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Teaching to the Test

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Teaching to the Test: Does Standardized Testing Help or Harm Students? 

"There's no secret about the test. It's a standards-based test. We teach to the test." – Montebello Unified School District Superintendent Art Revueltas  

Those of us who run Best Masters in Education care about the state of education in the United States and the condition under which teachers do their work. Because one of the biggest points of concern that we hear from teachers is the idea of "teaching to the test" we decided to investigate the value placed on standardized testing by requirements such as No Child Left Behind, the desperation to achieve (or appear to achieve) based on these standards, and how factors such as race and income affect performance. 

No Child Left Behind

Originally required 100% of schools to meet performance standards by 2014 

31,737 of 98,916 schools missed NCLB’s testing goals in 2009… that’s just 68% proficiency 

In 2010, it was believed that cheating on standardized tests may have occurred at 1 in 5 schools—and that students might not have been the ones to cheat 

Due to performance standards, educators must ensure that their students score high enough on tests to retain funding and jobs for the schools 

Testing facilities perform analyses of student tests at no extra charge, looking for signs of cheating like:

  • High number of erasures to fill in right answers
  • High number of same wrong answers
  • Variation in individual student scores from year to year
Most states do not request these reports, or do nothing with the results

Cheating for the Best Scores

For many students, the SATs are vital to get into college… vital enough to pay cash for the best score

  • 2010-2011: 6 students from Great Neck North High School paid Great Neck alumna and current college student Sam Eshaghoff $1500-$2500 each to take the SAT with their identities
  • He earned scores between 2140 and 2220 for those students—perfect is 2400
  • Eshaghoff may be imprisoned for up to 4 years for the offense, but the students face only misdemeanor charges and will simply have their scores erased, with the option to retake  

50-year-old teacher Scott Mueller resigned after admitting to copying standardized testing questions word-for-word onto study guides for students

  • In 2005, under a different teacher, third-graders scored in 67th percentile in math
  • When he taught the same group of students the next year, they scored in 97th percentile
  • As fifth-graders without him, they scored in 49th percentile
  • As sixth-graders with Mueller, back up to 90th percentile

One professor compared the periods of sharp gain—which are by no means exclusive to Mueller and his school—as going to “a weight loss clinic where you lose 100 pounds a day”  

The 66 fifth-graders who used his study guides this year all had to retake math and science tests, costing the school $3,300 

Nationwide, there are 1,610 such inconsistencies in standardized test scores  

How Important Are Test Scores to Schools and Teachers?

24 out of 26, or 92% of the data points considered on Ohio’s school report cards are test scores:  

50% of teachers’ yearly evaluations and salary may be determined by test scores in certain states: 

64% of people believe teacher evaluations should include test scores:,8816,2016994,00.html  

10 states currently use student test scores as the main consideration for teacher evals  

130 Detroit public schools have closed since 2005—most due to low test scores  

Inaccuracies and Performance Gaps

In Massachusetts, low-income students score about 20% lower than their peers on standardized tests 

About 60% of Massachusetts schools with many low-income students aren’t meeting English or math standards set by NCLB

NYC is slated to close many more low-income schools this year—those that don’t show adequate proficiency in English or math on standardized tests  

SAT Test Scores by Income:

Every boost in income category was correlated with an average increased SAT score of 12 points  

According to the state of NY in 2009:

  • 87% of fourth graders overall were proficient in math
  • Compared to 78% in 2006—a 9% gain
  • 80% of eighth graders overall were
  • 78% of fourth grade black students were
  • 63% of eighth grade black students were
  • 82% of fourth grade Hispanic students were
  • 69% of eighth grade Hispanic students were
  • 92% of fourth grade white students were
  • 89% of eighth grade white students were
  • 96% of fourth grade Asian students were
  • 92% of eighth grade Asian students were

But states and federal agencies record scores much differently. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress just months later:

  • No significant gains for the state at all!
  • Only 40% of fourth graders were proficient in math
  • Only 34% of eighth graders were
  • Only 19% of fourth grade black students were
  • Only 13% of eighth grade black students were
  • Only 25% of fourth grade Hispanic students were
  • Only 15% of eighth grade Hispanic students were
  • Only 50% of fourth grade white students were
  • Only 44% of eighth grade white students were
  • Only 67% of fourth grade Asian students were
  • Only 63% of eighth grade Asian students were  

Schools are being closed due to low test performance—NYC is set to close as many as 25 more schools in addition to the 117 schools closed since 2002

    • One school, serving disadvantaged black and Latino male students, will close in part because only 19% of them scored proficient on standardized reading exams
    • Black and Latino males have the lowest odds of graduating from high school of any demographic  

Closing the Performance Gap by Inspiration Alone

After Obama gave his nomination acceptance speech, a notable performance gap between black and white students closed

  • Before nomination:
    • White students got 12 out of 20 questions on a test correct
    • Black students got 8.5 out of 20 correct
  • After nomination acceptance:
    • Black performance improved--black and white students performed statistically equally 

Does Teaching to the Test Help Students Learn?

Minorities and low-income students are at a higher risk for being held back or put in remedial programs based on standardized testing 

White and middle- or upper-income students often benefit, moving ahead and landing in gifted programs   

A recent study showed that 45% of students made no score improvements on a critical thinking test after their first 2 years of college  

It often means missing key learning experiences—test prep and testing can cause students to miss as much as 18% of their traditional lessons  
Source: Standardized Testing and ELLs NCLB: More Harm than Good - By Maria G. Amador


Standardized Tests