Forget the Standard: Teaching in the Time of Testing

It is now five years since the Common Core State Standards were introduced, the newest […]


It is now five years since the Common Core State Standards were introduced, the newest governmental answer to educational plight in America, and still it seems that no one really knows what they are—and if they do know what they are, chances are they don’t like them. It has been called (critically) a “one size fits all” policy, a nation-wide rubric for assessing whether America’s public school kids are learning what they ought to be learning. As Andrew Ferguson wrote this week in the Standard Weekly, it is one more reform scientifically stamped by the Gates Foundation’s “technocrats” and “educationists”, hoping to find a reproducible answer (however abstractly) to a reproducing problem.

Once the states fell into line, the department paid another $330 million for two state consortiums to hire educationists to devise Common Core tests. These will measure how well students are rising to the Standards, and those results, in turn, will be used to evaluate how well individual teachers are teaching them. The new tests will replace tests that each state had to develop over the last few years in response to [No Child Left Behind]. Those tests cost a lot of money too—money down the drain. In fact, many school districts were still introducing the NCLB tests when word came down that Common Core would require new tests to replace the old tests. Educationists are always on the go.

The Common Core is supposed to be the answer to No Child Left Behind (2001). No Child Left Behind the answer to Goals 2000 (1994). Goals 2000, the answer to America 2000 (1990). America 2000, the answer to what Reagan called “A Nation at Risk” (1983). All of them have been or are data-driven, assessable solutions to the muddled and thorny landscape of nationwide educational inequity. And, as Ferguson writes, “The logic of education reform always points to more education reform.”

Are the “educationists” just not getting the memo? Is something awry in education policy when more government money is spent on an American public school child than any other in the world, and the biggest payoff is more reform? What gives?


Rachel Aviv’s piece in the most recent New Yorker points to yes, the greater issue at hand being that it’s not the reform, but the assessability of that reform that proves counterproductive. Telling the story of an Atlanta area public school (now defunct), and one of their beloved (now defunct) teachers, Aviv shows how assessable, high-stakes success can be the death of an education, and of a teacher.

Damany Lewis taught math at Parks Middle School, a struggling school in a poor suburb of Atlanta, and was seen by the faculty and student body as a “star teacher” and an inspirational presence with the kids and their community. When he came on as a teacher, the school was in bad shape, but as years went on, it began to see a lot of improvement—and Lewis’ kind of love was seen as a shining example of that. He was showcased in a documentary on the school, doing laundry for kids, running them home after practices, even letting a student live with him because his home life was too unstable for any kind of support or care. Slowly, Parks Middle School was becoming a center for community support again.

Reform moved quicker, though. Beverly Hall, who was hired in 1999 as Atlanta’s school superintendent, began pushing for proven performance.

Hall belonged to a movement of reformers who believed that the values of the marketplace could resuscitate public education. She approached the job like a business executive: she courted philanthropists, set accountability measures, and created performance objectives that were more rigorous than those required by No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002. When a school met its targets, all employees, including bus drivers and cafeteria staff, received up to two thousand dollars. She linked teacher evaluations to test scores and warned principals that they’d be fired if they didn’t meet targets within three years. Eventually, ninety per cent were replaced. She repeated the mantra “No exceptions and no excuses.”

One of the principals replaced was Parks’ principal, who was replaced by Christopher Waller:

Rhee Time CoverWaller was burly and freckled, and, at thirty-one, he was the youngest principal in the district. After a week of introductory meetings he saw that the district prioritized testing results more than any other place he’d ever worked did. “All decisions have to be made by data—you have to be baptized in it,” he told me. “I lived it, slept it, ate it.”

In other words, the school moved from the organic practice of meeting needs and supporting the community, to the targeted action towards planned results. The patient and mysterious work of educating middle schoolers became the relentless pursuit of an achievable (and accountable) result. Waller’s disposition changed, though, when the school foundered at the impossible expectations:

Waller (said) that the targets—set by the district’s Department of Research, Planning, and Accountability—were unrealistic. It took a quarter of the year just to gain students’ trust. Two students, he said, were raped in the neighborhood that year. Others lived alone, with neither parent at home, or were on the verge of being placed in juvenile detention. When a student was arrested for stealing cars, Waller went to court and asked the judge not to send him to jail. Waller told me, “The administration wanted to move kids out of poverty—I do believe that. But test scores could not be the only means.” When Waller expressed his concerns, [the administration] reiterated that Hall accepted no excuses, and told him, “The way principals keep their jobs in Atlanta is they make targets.”

