How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

Regular Radical Readers know that high stakes testing is in the forefront of my mind right now.  I guess that’s just what happens when you live and work in a nation hellbent on tying teacher evaluation to the scores that students produce on multiple choice exams.

The testing pressure is worse than usual for me this year simply because in response to President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, North Carolina has introduced new “Measures of Student Learning” exams for science.

That means a “value-added” score based on nothing other than results my students generate on a late-May exam will be tied directly to my evaluation — and, if our Republican-led legislature has its way, will eventually be the SOLE factor in determining whether or not I’m placed on a terminating contract.

Outside of design flaws that will make this “measure of student learning” nearly impossible for the 12-year olds that I teach to actually pass — it is primarily composed of 35 isolated knowledge-driven questions that cover topics from a 23-page curriculum guide that we started learning in July — I’m worried for one main reason:

I don’t think I’ll get through our entire curriculum before the test.

Part of the blame for failing to get through the curriculum before the test rests with the curriculum designers, who really did jam the proverbial kitchen sink into the sixth grade pacing guide. 

Need proof?  Then check out this PARTIAL list of “essential” vocabulary words and tell me whether or not you think it’s possible for teachers to engage sixth graders in a meaningful exploration of this content in one year:

Conduction, Convection, Radiation, Heat Transfer, Mediums, Frequency, Amplitude, Pitch, Wavelength, Longitudinal Waves, Transverse Waves, Trough, Crest, Rarefaction, Compression, Electromagnetic Energy, Disturbances.

Melting Point, Boiling Point, Solubility, Solute, Solvent, Saturation, Phase Changes.

Density, Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic, Oceanic Crust, Continental Crust, Plate Tectonics, Alfred Wegener, Convergent Boundaries, Divergent Boundaries, Transform Boundaries, Primary Waves, Secondary Waves, Surface Waves, Parent Rock, Contour Plowing.

Eclipses, Phases of the Moon, Tidal Patterns, Hubble Telescope, International Space Station, Fermi-Gamma-Ray Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Gravitational Force.

And part of the blame for failing to get through the curriculum before the test rests with the calendar writers, who have my students taking our end of grade exam almost THREE FULL WEEKS before our school year actually ends.

If I had another three weeks to work with my students, I’d get through the curriculum without any trouble.

But most of the blame for failing to get through the entire curriculum before the test rests with me.  After all, I spent a TON of class periods covering things that AREN’T going to be tested.

Here’s what we were “wasting our time” on:

Sustained Silent Reading:  My interdisciplinary team made the decision long ago to do silent reading once a week in every classroom.  Our thinking was that students need daily time to read silently AND need to see EVERY teacher as a reader.

We’re PRETTY sure that this time is well spent. Our team is full of passionate readers this year who love talking about books with us.

A colleague stopped by the library the other day while we were reading and asked how we got our kids to be so quiet during SSR time.  My answer: Give kids chances to read every single day.

Time “Wasted”:  30 minutes per week, or two class periods per month.  16 total class periods.


Teaching the Nonfiction Reading Skills in the Common Core Curriculum:  Science teachers in North Carolina have been buried in training around the literacy standards for social studies, science and the technical subjects in the Common Core curriculum this year.

In fact, it was the PRIMARY professional development that I received — and the expectation was that science teachers would integrate nonfiction reading lessons into their curriculum.

Convinced that teaching students the skills necessary for being literate consumers of scientific text and literate participants in scientific conversations, my learning team jumped into that instruction with two feet.  Check out the lessons that we developed.

Not bad, huh?

Here’s the problem:  NONE of those skills will be tested on the fact-driven “measures of student learning” exams that my kids have to take.  Of course, the language arts teacher on our team is probably jazzed that I spent so much time teaching nonfiction  skills like identifying bias and evaluating evidence, but it ain’t going to help me.

Time “Wasted”:  4 two-day lessons.  A total of 8 class periods.


Introducing Information Technology Standards:  Here in North Carolina, there is a required Information Technology curriculum that has to be delivered by core area teachers.

That curriculum is actually pretty solid — it addresses essential themes like teaching students to manage and evaluate information in online spaces and encouraging kids to use digital tools to publish for wider audiences.

On my interdisciplinary team, most of those lessons happen in my classroom simply because I’m comfortable with introducing students to digital tools and spaces.  Wrote a book about it, even.

To address those standards, I had my students work in groups to use Diigo to create a shared collection of resources connected to the New York City Soda Ban — a high-interest topic that played a role in our nonfiction reading work.  Check out the lesson here.

We also talked about the characteristics of collaborative dialogue — and then practiced those skills by engaging in a VoiceThread conversation about the New York City Soda Ban.  You can see the conversation here and explore the lessons here.

