragraph text called “Penguins Are Funny Birds.” Then they answered multiple-choice questions such as “According to the article, how do penguins ‘fly through the water’? A .) They use their flippers to swim. B.) They dive from cliffs into the sea. C.) They are moved by ocean currents. D.) They glide across the ice on their bellies.”

And why, Voskuil asked, is it important to read the italicized introduction that always accompanies such text passages? Because it’s a summary, the group responded.

Finally, Voskuil handed out her students’ scores from previous exams—eliciting reactions that ranged from apathy to sighs to celebration—and asked them to write down their “score goals” for the upcoming test. Remember, she told the sixth graders, “we are working toward a 3/3 on our DC CAS writing rubric.”

Voskuil hates teaching like this. It’s not that she fails to see the point, exactly. She knows that all this narrow drilling has, in fact, helped elevate her students’ scores (though they are still very low) in the three years since she has been teaching. And she recognizes the test’s value as a measure of some essential skills, and as a guarantor of her school’s and her own accountability. But the assessments confine and dumb down her teaching. “You are not even allowed to be a teacher when they are testing,” she says. “You are a drill sergeant.”

In other words, Caryn Voskuil hates what has come to be known pejoratively as “teaching to the test.” She’s not alone. This kind of instruction fundamentally degrades the whole project of teaching and learning, many believe. It inevitably subjugates higher-order thinking—the kind that comes with, say, learning about character development and narrative logic, stretching one’s vocabulary, and becoming familiar with common themes—to the coarse business of pattern recognition, mimicry, and rule following. This is a lament many Americans have come to take for granted in the years since the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) was passed. Even reformers who believe in the broader project of standards and accountability seem to regard the matter of narrow-minded test prep as an embarrassing fly in the ointment.

Framing the problem of modern assessment this way makes perfect sense—until you consider that a couple of the most elite and highly regarded institutions of American secondary education involve a ton of what can only be described as teaching to the test. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are essentially yearlong exercises in test prep. Yet you rarely hear anyone complain about them as such. Why?

The difference lies in the tests themselves, and the kind of preparation they demand. A run-of-the-mill standardized exam like the DC CAS is a test of “basic skills.” It asks students to do things like find the main idea of a text using a series of multiple-choice questions. An Advanced Placement test, by contrast, asks students to do things like analyze and interpret texts, construct logical explanations, and put facts in context, using a mix of multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay questions. All year, a student in AP American History is told what to expect on the final standardized exam: she knows she will need to become knowledgeable about a certain set of events spanning a certain period of time; she knows that memorizing a bunch of dates won’t really help her, and that being able to explain cause and effect will. It’s not that one model encourages “teaching to the test,” and the other doesn’t. It’s that one model causes shallow learning to crowd out the deep, and the other doesn’t.

Susan Headden , a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a senior writer/editor at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank.


  • Caroline Grannan on May 09, 2012 3:08 PM:

    Education Sector is a partisan organization that promotes the currently popular package of policies known as "education reform," not an impartial source. This article needs a disclaimer cautioning that it is intended to promote the organization's viewpoint.

  • David on May 10, 2012 4:20 PM:

    Very interesting article. Thanks

  • Janet on May 18, 2012 2:51 AM:

    Standardized assessment is not a bad thing -- but in itself, it does not address two of the largest problems in the American education system.

    First, that impoverished students who (on average) are least prepared to do well in school, will find themselves in schools with the fewest resources for teaching them.

    Second, that teachers who might be willing to take on the huge challenge of teaching and inspiring students with learning disabilities or those whose homes and families haven't given them a solid foundation for school, risk low evaluations because in a school year they may help students make enormous progress and build a basis for future success, but they're not likely to have many students who score above grade level; they start too far behind.

    This article doesn't seriously address either of these problems.

  • Ritsumei on May 30, 2012 11:16 AM:

    I took one of those AP tests (US History) and did well. I remember next to nothing. US history and the philosophy of the Founders has, in the past several years, become a topic of particular interest to me. It's very clear to me that the sort of cramming for the test that year's history course was made of was useful for nothing. I didn't retain ANY knowledge to speak of, and we simply didn't cover much of what made the Founding Era great: it wasn't on the test. I'm NOT impressed with the AP tests. They are useful only as coupons for reduced-cost college credits. The teaching to the test, in my experience, guaranteed that the retention simply wasn't there.

    It is also worthy of note that all powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people -thus all federal involvement is unconstitutional, as it is in no place in the Constitution delegated to the national government. Federal involvement is usurpation of rights that belong with parents, plain and simple. I find the "common core" movement deeply disturbing, as it relates to our freedom to educate our children, and to freedom in general. This sort of top-down, government-centric educational model is incompatible with our system in which sovereignty rests with "We The People," rather than the ruler. These so-called "common core" initiatives fill me with dread for the implications to our freedoms, and I say kudos to Virginia and any other state that refrains from participation.

    Frankly, putting government in charge of education - arguably the single most important leash on government excess over generations - is no different from putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

  • v98max on May 31, 2012 8:00 AM:

    When my dad's school district first flirted with competency testing, every member of the school board was given the citizenship test for legal immigrants. They all failed. Needless to say, it was quickly determined that the test must be too hard.

  • Liz Wisniewski on June 02, 2012 12:10 PM:

    And we continue to focus on weighing the pig........As a fourth grade teacher, I am encouraged to know that the tests will be improving, and yet as I read this I started smiling. The truth is that using the tests for teachers' information is not really necessary as any halfway decent teacher already knows what their students can do. Spend everyday with 21 kids teaching them for month after month and you know them as learners, you know what they can do and what they can't. If a teacher needs standardized test restults to know if a student cannot do multi-digit multiplication I would suggest that someone check what she is smoking in the outside smoking area.

    If only all this time and money was spent on helping children be "present for learning" and on making sure we hire intellectually energized and well trained people as teachers. Yet, we continue to think that weighing the pig is going to make it fatter.....sigh......

  • Bob Ellingsen on June 04, 2012 2:00 AM:

    I taught AP US History for twenty years, and I think the AP program represented the paradigm for what education ought to be. It kept my feet to the fire; I had to cover a rigorous curriculum and couldn't waste a minute. If I wanted my students to do well on the three essays on the AP test, they had to practice writing all year, and I had to read what they were writing and offer feedback. Moreover, even the multiple-choice questions on an AP exam usually require the student to do more than just recall facts. Finally, the presence of a high-stakes test that has meaning for the student changes the dynamic in the classroom. In a very real sense, the student and I were "on the same side." If he or she did well on the test, both of us would be very happy. "Teaching to the test" is as good or as bad as the test itself.