My Back Pages: How Teachers See Testing

BackpagesWhat were teacher attitudes on testing back in the day? In an EL article from November 1966, Evelyn W. Sharp reported on a survey of over 200 classroom teachers in Florida, which asked several questions regarding their views on assessment.

Teachers surveyed commonly agreed that standardized testing was valuable for identifying student strengths and weaknesses. However, teachers were skeptical of standardized tests as lone measures, because “there is much learning taking place which standardized testing cannot measure.” Many criticized the culture of worshiping tests as the final word in the teaching-learning process. One teacher responded, “tests are worshipped like demigods…with grave injustices to children.” Many teachers also agreed that an overemphasis on tests is harmful to their mental health.

How have teacher opinions on assessment changed or stayed the same?

Submitted by David Snyder, a reference librarian in ASCD’s Information Resource Center. My Back Pages also appears in the ASCD Express newsletter.


  1. The way testing was done back in the day mentioned in this piece was this: Students would show up for school one day and discover that it was test day. They would spend four hours or less taking a test and several months later they would get the results which were uniformly ignored. This is as it should be today.
    I talk to teachers all the time and if my sampling is any indication, teachers are almost unanimously opposed to the way testing is used today. They are not only opposed to it–they hate it. There is constant talk in teaching circles today of insurrection. The only reason we don’t have insurrection is that teachers, like most of us, have been trained in public schools to be rule followers. Who then can say that public school is not serving its purpose?

  2. I think teachers would be more open to current standardized tests if:
    1. they were PART of an overall assessment plan.
    2. the teachers were given IMMEDIATE feedback as to student strengths and weaknesses specific to each student.
    3. progress was measured against the students themselves. In other words, if a 6th grade student has a 3rd grade reading level one year and advances to almost a 5th grade reading level in a year, that progress should be rewarded and celebrated in and of itself.
    There is a fundamental difference between standards and standardization and they should not be equated. Standardized tests which lead to measures and judgements of population progress are an assembly-line approach to education. This frustrates good teachers because it goes against everything they have been taught about education.

  3. I don’t see that much has changed over the years except that the multiple-choice test is now being used inappropriately. James Popham sums it up nicely in, “Accountability systems based on the use of such instructionally insensitive tests are flat-out senseless.” in an Education Week article, 14 Nov.
    We got a computer to score and do an item analysis in the 1970’s. Teachers looked through the printout to find the student test scores and threw the rest in the waste bin.
    Instructionally sensitive multiple-choice tests have recently become available that allow the teacher and high quality students to know what has been mastered and what remains to be learned with any test score.
    Knowledge Factor, Inc. started in 2005 with Confidence Based Learning. It has been very successful in profession training programs but not in classroom formative testing. Nine-Patch Multiple-Choice has recently distributed programs for Knowledge and Judgment Scoring at no cost to teachers that are instructionally sensitive.
    As Anne Jolly puts it, we need to break “the culture of isolation in schools” if there is to be change for the better.

  4. How many times does one need to repeat the fact that accountability assessment is NOT FOR THE TEACHERS? Teacher have, and always had, quizzes, unit tests, diagnostics tests, and whatever else they feel they need to aid them in tailoring their instruction. Accountability is to hold the schools and districts accountable to the public. Attempting to use summative accountability assessment as a formative one is foolish and causes uninformed complaints about it being unhelpful or delayed. “Teachers hate them?” Maybe they should hate the idiots in ed schools that don’t teach them the difference between summative and formative assessments. Or the NEA folks that are the first to try and obfuscate that difference.

  5. As a special education teacher, I have many issues with standardized assessments. We work so hard to assess students in alternative ways, but still have to teach them how to take a standardized test so that the district can meet accountability measures expected by the community. The problem with these tests is that it only reflects how the students are able to perform on one day out of the year. So many different things can affect that performance that it is truly not an accurate assessment of student learning. I do agree that if we could use the tests to measure progress against the students themselves, then it would give better information for both teachers and for the community at large. After all, we want students to grow and improve upon their individual skills. Grouping them all together by grade level or by socio-economic group or race just doesn’t give anyone accurate information on how well the school is doing at educating students.

