Here We Go Again: Not Really Improving Test Performance

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 03 May, 2012

For years, I’ve told audiences that one of my biggest fantasies (not involving Heidi Klum) was that we would have a different kind of testing and accountability system. In my make-believe world, teachers and principals would never get to see the tests – under penalty of death.

  They wouldn’t be allowed within miles of a school on testing days, and they would only be given general information about the results (e.g., “your class was in the bottom quintile of fourth grades in reading”). Telling a teacher the kinds of test questions or about the formatting would be punished severely, too.

  In that fantasy, teachers would be expected to try to improve student reading scores by… well, by teaching kids to read without regard to how it might be measured later. I have even mused that it would be neat if the test format changed annually to even discourage teachers from thinking about teaching to a test format.

  In some ways, because of common core, my fantasy is coming true (maybe Heidi K. isn’t far behind?).

  Principals and teachers aren’t sure what these tests look like right now. The whole system has been reset, and the only sensible solution is… teaching.

  And, yet, I am seeing states that are holding back on rolling out the common core until they can see the test formats.

  Last week, Cyndie (my wife – yes, she knows all about Heidi and me – surprisingly, she doesn’t seem nervous about it) was contacted by a state department of education trying to see if she had any inside dope on the PARCC test.

  This is crazy. We finally have a chance to raise achievement and these test-chasing bozos are working hard to put us back in the ditch. There is no reason to believe that you will make appreciable or reliable gains teaching kids to reply to certain kinds of test questions or to particular test formats (you can look it up). The people who push such plans know very little about education (can they show you the studies of their “successful” test-teaching approaches?). I am very pleased with the unsettled situation in which teachers and principals don’t know how the children’s reading is going to be evaluated; it is a great opportunity for teachers and kids to show what they can really do.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dale Webster Jul 01, 2017 09:57 PM


Great post! I too share your fantasy. The test-prep craze has fascinated and frustrated me. People blame NCLB for creating a test-prep culture, but I believe that is the lack of knowledge of how to improve student achievement, especially for our lowest achieving students, that has created this culture. Improvement in student achievement comes via improved teaching, not knowing the test questions or format and drilling kids on it. That approach may garner short term bumps upwards, but ultimately it's a losing game. My true fantasy is that the Common Core era ushers in an entirely new way of thinking about how our educational system (and our country) view and implement preservice and in-service professional development and support for teachers. Thanks for your post!

Mrs. V Jul 01, 2017 09:58 PM


I agree with much of what you are saying; however, when schools, teachers, and students are judged and big decisions are made about them because of the tests, then it is not that unreasonable that they would want to know what the tests entail. Anytime I personally have had to take a high stakes test, I go in more confident if I have some idea of what to expect. I have never studied extensively or purchased study guides, etc., but I do skim through the free resources provided.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 01, 2017 09:58 PM


I understand why teachers want the tests... but the problem is that the information that they get from seeing the test (info about the test format) misleads them into teaching the format. The idea of reading instruction is to try to develop reading as a highly generalizable skill or process (or more exactly to know reading so well that one can execute a variety of reading processes depending on the situation). The idea of teaching to the test is to try develop the routine that will allow one to do well on that one instrument.

Here is a math analogy: we teach children single digit addition (e.g., 3+2=5). If teachers knew that the test did't include any 4s or 7s, they would give those combinations less instructional attention (putting the attention where the results would show up on the test). But the test isn't the point: kids need to know single digit addition -- with all of the combinations, not just the ones that might be on a test.

Kim Hoag Jul 01, 2017 09:58 PM


But...if we teachers are going to be paid by a scale determined by the tests, even fired by the tests, given programs to teach by as well as schedules that are fueled by the end-results of tests.... As you said, its not the testing, its our "counterproductive responses to the testing" that are strangling us and whittling away the joy of learning in our students. My dream is for enlightened teachers to just be able to teach to the needs of kids --to teach the way John Dewey envisioned.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 01, 2017 09:59 PM


Kim-- I definitely hear where you are coming from.