It was here that the question—and pressure—opened the door to cheating. In a system by which you are kept alive only by reaching an unreachable standard, what are your options? And what if it is obvious that those under the same kind of pressure are choosing to disregard the standard? Waller and Lewis, out of regard for their students and community, chose to disregard the power the Test, in order to keep their jobs. In order that the school could continue being what it was for the community, Lewis said he felt that “it was my sole obligation to never let that happen.”

Jesus says it: “If one of you has a child (or a school) that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And similarly “those (teachers and administrators) who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.”

The inevitable scandal broke. Every teacher at Parks that had decided to cheat, confessed they had, and were fired. But it wasn’t just Parks Middle School; it was an entire ring of APS educators, all bypassing the standards for the sake of their jobs and their students.

After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.” They wrote that data had been “used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.” Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make the targets or be placed on Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination. At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.


A spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators said, “Our teachers’ best qualities—their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students as individuals—are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren’t measurable.”

If you’re hearing the law-versus-Spirit conundrum here, good. This is a modern-day parable to the Galatians. It’s hard not to do a bit of self-promotion here, especially since the first issue of The Mockingbird had not one, but two essays that find allegiance with these teachers, not because their cheating was excusable, but because, as Goodhart’s Law states, “As soon as a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Will McDavid writes:

How do you measure holiness in a person, in yourself? The problem is almost impossible to solve…I would say that Goodhart’s Law is amplified in church. Where are we, as human beings, more invested than in the righteousness offered by our own religions? And whether it’s the church, the synagogue, the family, the gym, what occupies our minds more than freedom from guilt, moral satisfaction, even the desire to be good people? And if this is true, then we will tend to make spiritual measures into targets to an almost absurd extent.

And I can’t help but continue the education-based visual aid by quoting from my Teach For America story, the whole of which you can read in that issue of the magazine. In that experience I found the same pressure, maybe not to cheat necessarily, but certainly to exchange an indecipherable problem into a decipherable one, to turn teaching into a measurable (and therefore defendable) string of tests passed. To make it make sense. I certainly wanted that when one of my students (who I re-named Marvin) came back to school after his dad was murdered:

(In Teach For America) there is also something called “Kind-Hearted Prejudice” which must be avoided at all costs. Kind-Hearted Prejudice is the tendency, out of sympathy with a child’s experience or home life or academic history, to pre-judge the child as incapable of handling the challenge. TFA’s DCA Workbook says this:

Recognize that problems that are outside your control do not necessarily mean a lack of achievement-related solutions…Maintain your convictions about the value of academic achievement despite your (possible) unfamiliarity with students’ lives and lifestyles.

I certainly did not have familiarity with this situation, and I certainly did not have any insights into Marvin’s “Cultural Learning Styles” when it came to a father’s homicide. But there seemed to me something foolishly un-kind in prancing on about my expectations for him and his achievement in my class. My class didn’t mean anything to him right then, and the kid may not have known it, but he was doing exactly what he needed to be doing, and probably all he could have been doing. This moment showed me two things: first, that the solutions I was hired to provide were completely incompatible to the solution needed at that moment and, second, that the solution needed there had to do with what I had thought teaching was going to be about.

Maybe this means I was a bad candidate for TFA all along. Maybe so. It certainly became apparent that, as my time in the classroom went on, I saw their metrics for “achievement” to have been far too shallow to deal with such things. What is achievement at the expense of a wasted, mournful afternoon? What is achievement but a classroom learning to recognize and empathize with a kid in the depths of tragedy? But there’s no Big Idea substandard there, no rubricked qualifiers to align our responses to. Perhaps it’s better that way—mercy defies being relegated to the corner of an End-of-Year Growth Chart (Standard M-3: Mercy, Beginning Proficiency), and it never will lend dependable data. But it made the teaching of children a handmaiden to the metric.



subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


9 responses to “Forget the Standard: Teaching in the Time of Testing”

  1. Joey Shook says:

    Good stuff here, Ethan. Have you ever seen season 4 of The Wire? It touches on a lot of these issues with a similar sentiment.

  2. Adam Shields says:

    I think, like the discussion between grace and law, this discussion of Common Core confuses a number of things that are not actually Common Core.