  6. Teachers hate standardized assessment because ther are ingnorant of the difference between formative and summative assessment! Did I hear someone say that?
    Teachers hate standardized testing because:
    It forces a narrowing of the curriculum.
    It forces curriculum uniformity.
    It forces the use of drill and practice.
    It forces teaching to the test.
    It forces major dicisions based on one score and nothing more.
    It forces the assumption that testing measures something of worth.
    It forces those who dissapoint to believe that they are worthless.
    It allows the successful to believe that they have done something worthwhile.
    It deceives us into believing the lie that good scores mean that we are doing well and that poor scores mean the opposite.
    It completely fails to deliver anything in the way of accountability.
    The reason teachers hate standardized assessment is not ignorance–it is experience, which comes from dealing with human beings face to face, in person, one on one, and discovering that merit or ability of human beings can’t be measured on a bubble sheet.

  7. “Teachers hate standardized testing because:”
    We should recall that the NCLB-related testing is generally set at a low, below-average level, and that it has absolutely no consequences for the student. Consequently:
    “It forces a narrowing of the curriculum.”
    Teachers force the narrowing of the curriculum when they believe that they cannot teach even the average content to most students.
    “It forces curriculum uniformity.”
    If you believe that teachers ought to be free to teach whatever content they want, march on your own state house.
    “It forces the use of drill and practice.”
    Only with foolish and ineffective teachers and administrators.
    “It forces teaching to the test.”
    No. It forces to teach to the state standards, as NCLB holds the states accountable to align their test to their standards. First time ever in the US history.
    “It forces major dicisions based on one score and nothing more.”
    NCLB student score is made of at least 2, and often 3, test scores over multiple days of testing and after dozens of questions for each kid. And this so called “one score” has zero impact on that kid. The school score is made of hundreds such student scores. Calling this “one score” is disingenuous, although eventually it results in one score — the school either makes or fails to make AYP. What is wrong with that, or with making major decisions based on this? Should we just let bad schools to continue doing disservice to kids?
    “It forces the assumption that testing measures something of worth.”
    I suggest you pick this up with your legislators if you think your state standards are not “something of worth.” There is absolutely zero strong research showing that constructed response questions (aka open response questions) measure anything more than multiple choice items do. Or do you suggest simply to trust the teacher and the principal? That’s what brought us here…
    “It forces those who dissapoint to believe that they are worthless.”
    As I already said, NCLB testing holds no consequences for the student. If s/he feel worthless, that is probably because the teacher made him/her feel so by not teaching him/her and then complaining about the test.
    “It allows the successful to believe that they have done something worthwhile.”
    Those who think content standards are important would agree that mastering them is worthwhile. Those who don’t probably should not be teaching our kids.
    “It deceives us into believing the lie that good scores mean that we are doing well and that poor scores mean the opposite.”
    Yes, on academic content. That is not a “end all” or “be all”, but is accepted as a key predictor for success in our society. Those who don’t believe that shouldn’t be teaching in our public schools.
    “It completely fails to deliver anything in the way of accountability.”
    I agree that it could deliver more, although it does deliver some accountability. The main reason it does not deliver more is because many states tend to cheat and weasel their way. Check the recent Pangloss Index for such details.

