Surviving Standardized

K-12 Testing

As the use of standardized tests once again escalates nationally, this time with often greater consequences for students, teachers and schools, a critical question faces educators: Is it possible to prepare students for the tests without undermining the quality of education?


In A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests, Lucy Calkins, Kate Montgomery and Donna Santman, of the Teachers College (Columbia) Reading and Writing Project, argue that teachers can prepare students for the tests while maintaining intellectually and emotionally rich curriculum and instruction. The book is a response to the problems caused by making high-stakes decisions about schools, educators and students on the basis of test scores.


The authors argue that if teachers don't understand the exams well enough, they can neither successfully challenge them nor properly help children perform better. But the solution to low reading scores is not to allow the test to become or control the curriculum.


The authors support holistic and constructivist approaches to teaching literacy. They note that often there is not enough reading in the curriculum and that in the U.S. children don't read very much. They describe a number of activities which focus on strengthening students' engagement in and success at reading, which they believe also will help on the tests. They add recommendations which are intended primarily to help with the tests but which are compatible with high-quality instruction, such as silent reading of a variety of texts at appropriate levels of difficulty, including texts at least as long as the test passages.


The book provides detailed guidance on proper test preparation. Some of the tips are well known to those familiar with test coaching, such as reading the answers before the reading passage. However, with younger readers this can backfire, as they may not be able to manage this approach. Thus, the authors deliver a critically important message: what will work for some students will not work for others.


What is fundamental, say the authors, is to approach the tests as texts which students need to approach critically. Often, test preparation in K-12 programs is treated as a matter of repetitive practice. But, as with other areas of learning, understanding the tests and what the testmakers want should undergird practice. Thus, the book shows ways students can learn to analyze the tests while improving their reading abilities.


Further issues of test interpretation are discussed, such as the point that just one question can make a large difference in a student's percentile rank. Such issues provide an opening for educating the public and discussing the tests with parents, the public and school boards.


While bad tests can be prepared for in ways that minimize their destructive impact, that is not the same thing as having high quality assessments. The authors push educators to become involved in the policy arena as advocates for "a kinder, fairer, and more open system of assessment," including strengthened classroom assessment capabilities on the part of teachers.



A Teacher's Guide is a valuable contribution to all those who need to understand how to survive the tests. There are, however, dangers associated with this book. First, a focus on surviving the tests could detract from combating them. True, teachers will be far more persuasive about the limits and dangers of the tests if their children are doing well than if they are doing poorly. However, waiting to do well on the tests before attempting to eliminate them or drastically reduce their power would be a serious mistake that the book could inadvertently encourage.


In at least one case, a school principal used this book to justify giving tests more control over curriculum and instruction. That is a misuse of the book, but one that can, unfortunately, be expected, since the book argues for addressing, not ignoring, the tests.


Finally, educators may wonder about the applicability of this book for high school students or for subjects other than reading. The test understanding and preparation activities should be substantially transferable. It may be that reading tests are the most susceptible to score improvement efforts that do not undermine appropriate curriculum and instruction. In science and social studies, for example, the tests often vastly over-emphasize memorization of facts and terms, and there may be no educationally sound way to prepare students for such exams. Whether this hypothesis is true will require further study.


Meanwhile, since no test scores are more important to the public and policymakers than reading scores, it would be useful to raise those while actually improving instruction. Used properly, this book could help teachers do that. Simultaneously, the effort to reduce the power of the tests must continue.


-- Heinemann, 361 Hanover St., Portsmouth, NH 03801;; $17.50.


-- Note: FairTest's Monty Neill served as an outside reader of the drafts of the book.