Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 18 2013

Test scores do matter. Unfortunately.

The education reform analyst and well-spoken blogger Gary Rubinstein just applauded a 2012 CM for saying that he cares more about kids’ appreciation of the material and attitude than their test scores. Great! There’s so much more to learning than test scores, and fostering a true love of learning is definitely one of my goals as well.

But the 2012 CM took it too far. “It doesn’t matter what their test scores are,” he said.

Waaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute. Hold up.

I am the first person to hate on standardized tests. I try to tone it down online for the sake of respectability (and because I had to take an oral oath stating, among other things, that I would “never disparage the value of the test”…oh New Mexico…), but some of the tests my kiddos had to take last year were AWFUL. Especially the reading ones that are supposedly “Common-Core Aligned,” but are secretly an ELL’s worst nightmare (note: the math ones were actually really good—hard but fair, requiring thinking but grounded on the skills they were supposed to learn). My kids had not the faintest chance of passing these reading tests, and for them to have that chance next year will mean teaching a bunch of strategies and practices that I would otherwise not consider useful. This is the definition of teaching to the test, and I hate it. I’d rather read Shiloh than figure out which additional sentence best belongs in this paragraph, and I can guarantee you my kids would, too. But although those skills are things that a sophisticated reader could probably do without learning them specifically, for my not-so-sophisticated readers to have a shot at them we will need to explicitly teach them how to approach it. It sucks.

However, my hating the test doesn’t matter. The test being unfair doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong: it SHOULD matter. People in policy and so on should be fixing this awfulness.

But as a teacher, my job is to help my students succeed. Right now, to graduate from high school, they have to pass that stupid test. We can (and should) say all we want about how unfair this is, how many other things matter besides multiple choice bubbles, how critical thinking and enjoying learning are ultimately just as important. But if I teach entirely from that perspective, that test scores don’t matter, that won’t help Rylie when he fails the test. Given that this is the only system that we’ve got, what are we supposed to do within it?

This last part may get me in trouble, but here goes. When you know for sure you are not going to fail, it’s a lot easier to stand on idealism. When I was in high school, I could say test scores don’t matter and loving learning is more important—I was going to pass the darn tests anyway! Teachers at Stuyvesant can say test scores don’t matter; nearly 100% of their students pass in every test the school reports. It’s a lot easier to say tests don’t matter from the shelter of a middle-class background, a college education, or at least a stable and successful school.

Test scores SHOULDN’T matter as much as they have been set up to matter. I agree that there are so many other things we need to do in schools, and I try so hard to balance the joy of learning with the less savory parts for my kids. But when those tests are the difference between graduating and not, between a shot at college or not, between eventual stability for your family or month-to-month welfare?  You better believe they matter. And as a TFA teacher, who is pretty much by definition teaching the kids who are in that second group, for me to have as an educational theory that test scores really don’t matter is, at best, naïve, and at worst, truly damaging for my students. Maybe that’s part of the reason we don’t hear it that often from TFA as an organization.

2 Responses

  1. mches

    EM, I’ve posted a response to this on my blog here: http://mches.teachforus.org/2013/06/20/69-all-aboard-the-u-s-s-test-scores-dont-matter/

    I thought I’d spare you a 1000-word-plus comment. I’d be really interested to get your feedback!

  2. Shannon

    Sadly, tests do matter in life, and it’s wise to get students on board, because they aren’t going anywhere. From the SAT, GRE, other pre-grad school exams and professional certification exams for everything from EMT to Professional Geologist, there is likely a long line of standardized tests lurking in most students’ fututres…

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In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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