  8. I have to disagree that NCLB testing holds no consequence for the students. In Texas, all students grades 3 – 12 take the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test. If they do not pass this test, the portion which is used to determine AYP, then they do not go on to the next grade level. The students do get 2 chances to pass the test in most cases. Put yourself in the shoes of the child who has failed the test. Is your sense of self-confidence reduced? Imagine being the child of immigrants. Your parents speak little or no English and are probably illiterate in their native language. You are struggling to learn the English language and never learned to read your native language very well. You can no longer be exempt under LEP. Are you going to do well on this test even if you can take it in your native language? Now imagine that you are a very talented student. You make straight A’s in all your classes. You know the material that has been taught in your class and you feel very confident about your test taking skills. On the day of the test, you are having problems with your allergies and the medication you are taking to help you is making you drowsy. You fail the test. Did the school fail to teach? Did you fail to learn? Was this just a bad day for you to have to take a high stakes test? Is your sense of self-worth going to go up or down after this test? Remember, you are a child, not an adult! You’re not thinking about the make-up exam that will be offered to you at a later date. You’re thinking about the fact that your parents “are going to kill you”. You’re parents, teachers, other adults probably understand why you did so poorly. How many kids after wrecking their car the first time think their parents are going to kill them? As an adult you can see this test for what it really is. As a child, you see it as a failure and therefore you are a failure.) Now imagine that you are a 4th grade student who struggles in reading and math. You are reading at a 2nd grade level and have many difficulties with writing due to the fact that you also have disgraphia. You’ve been identified as a student with a learning disability in reading and math as well. Your teachers and support staff are doing all they can to help you close the gap in your abilities by using research-based teaching methods and making the lessons engaging and meaningful to the students. You are expected to take the same test that any other 4th grade student will take. Sure, your test will have fewer answer choices (3 instead of 4)and more white space. The vocabulary is suppose to be simplified (whatever that means). You get extreme test anxiety when you have to do written exams (even fill-in the bubble). In 4th grade, you take reading, math and writing TAKS tests. You’re so nervous on test day, you spend 30 minutes throwing-up in the bathroom before the test starts. While we can make some accomodations for students with special needs like this, they still have to take the test and pass it. Do you think you feel very good about yourself? Do you think you are going to do well on the test? Is this the school’s fault? Is it the student’s fault? Is it an unrealistic expectation? Yes, the schools have to be accountable. They should have to prove that they are educating all students and doing a good job at it. I just think that there are other ways this can be done than with a snap-shot test that does only measure how a student can do on one day out of an entire year. Even if the test is given over several days. Each day is a different subject. Students, teachers and parents all stress about these tests. Teachers do what they can to help the students relax and be ready to take the tests. The tests and the results of the tests do drive curriculum. Yes, the test is correlated to state standards. Yes, it is important to teach those standards. However, there are so many other ways to assess student learning on these standards other than with a multiple choice exam. No, teachers don’t hate the tests because they are ignorant. They hate the test beacuse they work with the kids I’ve mentioned every day. These are real students. These things actually have happened.
    To say that the student feels worthless because the teacher failed the student is to prove lack of understanding about education in general. Teachers aren’t failing the students. Teachers are underappreciated because the community does not understand all that goes into being a truly dedicated teacher. I work with dedicated people. We teach the students they send us. We use the materials they give us to teach. We spend our own money to improve the classroom, to purchase additional supplies and materials. We spend countless hours studying research based teaching practices and then using those practices in our classrooms so that we can teach the standards in a way that is meaningful to the students. It’s not the teachers but the system that is failing some students. Do I have a solution? I think the tests are not going to go away. However, they should not be the only measure used to determine school accountability. There has to be a way that schools can prove student progress and prove that students are meeting expectations on state standards other than with a multiple choice exam. Teachers assess student performance every day in a variety of ways. The data they collect could be used to show progress over the course of the year instead of what the students know on one day out of the year. That would be a better measure of school accountability.

  9. I also disagree that testing holds no consequence for the students or teachers. In South Carolina, students grades 3 – 6 take PACT. If the students do not pass this test, the school does not meet AYP and after three years of not meeting AYP, the state will come in and make every person at the school take classes until they can make AYP. They are trying to make it mandatory that if a student does not pass PACT that he or she will be retained in that grade level. We are told not to teach the “test”, but then in so many words we are told to “teach to the test”. If you don’t teach to the test, then how are your students going to pass? All the students hear all year long, is test, test, test. I have to score Proficient on PACT. If we could get back to the good ole’ days of education, things would be a lot better. We need good old fashion learning back in the schools where students actually learn reading, writing, arithmetic and manners. Everyone hates these tests! We are able to measure academic progress better ourselves, than relying on standardized tests. In my opinion, this is too stressful for the teachers and the students. Education is a whole different ballgame today, than when I grew up.

  10. I agree that testing causes much stress for not only teachers but also students. I teach in a diverse classroom that contains varying abilities, and I am one of those teachers that hates standardized testing. Testing forces me to teach my students skills that they may not be ready for, causing them to often times become so stressed that they cry from the fear of failure. Although, I continuously modify my instruction providing my students with the necessities to be successful, they are unable to use these modifications to take a test that shows how much they have “learned” this year. How can this one test show how much my students have “learned?” There is so much more to student learning that what these tests assess. They need to come up with a new method of showing student progress, taking into account individual differences.

  11. Not all students test in the same manner. There are students who do not perform well on standardized test, or sometimes any type of test simply because it is called a test. They are fearful of the word test. Then, being clever, the name was changed to assessments. It still means the same thing. Do people feel that students can be over tested?
    Teachers that I have spoken to about the Benchmark test that we must give feel that the test are becoming unbearable for our students. We find errors in the test, they are extremely long in length, and they are mind boggling. It makes me feel that I, as the teacher of the classroom, am not competent enough to create a test on the material that I’ve taught to administer to my students. They say that we are not to teach to the test, but hand teachers a pacing guide and then instruct them to administer the Benchmark test every four and one-half weeks. Students get so fustrated with these test they refuse to take the test. The student that is not a good test taker is penalized because of his fear of taking a test. As educators it should be understood that student performance is not always what goes on that test paper, but what we as the teacher can idenify as the strengths and weaknesses of our students and govern ourselves according to their needs.

