Do You Teach Above the Test in Your School?

In 1989 researchers set out to “evaluate the ethical continuum” of “teaching to the test”, and came up with a seven point range from “most to least ethical”:

  1. General instruction on local objectives (ethical)
  2. Instruction on general test-taking skills (ethical)
  3. Instruction on objectives generally measured by standardized tests (ethical boundary)
  4. Instruction on objectives specific to the test used (ethical boundary)
  5. Instruction on objectives specific to the test used and using the same format (ethical boundary)
  6. Instruction using a released test or a “clone” test that replicates the format and content of the test used (unethical)
  7. Instruction using the test to be used, either before or during test administration (unethical)

The study concluded that the ethical boundary fell between points three and five, with points one and two being ethical and points six and seven being unethical (Mehrens, W.A.; Kaminski, J 1989).

I looked at this research and laughed. 

They are missing the point. While arguing about the “ethics” behind “teaching to the test” seems to be an ongoing discussion, we have to move past that point of view. This study was published in 1989. Almost 25 years later we are having the same discussion in many education circles.

Except. We aren’t. The teachers I work with and connect with online feel differently about standardized tests. They don’t pay much attention to them. Instead, we teach ABOVE the test. The standards have set a bar, and we should all aim to take our students beyond that bar.

When you think about it though, it makes sense. I coach a football and lacrosse team. It would be considered a decent season if we finished 8-3. But do we aim for 8-3??? Of course not. We try to win all of our games. Go undefeated. Fight for excellence. Everyone is on board because the goal is something we can be proud of…

Similarly, I once coached a team that finished 2-8. The next season we finished 8-2. That turnaround felt amazing for the coaches and the players! We had gone “above” expectations and showed growth. Everyone on that team felt proud of what we accomplished.

As a teacher I dealt with the same expectations and guidelines for success. But I always urged my students to go above the standards. As the lead learner, I set the bar for our class and each individual.

Teach Above the Test

The conversation I used to have with my students before the test was simple:

“I want you all to try your best on this, just like in anything else you do. But you should not be waking up in the middle of the night because of these tests. You should not be coming to school nervous because of these tests.

You all, have been prepared for much greater things than these tests. The tests only show a smidgeon of your ability, not just as English students, but as human beings. So if you think that I’m going to stand up here and tell you how important these tests are, I’m not. Instead, you should treat them the same way you treat anything else. Do it to the best of your ability, and understand that everything you’ve been doing in my class has prepared you for this.”

My students scored well on our state tests. Not every single student, but across the board covering minority groups, low-economic groups, and all different types of students…they scored very well. I think the main thing is that I didn’t teach to the test as a teacher, but always tried to teach above the test.

The test covers specific standards and benchmarks. There is specific content and skills assessed in these tests. But they are not going to define how you do in life. Someone who gets proficient or advanced in 5th, 8th, or 11th grade on their state standardized test is not destined to be a millionaire. In fact, I don’t think it has much correlation at all.

The Book

That’s why I wrote Teach Above the Test. This book is all about how we as teachers, administrators, parents, as school leaders, as people who see our students for 180 days a year…how we can go beyond the standards, and above the tests.

3dOur focus needs to change. We can’t hate these assessments. And we also can’t love these assessments. We need to start treating these tests for what they really are…which is just one assessment out of many that our students will have to take in life. Their first interview for a job…that’s an assessment. The college essay they’ll have to write…that’s an assessment. They are assessed every single day, and judged every single day, and this is just another assessment they’ll have to take in the game of life.

This 52-page guide looks at different ways we as teachers can promote learning above these assessments. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s a lot of work for the teachers and the students. But I think what you end up getting out of it (at least for me what I got out of it), was a sense of accomplishment. I always want my students to be challenged and proud of what they did in my class. Instead of going through the motions, I hoped to inspire and motivate next level thinking and creating. Many teachers are teaching above the test in their classes and this book shares how 20% projects, global collaborative experiences, project-based learning, and peace education projects can take our students beyond the standards.

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