(Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

What are the effects of over-testing on students? Mary Tedrow, who teaches high school English in Virginia, explains. Tedrow co-directs the Northern Virginia Writing Project and is a National Board Certified Teacher as well as a member and past fellow of the Teacher Leaders Network. She blogs at Walking to School.


By Mary Tedrow

About a dozen years ago, I read commentary by a teacher who lived and taught in Scotland as part of a teacher exchange program.  She admitted that many of her colleagues might have found the assignment a dream teaching experience.  All of the students were respectful and quiet.

The teacher despaired, however, because she felt her classes were “lifeless.” Attempts to engage students in discussion or debate fell flat.  When a student raised a hand to ask a question, the teacher rejoiced but found the question was always the same: “Will this be on the test?”  She admitted that the American character—one where kids are encouraged to think for themselves, to argue a point, or simply question authority—may make classrooms less orderly, but they at least crackle with conversation and thought.

Until 2003, the Scottish system of education resembled the one I currently teach in.  The education department scrapped the program because it had created an emphasis on testing rather than teaching.

I teach in a high school and currently work with seniors.  My students have never known anything but testing in their public school education.  Between fifth and eighth grades, these Virginia students took 34 high stakes tests.   That’s even before they face the End of Course testing in all the core areas needed for graduation.

By the time they reach me the Zombification is complete. My students are the walking dead whose brains have been eaten away.

Here is how that horde of zombies, and the whiff of continual testing, has invaded my room:

When pushing my politely passive juniors to engage in some narrative writing, a student, who noted my despair at their lack of interest, spoke confidently for the group, “Don’t worry Mrs. Tedrow, we’ll pass the test.”   He was right.  They passed handily; an admittedly low bar for reading and writing that seems to have become the new high bar (and yet can still be a struggle for our most impoverished children and second language learners—but that’s another issue.)

I wasn’t worried about the test.  I was hoping to engage students in writing as an opportunity to express their own truth, to see story from the writer’s side of the desk., to find an audience they cared about.  The reflection would result in a statement of their beliefs drawn from experience.  They knew they could pass our test without expending the energy needed, savvy test-takers that they are, and logically engaged minimally.

When directed to respond to a reading a student looks at me blankly:  “What do you mean respond?’

“I mean, write what you think about what you read.”

“What I think?”

“Yes.  You read all of that, what do you think about it?”

“I don’t think anything.”

I wish I could say that this student was trying to avoid work, but he seemed sincerely baffled.  I didn’t want a summary or a right or wrong answer.  I wanted a reaction.

My students are great kids, but they are passively polite like the Scottish counterpartsMost of the time they make it clear that the work in the classroom is irrelevant.

By the time they reach the senior year they have run the gamut of the testing industry and think they know something.  But this has been a cruel hoax.  They do not know much about themselves.   They may know things (or they may not, since most seem to jettison the material once the testing hurdle is behind them) but between those things are huge gaping holes in understanding as well as a yawning breach where their future plans, insights into their gifts, strengths, and interests should lie.

The top students are most compliant.  Because they want to go to college—for what they are not sure—they are adept at asking the “Will this be on the test?” question and will dutifully comply if AP or SAT is appended to the assignment.   But they have not read particularly widely or enthusiastically, nor are they comfortable with open-ended assignments.  They rely heavily on rubrics  as guides to produce a top product—not to create independently, fight back, work outside the box, or find their own voice.  By senior year these kids want a BOX so they can dash off the work and move on, thinking they are now fully educated.

For the most part, my students are passive, polite, and massively bored.

There is a canard in teaching: “What you spend your time on is what your student’s value.”  And hyperventilating adults have spent a lot of time on tests, tests, tests.

We also live by, “What is tested is what is taught.”  Our students are not dumb.  They have gotten the message: the tests are important—and what is tested is pretty minimal and has a clear box you can fit into.

They are passive because they have been given no reason to be otherwise. This is the ultimate danger of extrinsic motivations like end-of-course testing.  It does not come from within, it is imposed from without.  In that system compliance, not drive, is rewarded.

Another truth of education, yours and mine, is that we build our own learning from a series of experiences in which we are actively involved.  We need experience for both language acquisition and idea formation.

Then we need to reflect on those experiences and move forward again—ideally asking and seeking answers to our own questions.  The current generation of students is experience deprived and steeped in learning as abstraction.  They need something real to hang on to.

The sad part is that the experiment we have been running on our students for the past decade has been run before, and we already know the outcome.   We need only look at countries like Scotland where at least some of their tests were ditched because of the hollowing out of instruction and the lack of student engagement.

The voucher program, along with privatization of public schools, has also had its run in Chile and the electorate there is up in arms.  The United States imposed the Milton Friedman education-as-free-enterprise experiment on the people of Chile in 1980.  And now, 34 years later the electorate has had enough.  The voucher has widened the economic and achievement gap and created its own generation of zombies.

Students staged a “Thriller” routine in 2011 to protest their lifeless education and today still continue to fight for a free, public education.

They know what they are not getting.

Testing and privatization are both bad for education and for democracy.  We need an electorate that can think for itself.  We are getting just the opposite.