The Difference Between Testing and Teaching

It will take longer than 40 minutes to write this blog. It will take longer than 90 minutes to write this blog. In fact, I’ve been working on this blog for something like 23 years, when high-stakes testing first found its way into education policy and into my ELA classroom.

Back then, we did not put absolute time constraints on writing assessments, but the palpable pressure to ensure that students could organize and articulate a sustained piece in response to a “cold” prompt, that is, without context, certainly changed how I viewed my role as teacher and, to some extent, the purpose of my classroom.

On one hand, the addition of standardized score-keeping gave me a sense of concreteness I had not learned with regard to measuring my students’ progress. (We are talking 1990, here, before formative assessment was routinely discussed.) With that first wave of common standards and accountability for teaching them, my ELA colleagues and I began to share the same language and expectations for student writing. Additionally, student portfolios ensured that students were engaged in an ongoing writing process that fostered both student and teacher reflection. Reform and accountability served well in that regard.

Book StackBut it’s the “on the other hand” that raises the critical point. Although the onset of high-stakes testing resulted in a more concerted school-wide effort to find commonality in teaching across content areas and classrooms, that commonality was almost immediately focused on preparing students for the testing situation rather than about the actual student learning purportedly being measured.

Thus began the onslaught of scrimmages for the test and a search for outside writing prompts to insert into classroom instruction, devoid of any meaningful theme, discussion, or insightful readings. Although a very practical reaction to the high stakes of testing, it was also the beginning of isolating student learning into small skill bits, which, unfortunately, rarely get put together into a sustained, authentic product.

As a profession, we are confusing reading and writing instruction with assessment of that instruction. Many teachers strive, as I did, to insert “test-like” experiences within the context of their units to decrease the stand alone skills practice that high stakes testing often causes, but the truth is undeniable. We are increasingly blurring the lines between instruction (teaching and learning) and assessment of instruction (tests to measure teaching and learning).

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles of

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles of

Even worse, as years have passed, students have experienced this disconnect in ways that should make us all pause. One college student recently wrote to me about her experience as a student immersed in high stakes testing culture: “All I knew was that if I scored proficient or better I got a free pass out of taking finals.” Responses like these are not the intention of improved, more rigorous standards.

Certainly, the Common Core State Standards outline a rich approach to deepening student learning and fostering independence, but any test measuring those standards will be a partial source of information, not the whole picture of a student’s growth. School leaders need to ask whether their teachers are implementing the standards or whether they are implementing approaches to testing well under those standards. The test is always the small piece of a larger frame.

If literacy instruction begins to look solely like short text analysis, multiple choice questions, and isolated writing prompts, students will not develop the essential Habits of Mind necessary for success in college and in life, as outlined in the 2011 position paper released by The National Council of Teachers of English called “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing”.

Too much emphasis on test-taking weakens the link between rich standards and the actual student experience.

Too much emphasis on test-taking weakens the link between rich standards and the actual student experience.

Here are some questions to guide self-reflection about your school’s current practices:

  • Do your school’s curriculum maps and unit pacing guides end with test-like assessments or do they include summative projects, sustained writing pieces, and opportunities for students to present, produce, publish?
  • Is your school’s Response to Intervention program relying heavily on student completion of test-like literacy and math activities? Is this approach teaching them literacy and math or is it teaching them test-taking skills?
  • When you gather as teachers to analyze data, are you using only the standardized tests and their teacher-developed “common” assessments or are you using other student work, as well?

The ultimate question for educators to ponder is this: Do you distinguish between teaching and learning and the assessment of that learning? If the majority of student work you have on file looks like the state assessment, there lies your answer.

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  1. Thank you for an informative review and call to action. I particularly resonate with “or do they include summative projects, sustained writing pieces, and opportunities for students to present, produce, publish?” So vital to true learning.

    • Thank you for your comment, Cynthia, and I appreciate the specific feedback. I strive to communicate in a way that helps leaders, teachers and all interested persons cut through the complex maze that is education now. Your recognition that it’s the putting-it-all-together that makes “true learning” is very helpful.

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