Test Results?

‘Tis the season.’ Classes are over for this semester, final exams are concluding, and college professors are drowning in piles of term papers to grade.

And griping.

Yesterday, I was talking to some of my colleagues about the disappointing performance of my students this semester. Although they’ve been reasonably diligent, this cohort has been stubbornly “stuck” at a superficial level. They can regurgitate material from the text or lectures, but they seem unable to get beneath the surface; for that matter, I’m not sure they know there is anything beneath the surface. They seem unaware of complexity or nuance. They skate along the surface, seemingly unaware of the big questions, or the deeper implications of the material–they just focus on finding out what I want on the tests and then giving it to me.

My experience has been shared by others, and not just in SPEA, where I teach. One of my colleagues has an intriguing–if disquieting–theory about the root of the problem: she thinks it is a result of the educational emphasis on high-stakes testing.

It’s now been several years since the education reform movement began its love-affair with constant testing. Students who have grown up in the resulting environment, students whose educational experience has consisted of sitting in a classroom where the instructor is “teaching to the test” are just now entering college. They come to us expecting to be evaluated in much the same way–that is to say, on the basis of their ability to absorb and recite back an assigned body of material.

And that isn’t education. It shouldn’t be what college is all about. College should be a time for probing, for questioning, for discovering–for considering the pros and cons and complexities of issues. Skill acquisition is part of that, but by no means the most important part. Skills can quickly become obsolete; the ability to think critically and analytically will never be outdated.

I don’t know whether my colleague’s theory that we are seeing the end result of teaching to the test is correct. Maybe next semester’s students will display intellectual curiosity, ask the hard questions and disprove the generalization. But I think she may be on to something, and if she is, then the critics of the current methods of “teacher accountability” will have been proven right.

I’m no defender of the status quo in K-12 education. I was once a high-school English teacher, and I am a firm believer in the importance of evaluation. But (as I try to explain to those uninterested students), how we do something is frequently more important than whether we do it. Unintended consequences are the bane of the policy process.

Maybe we should re-introduce elementary and high school students to art and music, test them a little less often and challenge them to think a little bit more.


  1. My question to you is, are your expectations expressed in the syllabi of you and your fellow teachers?

    If you don’t give them a clue that the teacher expects more than regurgitation, then perhaps it is unfair to expect them to perform differently.

    On the other hand, if you did formally express the need for more than superficiality in the syllabus, then are the students’ final grades reflective of the failure to achieve that expectation?

    Difficult to commiserate or discuss without more detail.

  2. To varangianguard, when did it become incumbent upon an instructor to state on a syllabus, “This class is about thinking critically,” or “I will test you on your understanding of the material, not merely your ability to just restate what I’ve told you in the past”? If the instructor asks probing questions, isn’t that enough to trigger in students’ minds the prospect that maybe, just maybe, there will be more than questions like, “What are the three branches of government”?

    For what it’s worth, I’m not sure this is really all that new a phenomenon–I remember hearing folks in law school classes asking whether particular items or topics would be on exams. Does anyone seriously think law students are supposed to be put on notice that thinking critically is important?

  3. Last time I checked (which I’ll admit was the early 1990s), it- was- incumbent upon an instructor to be quite clear about expectations for graded work.

  4. It is more complex than it seems. If students have grown up in an environment wherein test results are the ultimate measure, then the lack of test results becomes a teacher’s worst fear. So, with that dynamic governing the relationship between students and teachers in public education, where would a student acquire the love of learning that leads to what college should be all about?

  5. Even in graduate school (at SPEA), I noticed the differences between courses in the level of complexity involved in the required work.

    Some professors you could tell were much more interested in their research duties and were mailing in their teaching responsibilities. Any students reading this who were in my cohort probably know which courses I’m referring to. Others (like yourself, Sheila) were much more engaged in the students’ learning experience and strove to promote critical thinking and classroom discussion. I obviously gained a great deal more from my education in the case of the latter professors than the former.

    Frankly, it would be great to have back all the money from the courses in the former case since I got pretty much nothing out of it. When students are drilled in K-12, undergrad, and even (shamefully) grad school that you need to know how to spit stuff out without having to understand the concepts underneath the ideas, I think you’re going to see a lot of frustrated instructors like yourself. While both students and instructors are to blame for this, I think a large number of the instructors need to take a long look at what they’re doing and determine whether they’re actually contributing to a beneficial learning experience.