Your concern points out two things: if high stakes testing is the measure of accountability, many teachers will be willing to write off the kids' education to protect themselves. I think you are right about that (unfortunately).

The second premise is that teachers believe they will get higher scores if they have the kids practice test-like reading items. And, again, I agree with you.

However, I have a premise, too, and that is that the teachers in the second premise above are mistaken. That practice does not raise scores in any appreciable way, and so the teachers are trying to protect themselves at the kids' expense--and they are hurting both the kids and themselves.

EC Jul 01, 2017 10:00 PM


It's hard to believe the common core is not going to lead to more testing. It's also hard to believe the common core is going to lead to better reading. Standards that emphasize the difficulty level of text, emphasize close reading of brief, difficult texts, and de-emphasize high-volume reading are not, it seems to me, going to do much to make kids better readers.

I addressed this in a brief essay on the occasion of David Coleman's recent ascension:;postID=3957746149546728211

Timothy Shanahan Jul 01, 2017 10:01 PM


It is certainly possible that common core will lead to more testing. The federal government has invested $350 million in the development of new tests and these could be more extensive than the state tests they will replace.

However, the common core does not de-emphasize high-volume reading. It does encourage teachers to work with children with more difficult texts (getting the students to read these challenging texts more closely). Research -- such as that published by ACT -- is actually quite supportive of the learning benefits derived from reading challenging text. Given that I'm less skeptical about the possibilities here.

TN Math 17 Jul 01, 2017 10:01 PM


I am a 4th grade math teacher with MNPS in Tennessee. I am probably in the minority because I love CC standards. My students made HUGE gains in math last year and I am expecting even greater gains this year with another year of experience with the new standards under my belt. Just as importantly, I hear comments daily like, "Math is my favorite subject and it used to be my worst." My district administers Thinklink by DiscoveryEd and my data shows that at the beginning of the year I had 23 out of 95 students testing below basic, and three months later I have only 1 out of 95 students testing below basic. That includes EL and Resource students. I have NEVER gotten results like that. My question is about PARCC. I have looked online at the protocol questions and I can not figure out what they will really be expected to do. It looks like they will need to cut, paste, and type. My fear is that the online component of the test is going to skew the results and students will be unnecessarily frustrated trying to show their thinking using "tools". It seems the test is automatically biased towards wealthier schools with more technology, technology teachers, and parents that buy technology for the children as "toys". How can we be sure that PARCC is assessing their reading and math, not their technology skills? Also, how can we help prepare our students for the types of technology skills they will be required to perform with PARCC.

Mary Damer Jul 01, 2017 10:02 PM


"There have been early childhood programs with demonstrated success with at risk (high poverty, ELL, special education ) students , but because the methods aren't popular with education professors, they are ignored. This pervasive dysteachia presents one of the most serious social injustice issues of our time. The Abecedarian Project and Project Follow Through provided guides to success........but have been largely ignored in favor of programs with no research support - and no results. "

Mark W. F. Condon Jul 01, 2017 10:03 PM


"I would humbly suggest that there's another interpretation of this phenomenon. If indeed it is clear that Preschoolers enter school at more advanced levels of achievement than those without, then MY first consideration is that our schools are effectively squandering that bounty, perhaps even holding kids back by what we do (or fail to do) there. "

Mary Damer Jul 01, 2017 10:03 PM


"We can't base ed policy on Head Start. I remember when they stopped teaching skills. Just 1 example was a local principal trying to get HS to teach "first sound" in words & the letter sounds for six letters. She was told that HS couldn't teach "skills." HS had already banned any kind of reinforcement & punishment (including timeouts when students hit others on the head with blocks or praise after walking to the gym without trying to run out of the school). "Wee talks" were expected to convince students to change their behavior. Student teachers I've had report that the same policies are in place today in most of the programs. "

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Here We Go Again: Not Really Improving Test Performance


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.