The Impact of High-Stakes Tests on Instruction – Part 2

New assessments have arrived.

Both Common Core and non-Common Core states, for the most part, are in the midst of a standards revolution and are subsequently adopting new corresponding assessments. I’m sure you know this. It would be impossible to have missed the uproar.

In many cases the designers of these assessments have attempted to address more accurately the kinds of rigorous work that we want students to be doing daily in classrooms, versus the shallow, formulaic and multiple-choice questions of old. (This naturally means, by the way, that we cannot reasonably expect to see immediate success until our curriculum and instruction catches up to these new standards—so everyone just breathe!)

This is a good thing, right? We should be celebrating. But here’s the rub. In response to “the testing years,” we have developed a whole school culture around test preparation. We have tailored a great deal of our curriculum and scheduled days, weeks, and months of instructional time to prepare our students to succeed on standardized tests. And now we are left scratching our heads. What do you do with new assessments designed to address rigorous classroom learning when we have abandoned much of that rigorous classroom learning in favor of test preparation?

Inquiry By Design has created a number of workshops to address this instructional conundrum. I was recently facilitating one such workshop, Writing for College and Career Readiness. We spent the day working with an intriguing article—“Slow Ideas” by Atul Gawande (from Spreading Innovations, our Grade 11 microcourse for Reading and Writing Reports of Information).

We read the article, studied its structure, studied the craft and style of the writing, discussed the ideas in small and large groups, applied Gawande’s ideas in our own written text-based responses, discussed our responses, conducted peer reviews, revised with a particular lens, edited our drafts, and then debriefed the whole process to reflect on the instruction and pedagogy that had been modeled. Whew!

I felt like it had gone well. Participants had stayed engaged and energized throughout, despite it being a hard day’s work. (It is called a workshop, after all.) I was, however, a little surprised and baffled at one of the written comments received afterward.

“I thought we were going to talk about writing for college and career. I wish we would have addressed that.”


I showed the comment to the district leader who organized the day. He gave me a knowing nod. “They were expecting you to teach test-taking strategies. They thought they’d go away with tools for practice-writing test items and questions. They want to know how to prepare students for the new assessments.”

Ah-ha! But see, here’s the second rub; that’s exactly what we did in the workshop.

This IS how to prepare students for the new assessments; close reading of challenging and engaging texts, writing text-based responses, discussion, more reading, more writing, and more discussion. That’s it. That’s the way to help students succeed with our new standards and our new assessments, and with college, and with careers. No tricks, no gimmicks, and no short cuts. In fact, feeding students test items and calling it writing instruction produces the opposite of college and career readiness. Here’s how I know that.

Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer conducted a four-year national study of writing instruction and published the results in the 2013 book Writing Instruction That Works. They concluded that assessments are what guide writing instruction for the most part, and when the assessments are low-quality, instruction suffers tremendously. Their research shows that schools and students are currently suffering from poor writing instruction, in large part because of the assessments that have guided instruction for the last 30 years. In general they discovered that

  • Students are doing very little writing.
  • Students are primarily doing short writing.
  • Students are doing very little thinking in the writing they’re asked to do. (i.e. writing without composing):
    • Copying information directly from the teacher’s presentation.
    • Completing worksheets and chapter summaries.
    • Filling in “known” information into highly formulaic structures.

The problem here is that

“Writing that is short does not provide students with opportunities ‘to use composing as a way to think through issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to go beyond what they know in making connections and raising new issues’ (Applebee & Langer, 2011).

The conclusion is inescapable: if students are taught to read and write well, they will do fine on mandated tests. But if they are only taught to be test takers, they will never learn to read and write well. The way to prepare students for the test is to stop teaching to the test.


Want to jump back and read part 1 of this series? Let’s go.

Click in next week to learn more about Not Teaching to The Test.