  6. Having never attended college except for a few Continuing Studies courses at IUPUI, I could be totally off base but – I thought students were to pay attention in class and learn what is being taught. I would expect test questions regarding all topics covered in class and information in text books which expanded information taught in class plus our own curiosity and wanting to learn. It sounds to me as if students are passing the buck; in this city and state there is also the good possibility that students were not taught how to pay attention, how to learn, and many graduate high school barely reading, writing and their spelling is a test for whoever is reading what they have written. Much responsibility does rest with the teacher. After 12 years of schooling I remember only three teachers; my 5th grade Social Studies teacher who made learning challenging and interesting, my 11th grade Biology teacher at Tech High School who instilled pride in learning and the 11th grade English Grammer teacher who said my question was the stupidest she had ever heard and I was the dumbest student she ever had. Didn’t learn anything from that last one but might have had I paid closer attention rather than being totally embarrassed by her stupidity. Tests are frightening because we know our mental ability is being questioned; students need to learn to accept the responsibility of their success or failure on test scores.

  7. “Teaching to the test” has become the unwritten rule around the local scene. Teachers’ jobs depend on it. While we cannot expect that past methods and results will always produce–not in this current world of iPad, iPhone, Kindle this and Nook that–I think that administrators are slowly catching on to the fact that art, music, and physical education are vital.

    Administrators are also realizing that classes for technical studies are equally important. Many of those classrooms and shop areas are currently empty, gathering dust, and used as storage. Car repair, wood shop, drapery-making, preparation for careers in hotel / motel management, plumbing, drafting and design–and the list of service-oriented occupations is longer than I have time to write–traditional high schools seem to have literally abandoned those subjects. The teachers are “teaching to the test” to make the principal, the school, and themselves look good on paper, to show some sort of improvement over last year. And there’s nothing wrong with showing improvement over last year, except that the teacher can be transferred/fired if the numbers don’t add up.

    Readin’, writin’, and arithmetic without benefit of devices wouldn’t be bad either. Students in today’s world log on, hit a button, and there’s the answer. Or they text a friend to see what is on the test next period. Nothing much is required in the area of critical thinking. Do the students know the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales? Can they diagram a compound sentence? Do they know the parts of speech? Can they add, subtract, multiply or divide without a device? Can they explain the Louisiana Purchase? Do they know about December 7, 1941? How many states can they identify by shape alone? Can they spell the names of those states?

    JoAnn is right again! Students must be taught to pay attention and how to learn their subject matter. Social promotion of a kid who has repeated a grade twice is not the answer. Thank goodness for her 5th and 11th grade teachers who made learning worthwhile. And I would suggest that a teacher never tell a child “that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard” or that “you are the dumbest student I ever had.” That still goes on today. Those “teachers” are in the wrong business!

    Getting off my soapbox now. . . .

  8. As a college-level instructor myself, I feel Sheila’s pain. My subject does not lend itself to easy memorization and regurgitation of facts, and my students grumble when exams require them to think through an issue and apply concepts they should have learned. Getting students to engage in discussion is impossible; if there are more than 15-20 of them present they clam up. Expectations are spelled out both in the syllabus and in class, but still…It gets very disheartening, but I plug away because every semester there are two or three or four who really get it, enjoy learning and speak up, and if I have flipped a switch in their minds then there’s hope for others. It almost makes up for the rest.

  9. There are some who don’t want young people to receive an education, preferring that they receive job training only. Learning to think critically could cause employees to question employers and governments and to possibly want more than the share of wealth deemed appropriate for them by others.

    The corporate culture for education is not a model most of
    us older folks have been taught to seek and value, but I worry that privatization and the corporate zeal to micro-manage, standardize, and test to death K-12 schools (now moving to higher ed.) is destroying the critical thinking and creativity which has long been America’s path to world economic leadership. It’s not enough to just know information. One has to be able to use it wisely and responsibly too.

  10. I went to college in the early 90s. I was not told on any syllabus, and would not have expected to be told, that doing well on exams required me to think. Nor was that communicated in my M.A. program, my Ph.D. program, or during law school. (I went to large state universities for all of those programs, frequently with large undergraduate classes.)

    We had to think to do well. I don’t see the controversy in expecting students to think–only the pity that students seem unaware that thinking is required.

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