  12. I taught in Virginia for three years. As a teacher in Virginia your whole curriculum is based on the SOL test. The SOL objectives are geared toward the test. You have a set of SOL objectives that have to be taught before test time. I felt like we were teaching the test except the state of Virginia would change the questions every year. We would take the previous year SOL tests and use them as teaching materials. I know that I was under stress from the beginning of school until the middle of summer, waiting for test results. The good thing about my job was that I was a Title 1 teacher if I had been the classroom teacher I would be scared to death. The students worried all year long as much as the teachers. This test is given in 3-8, but it does not stop there, when the students get into high school they are also given the SOL Test at the end of the course. The students are required to pass a limited amount of these test or they cannot graduate from high school. If the student does not pass the required test them he/she must go to summer school or take extra classes and retake the test until he/she passes it.
    I was asked the following question during an interview; “How would you teach addition things that you felt your students needed while you were teaching the SOL’s.” This question startled me, because I was a new teacher in Virginia. I knew nothing about teaching SOL’s. I was unable to answer the question the way they wanted it answered. Needless to say I didn’t get the job. Teachers are hired in Virginia if they know how to teach SOL’s. If you are straight out of a Virginia based teaching program you have a better chance of getting a job due to you have had the training to teach SOL’s.
    We as teachers are scared and much as the students are. Everything revolves around testing. If you do not meet AYP for so many years you could lose your job. Your school could also lose their federal and state funding. We no longer teach our students what we feel they need to know to survive in the world. We test.

  13. It is astounding to me how testing and teacher attitudes towards testing have not really changed over the years! Teachers hated standardized testing that would result in a computerized printout with percentile rankings, which came out months too late. Currently, the stakes are much higher, but the trend remains the same. Teachers are stressed, students are stressed, and the results again do not come back until after the students are long gone. I teach in the state of Washington, where this year’s elementary results are now aggregated together. So, not only are we comparing very different groups of students from year to year; we are comparing fourth graders to an average percentile number of third-fifth graders. Can someone explain to me why we cannot compare individual student progress from year to year? I am a proponent of assessing students; but in a manner that is fair and consistent.

  14. I am amazed at all the comments about standardized testing. In my state, as in all of yours, we are teaching to the test. This falls on the shoulders of the English and math teachers, as the social studies, science and electives teachers feel this is not their area. I teach in a very small high school, and I have all the students for all 4 years of English. Needless to say, if my students do not make AYP, or even one student “blows off the test,” my job is on the line. I have even had students ask me if I will lose my job, if they don’t do well on the test. What kind of pressure is this to put on a child? I love my job, and I feel that I am good at it. However, the stress is getting to me and my students. I agree with some of the comments that we should test the child with the previous results of that child-not test that child and compare him/her to someone in Alaska, for example. Maybe if we take some of the stress out of testing, our students will relax and score higher.

  15. Teachers did not like standardized testing back in the 60’s and teachers do not like it now…..well not this teacher anyway. I teach first grade in a poverty stricken area. Students come to me not knowing basic letters, numbers, and sounds. April is our state standardized test…which only tests reading comprehension, math, and grammar. Students have a hard enough time reading a passage to themselves quietly…let alone reading six passages and answering a total of sixty questions. Of course some of my students do well on it….but the majority do not. The ones that do well came to me knowing letters and sounds. It does not test the progress that others have made from the beginning of the year.
    Not only that, but my county has no grammar curriculum. When 1/3 of the test is grammar, you would think the county would invest some money into a curriculum…..but not yet.
    I wish that standardized testing would drastically change. We really are teaching what is tested. Science, social studies, and Health are limited to a thirty minute block four days a week switching off science and social studies. Students are not learning what they need to to pass the science portion they must take in two years..(which if they fail, they fail the third grade)let alone the high school graduation test. I hate the standardized tests.
    I think there is a better way to teach students. Not all are test takers, not all can sit in their seat for that long, not all can read the passage and understand it fully. They are all smart in their own way and they need an assessment that tests it.

  16. I am also teaching in a school district that does not require grammar as part of the ELA curriculum. I am amazed this is not something required these days! I find more and more students do not understand the mechanics of grammar and have problems writing. I teach sixth grade and have also experienced the district taking spelling out of the curriculum. What is going on these days? Isn’t it important that students know how to spell and write properly? One last comment….I experienced an 8th grade student informing me that he did not know how to read cursive writing! Students are not taught cursive writing either! I am amazed with the education system these days!