Again — not bad stuff, huh?

But nothing in these lessons is going to be tested either — even though it IS a part of the required curriculum that students are supposed to be introduced to.

Time “Wasted”:  8 class periods.


Spending Two-Weeks Introducing the Scientific Method with an Actual Lab: Probably the worst decision that I made this year was deciding to start the year by introducing the scientific method with a lab activity.

We spent the first few weeks using different liquids and materials to explore density — the ONE theme that appears again and again in the content of our curriculum.

It was a pretty awesome experience for the  kids.

They know little about density when they come to sixth grade, so watching liquids separate out even after they are mixed and shaken vigorously raises a TON of wonder questions in their minds — and because density appears so frequently in our curriculum, I’ve been able to use that experience as a starting point for a thousand conversations in our study of the required curriculum.

What I loved the most, though, was watching groups ask their own density-related extension questions — and then try to figure out how they could (1). develop a lab to test their hypothesis and (2). communicate their findings with others.  Those are fundamental scientific behaviors, right?

Unfortunately, they’re not TESTED scientific behaviors.

Time “Wasted”:  8 class periods.


Allowing Students to Ask and Answer their Own Wonder Questions:  One of my favorite goals in the Common Core writing standards for science and social studies argues that students should be able to “conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.”

That’s AWESOME, isn’t it?

We are LITERALLY saying that students should be spending regular time in schools asking and then researching answers for their OWN questions.

To tackle this goal, I started the year by having my kids spend 5-10 minutes at the end of each class period recording interesting questions connected to the content that we were studying.

Then, at the end of the quarter, students had an entire class period to study one of the questions that they had generated during the quarter.

That practice, sadly, was pushed aside at the beginning of the second semester when I realized that we were going to run out of time before testing season started.

To ensure that my kids were prepared to ANSWER questions, I stopped having them ASK questions — but not before we’d “wasted” another chunk of valuable instructional minutes.

Time “Wasted”:  5-10 minutes per day, or two class periods per month for one semester.  8 total class periods.


If my math is right, that means I spent 48 class periods on things that AREN’T going to be tested.  That WAS a foolish decision, right?

I should have known better than to spend so much time encouraging reading, introducing the skills necessary to tackle nonfiction text, teaching about the role that technology can play in making learning easier, developing the core behaviors of scientists, and allowing my kids to ask and answer their own questions.


Never mind the fact that EVERY one of those skills is a part of one of the three different required curricula that I’m supposed to teach or that EVERY one of those skills are skills that sophisticated, responsible learners must master in order to be “college and career ready.”

The only thing that matters right now is that NONE of those skills will show up on our “measures of student learning” exam, so spending time on them was a decision that I’ll pay for when my students struggle to answer questions about Contour Plowing, Pangaea, Geotropism,  the Chandra X-Ray Observatory or the Fermi-Gamma Ray Telescope in a few weeks.

Unless I get lucky and the 35 multiple choice questions chosen by test writers all cover the content that I DID get through, the results could be disastrous:  My “value-added score” will be low, “needs-improvement” will be slapped next to my name, and I’ll be placed on a terminating contract all in the name of “holding teachers accountable.”

I won’t make the same mistake twice, y’all.  

Science is going to look a lot different in my room next year.  Whether I like it or not, the content that is tested will get WAY more attention than the content that isn’t — and I’m pretty sure that’s NOT a good thing.



Related Radical Reads:

 The Monster You’ve Created

Stuffing Kids with Content

What DO We Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do


  • MeL

    Excellent points!

    Thank you for writing about some very “real” things that are happening when we standardize education to the fullest extent in our country. I appreciate your truths, but I am afraid that the public simply does not care nor do our legislators. In Florida, teacher evaluation scores actually decrease because (in most cases) our evaluations are tied to school scores. Sadly, our evaluation scores are tied to students who have never entered my classroom, students who have never met me, and students who do not even know my name or what I teach. Additionally, administrator evaluations of the teachers have become more and more SUBJECTIVE rather than OBJECTIVE. I have to teach 10 more years before I can retire from this profession. I teach in one of the highest performing counties in Florida (Seminole County) and our school board has not given teachers a raise in almost eight years. The governor of Florida promised all teachers an “immediate raise”, however, the Florida legislators want to tie this “promised” raise to our evaluations and teachers may not see this raise until 2014. Politics, politicians, administrators who interpret Marzano’s Art and Science of Teaching incorrectly…they are destroying education and veteran teachers.

