The perverse incentives of”teaching to the test”

When I was around ten years old, the ITBS took over. And then it was the CRCT and the EOCT. I don’t remember much about it, as blissfully unaware of its larger context and certain to pass as I was. Standardized testing is intended to be a meaningful measure of progress, but my memories are completely different: waiting for Goldfish at snack break, trying to finish more quickly than my classmates, playing games after my class had finished but the testing period wasn’t over. Testing, it seemed, was an opportunity no longer to learn but to play – as I recall, I looked forward to testing week, mostly due to the presence of snacks that I found to be much higher quality than our usual haul.

Here’s what is weird about that memory: those tests were actually Big Deals. Really Big Deals. But I took it with my “advanced” math class – because even as ten year olds, we were already tracked by ability, and because we were sure to excel, it was an opportunity to breeze through the multiple choice and then play, to bang on the old piano in our trailer and drive our teacher crazy. No doubt down the hall my peers were not so nonchalant – those who had been taught through tracking that they were “on-level,” or worse, “below average” and feared that this test might only reinforce that idea. National standardized testing gets the most flack, and while its well-deserved, a reflection on how the testing craze has swept internal teaching styles is important, too. How can I forgot my racing heart as I waited to hear my name listed with the kids who excelled at the math placement test each year? It was a social faux pas to be anything but “accelerated,” and I always feared hearing my name among the “advanced” or “on-level” kids. As a ten year old, my self-worth should not have been defined by whose classroom I went to during math time, but it seemed then that our intellectual capabilities had already been set and we could only hope that we made the cut.

The problem I’m pointing out should be clear. This is Perverse Incentive #1: over-emphasizing on testing creates a culture – one in which ten-year-olds consider intelligence a static binary and fear they’ll never amount to anything if they don’t test well. Early tracking patterns bear much of the responsibility, but they, too, are a response to testing – hoping to prepare each student according to their perceived and often inaccurate ability.

Among the many other perverse incentives out there, Perverse Incentive #2 is particularly big and bizarre: cheating. In 2015, a judge found 11 Atlanta Public Schools teachers guilty on charges of racketeering. How did they get to that point? Certainly the nuances make it difficult to blame testing alone, but it is naive to discount testing or to downplay its influence. In 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a critique of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs), Georgia’s standardized test, which showed improbable scores. An investigation by the GBI ultimately concluded that dozens of schools and administrators in APS cheated on their tests. Rather than blaming this on individual teachers or their implicated superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall, import must be assigned to the culture behind the cheating. The stress and pressure of “teaching to a test,” of performing well in low-income schools, must be held partially responsible for the scandal. Anything that leads significant proportions of an organization or community to act in such a way must be scrutinized — and changed. While some of the teachers implicated have faced their legal consequences, the larger testing industry has not. Something has to change, and it has to include dismantling the testing culture.

A student’s score should not be the basis for their level of self-worth or perceived capabilities. To create lasting improvement and positive change within schools, the culture must be changed first.

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3 Responses to The perverse incentives of”teaching to the test”

  1. claire.s says:

    Thank you so much for your post mayjax. The preverse incentives that you presented really get down to the core of the disadvantages of rigorous standardized testing. I think that the over-emphasis on test scores really does influence how individuals see themselves as students. When students are told that high test scores are the chief indicators of intelligence, they label themselves as smart or not. It initiates a positive feedback loop that determines how students engage with their education because individuals naturally rise or fall to meet what they think is expected of them. It seems ridiculous that anyone could determine a 10 year old’s potential in life based on a test at the end of the year, but I think that you are right that that is the message that standardized tests send to students. The weight placed on standardized testing by policy, school systems, and teachers conveys to students that these tests show how they will perform throughout the rest of their education — basically whether they should take honors and AP classes and prepare for college or not. This reminded me of an especially disturbing fact that I remember hearing a few years ago linked here — — In 2013, private prisons were reported to be using 3rd grade test scores to determine a plan for prison beds. Shocking and horrifying, but just goes to solidify the amount that society thinks test scores determine one’s “track” in life.

    Last comment: Perverse incentive #2 reminded me of something Dan Katz said to us. He said that with such high consequences placed on student test scores, we cannot expect all teachers and school districts to achieve those scores honorably. Confirms your statement that all the blame cannot be placed on the teachers or the schools themselves, but rather the extreme culture of testing that led them to feel the need to cheat in order to stay afloat.

    Again, thanks for your post, really enjoyed reading it!


  2. juniperonjupiter says:

    I loved your post, mayjax! Your Perverse Incentive #1 really does play into the “fixed” theory of intelligence mindset vs. the “growth” theory of intelligence mindset that psychologist Carol Dweck identified. Schools ought to be in the conscious practice of encouraging the growth mindset in all their students, as opposed to establishing the fixed mindset that discourages trying.

    The cheating you talk about in Perverse Incentive #2 is unfortunate but in no way surprising: how can people not want to game such a high-stakes system?


  3. sydneymitchell17 says:

    I completely agree with what you had to say mayjax! I think that it is seriously awful that some students are left with the embarrassment of not being placed in an accelerated class! I think that it was really interesting that your memories were of the snacks you got during testing week, I can relate to this as well, this was a big deal to me and other students in my classes, sadly!


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