  17. I am blessed to work in a parochial school and we don’t teach to the test. We do teach grammar, spelling, and cursive writing. By the middle of third grade all students must write everything in cursive and are editing their own writing. I do wonder how we are to teach our students to be thinkers if we only teach to the test and getting the right answer. Is our goal to teach our students to be learners or is it to teach them to only get the answer we are looking for so they can pass a test?

  18. I think that teaching has become a form of teaching to the test. It has gotten away from the traditional practices and has centered itself around students performance on standardized test. We have missed the real results, what are they learning? Do college or universities do that, do they prepare professionals to go out and learn only the necessary tools to pass in life? I am scared to see what happens to thses children when they become grandparents and when asked about an event in the past by thier grand (daughter/son) will not know anything about it, unless they have gone out of their way to research it.
    What about the students who do wonderful in school, score very high grades in the classroom on assignments, participate in all activities, are a joy to have but have difficulty on test, test taking skills, or are poor test takers…will the college and universities frown upon those students? MAybe they already do, but they could be missing the next great Einstein!

  19. Standarized testing is obviously not highly looked upon by the teachers who have read this article. I have to say that I agree. I hate standardized testing. Teaching special education for five years, I have a totally different outlook. I know that a lot of students stress over this area of education. How many of you have sat with a student who is several levels below grade level and still required to take the test? It is absolutely the worst thing I have had to do as a teacher. The tears, frustration, and anger from the students is heartbreaking. Even with the modifications allowed, I do not see the importance of putting a student through the testing when they deal with stresses everyday.
    I also do not understand how if,as teachers, we are encouraged to teach with a variety of techniques to reach the wide range of learning styles, why are the tests standardized? I do understand that students and teachers need to be held accountable for their learning. I just wish someone could come up with a manner of testing that would suit a wider range of students.
    Also, there are consquences for not passing the tests in Ohio and Kentucky. If the test is not pass in high school, the students receive a letter of completion- NOT a dipolma. How frustrating would that be for the student who worked hard all through school and is just not a good test taker.
    To be honest, I don’t understand standarized tests. I wish someone could explain the purpose.

  20. I also see teachers as teaching to the test. In my school in Maryland, we use the previous year’s data to determine intervention groupings, which are built to be fluid groups only servicing those students who scored Basic. When a child is Proficient, they are back in the regular classroom for instruction. This is true for Reading and Math at my school.

  21. I was teaching in 1966. I experienced a 34 year career in education as a teacher,a special education teacher, a gifted education teacher, a gifted education supervisor, a curriculum director, a school improvement supervisor and one of those state department folks who comes in to take over. I have looked at the testing issue from many different prospectives over the years! The answer to everyone is yes you are right. This issue is complex, and like the elephant in the middle of the room, each observer draws conclusions from the information at hand.
    Our experience with testing is even longer if you count all the years we all remember as students. Remember spelling bees-what fun! -at least they were fun for those who could imagine the possibility of success! What torture for those who could not deal with complex English Language sounds. In fact, teacher made tests and grades can be just as destructive to a student’s self confidence as any other type of measure. It really doesn’t make any difference by what scale one is being measured if one falls short of an expectation. It is still failure! When do we fell -OK- about failing?
    When we know it is part of a process called growth! Not win and lose! Not reward and punishment! Growth is part of living, we don’t start out afraid to grow — What happens?
    The question is not if we should test, but who should decide what is tested and what is done with the data gathered from the testing? The most important standards for education will always be debated because they are always changing! So we much be careful that the very standards we use today are not in the way of the growth we need for tomorrow.
    Secondly, the power of data are greatest when those being measured have access to the data and the power and resources to impact their own performance. When data are used to encourage growth, create challenge, and the result of measurement is to determine the next step- fear and failure give way to creative energy and growth.
    The current move toward formative measures is positive because it is about growth and next steps toward a goal. We can all do a better job, we can always do better,we all want to do a better job. Growth is never easy but the current fear and frustration is a painful way to achieve growth if not a deterrent to constructive change.
    So, let’s change the question. It is so easy to talk about what is wrong with what we see from one prospective or another. How can we use our different vantage points to create new possibilities? How can be take this this forum to a higher level and use it as a powerful collaborative tool for creative change? Maybe using our frustration to fuel creative questions and answers will lead to real growth.


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