  • Cassandra Ott

    How testing changes teaching

    Thank you for this.  If only politicians and the general public would listen.  Quality teachers and quality administrators know that what you were able to do this year is true quality instruction, and that teaching to a test should not be the focus of the classroom.  This is not to say that there shouldn’t be standards that we adhere to, or that a multiple-choice, standardized test can’t be one (hopefully not too large) part of the equation that measures instruction, but you clearly recognize that.

    I’d write more, but I’m off to test training (also a teacher in N.C., btw, so I get the whole “kitchen sink” comment).

    Hopefully you won’t have to give it all up to teach to the test…keep fighting the good fight–there’s more of us out there than we realize, I think…

  • Becky von St. Paul

    Changing teaching because of tests
    I’ve been a secondary classroom teacher for over 30 years, and I really don’t get your complaints. If you think that the MSL’s won’t test how well your students read and how well they think, then you haven’t seen the EOC’s that have tested science in high schools in the past. Your students WILL have to be able to read effectively to understand and answer the questions, so spending time reading is NOT wasting time on something that won’t be tested. Being able to reason through a problem and suggest ways to use scientific method to solve the problem will also be tested, so your lesson on density was not wasted time either. And “connecting the dots” (aka independent thinking skills) will also be tested, so your questioning activity is not a waste either.

    And if you thought the curriculum was too packed, then you should have been speaking up about that for years. It has always been your job to cover the curriculum–that’s not anything new. As a high school teacher, I know that many of our feeder middle schools do NOT follow the curriculum because very bright students come to my Honors Chemistry class and know nothing of how to use a balance, a graduated cylinder or a meter stick, much less any of the content knowledge they are supposed to have. I’m glad that you DO try to follow what you are supposed to teach. But being asked to follow a curriculum is nothing new–the new part is being held accountable for not following it.

    I have been through many phases of testing in my career including EOC’s in Chemistry, Biology, Physical Science and Physics and AP Exams in Chemistry and Physics. I have always taught the curriculum and never taught the test, and my students have always had excellent scores on their standardized tests. If you teach them basic skills, how to think and cover 80% of the topics in the curriculum, they will blow the top off of the common exams.

    And the result that is being used to measure your “value added” is not what your students actually score, but how they perform compared to a projection that comes from their previous years of testing. If they grow in your class at the same rate they have grown in previous years (and that is different for each student), you are meeting expectations. I suspect your students are growing more. I think we are in the same school system, so if your “value added score” comes up to say you “need improvement” and your description really tells what you do in your class, I will buy you lunch at any place you like in Wake County. (And that’s a generous offer from somebody who hasn’t had a cost of living raise in many years.) Don’t worry about the tests. Teach your kids well and it all works out. And PLEASE don’t stop teaching reading and thinking.

  • Barbara Isasi-Brown

    English as a Second Language (ESL)

    Current topic of #TeachingforEducation or #TeachingforLearning.  It’s getting to the point where my students tell me they sometimes “don’t have time to read for fun” viz the worksheets or other things they are being required to do. I realized yesterday afternoon that I had made one class very unhappy, when I had gone into “test” mode. Thank goodness a colleague in whom I had confided had the insight  to help me realize my error and that students can get burnt out and turn off to learning when we insist they fit into a square hole.  Today we went back to choice, with some students choosing to do test prep, because that was what they wanted to do.  I can feel your pain.  My husband teaches 6th grade and will have MSLs this year.  Our school will not have the MSLs until next year.  I, too, cringe. 

  • Jennifer Long

    I’ve been saying this similar

    I’ve been saying this similar thing for years in regards to the Language Arts standards.   As a Language Arts teacher with anchor standars in Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking, and Language, ONLY the Reading and a fraction of the Language standards are tested on the EOG for which my evaluation is now based.  If my evaluation and potentially my teaching contract are based on this test, which standards should I spend my class time teaching?  What happens to a whole state where all Language Arts teachers have to make that decision?  That doesn’t even address the time I’ve “wasted” with activities as you’ve described.  It was Einstein who said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” 

  • AmandaZullo

    It sounds to me like you

    It sounds to me like you covered exactly the correct material, testable or not. As an HS science teacher, I am fearful about the interest my students are going to enter class with. If student interest in the ‘awesomeness’ of science is lost, no students will be college or career ready for anything even close to math/science/technology.

  • Pam Kolarich

    You are not alone

    Pedagogy in the natural state of learning by experience, is soon going to be a thing of the past as educators are forced into a defensive mode of “teaching for the test”. The experiences you are having in N.C. are what we are also experiencing here in Georgia. When i look in my science  lab cabinets at the equipment and supplies and reflect on the science I did with my students 10 years ago with what we cram in before testing now, and I shed silent tears for the future of our youth and of our country as we them to respond tp tests instead of life.