08/22/2012 02:40 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

What's Wrong with Teaching to the Test? (Part 2)

I'm a classroom teacher, so what concerns me about standardized testing is the impact I see on the students in my secondary school.

The previous post looked at why we test, and how to find an alternative to the current one-size-fits-all approach. Several very thoughtful commenters did a better job of nailing the main points than I, but I was just setting up to talk about how testing affects my students, since the national policy issues are far above my pay grade.

As a classroom teacher, I see several major problems with the standardized testing approach:

Too much attention is focused on the test. Taking as a given that the various funding agencies are entitled to see what their money is getting them, even if we accept that standardized testing is the only practical approach to nationwide evaluation, the test is too big a thing in my school, and it overshadows the other essential parts of a whole and holistic high-school experience -- credits, grades, extracurriculars, and so on. I'm not saying students shouldn't be able to pass the tests, they should, just that passing a test isn't the be all and end all of going to high school.

Focusing on the state exam devalues important creative expression by students. There's a critical threshold score for filling in the bubble sheet, but no credit for creative writing, imaginative group video responses to class assignments, formal and informal leadership within the student body, academic exploration beyond the bare minimum, nor basic citizenship skills learned at school and applied within the broader community.

Students who learn differently are discouraged -- those who are smart and work hard, but who don't shine in a recitation-oriented testing environment; their likely initial failure to pass the state exam as sophomores colors their entire high school career, as they are routed into remedial and intervention classes, and away from the courses (drama, CTE, vocational, lab) in which their alternative learning styles just might shine.

Students who pass the tests as sophomores think they're ready to graduate. Making the tests mandatory for graduation may make sense to the state and federal bureaucratic wallahs, but it leaves students and parents under the impression that passing the state exam means the student is ready for college, and either should graduate early or can blow off the remaining courses. As currently constituted, the tests do not elicit sophisticated thinking nor creative solutions; the shift to common core may move us in this direction, but it's hard to see how a test standardized to a nationwide norm can leave room for the discretionary scoring required by creative elements.

Short of a credible alternative to standardized testing, and/or the elimination of social promotion to keep students with their cohorts, I'm clueless as to the solution.

What I do know is that everyone is focused on the tests. Insofar as those tests are assessing critical academic and life skills, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but judging a student, a teacher or a school by those scores is not getting us where we need to be.