    1) Common Core is a set of standards
    2) Evaluation means something. If you don’t evaluate, then you have no idea where you are. You can guess, you can makes assumptions, but those ‘technocrats’ believe that evaluating is actually the way you understand.

    The problem comes in that there is another group of people (not primarily those that are pushing Common Core) that believe that teachers should be held accountable for student scores. I agree, that is a bad plan. That incentives good teachers to teach good students at good schools instead of encouraging good teachers to work with problem students at poor schools. It is certainly been shown that the lowest quality teachers usually end up teaching to the economically poorest teachers.

    I think you are exactly right, that when the test is the goal, not the means to understand, there is a problem. And I think that problem comes when schools are political branches and politicians (usually with very little educational background) think that solving a problem is easy. Combine that with the fact that the average school superintendent serves approximately 2 years and you end up with reform, after reform after reform, many of which have no good educational foundation.

    Connecting this back to Law vs Grace. This is the justification vs sanctification debate again. We are saved (justified) by grace. But if there is anything we should know as evangelicals, it is that salvation should not be the end. There should be growth, growth doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens with intention.

    Schools can grow without a national system of standards. But without a national system of standards there is not a way to understand the context of that growth. Chicago, a system I know very well, was under a lot of scrutiny during the teacher strike last year. It was described as a failing school system that has made no progress. But No Child Left Behind, for all of its problems, required measurement. In 2000 before No Child graduation rate was about 40% and only about 20% of students were on grade level. Now in 2014, after years of evaluation and measurement and standards (although they do keep changing the goals and the tools of measurement) the graduation rate is over 60% and nearly half of students are on grade level. Is it a failing system? Maybe, but it is a system that has made huge strides.

    I think your main point is right, when the measure is the target, problems happen. But it is easy to take that one step further and say it is the measurement that is wrong. If we go to that point then we are essentially saying we prefer ignorance.

    My wife is a Academic Coach (she is a teacher mentor that helps teachers improve their skills and problem solve reaching students.) All the time, she has teachers coming to her with problem students that ‘just aren’t getting it’. When she asks what they are not getting, the teachers rarely know. (They aren’t reading, so do they not know their letters, do they not know letter sounds, do they have a problem identifying vowels, etc.)

    My problem with the grace/law debate is that like this discussion we mix up the parts and we end up with people arguing out of ideology for positions without really knowing what is wrong. Are we talking to a husband that wants to abandon his family (then he probably needs some law to show him his responsibility). Are we dealing with a divorced man who’s wife left him for another man, then we probably need to help him see grace and forgiveness (but probably eventually some law so he can understand his role in the failed relationship so that there can be growth.) Are we talking to kids of a failed marriage that blame themselves (we need to help them understand the grace that has freed them from false guilt and the love of a God that will not abandon them.)

    • Ethan Richardson says:

      Adam, thanks for the comment! I completely agree that the Common Core has been mistranslated, from a set of standards, to an ideology or methodology about how to get students there. Some believe that the methodology is inherent, in the way that the CCSS was written, but still, I completely agree–a standard is necessary, and in the law/gospel framework, the law is necessary in order to make sense of grace. Otherwise, as you said, ignorance reigns.

      But I wouldn’t draw such a clean connection between education evaluation and spiritual evaluation. Of course, reading fundamentals and graduation rates are necessary evaluative measures. The kind of marked growth that moves a child from reading level to reading level, is not the same kind of marked growth that’s demonstrated in the life of a human being, at least not in my life! It seems to me that those moments of growth are always a surprise!

      Anyways, sanctification is not what I was hoping to get at. What I was hoping to get at–which Rachel Aviv’s story demonstrated so well–is that when acceptance is given/refused by way of a measure, for teachers/students or parents/children or husband/wife, it always ends up breeding a perverse kind of atonement system, wherein supernatural performance (or cheating) is the only way to win, and human beings are narrowed into data points and salary caps.

      Thankfully, “the old account was settled long ago.”

      • Adam Shields says:

        I think you are learning the wrong lesson from Park (although I could be wrong and what you are pulling out I have heard in different contexts from others.)

        Park is one school, and the cheating scandal is certainly wide spread at APS. But it was mostly concentrated at schools like a virus. Some schools virtually everyone cheated. But many schools virtually no one cheated. But the standards were the same. (As Dan Airley and some other behavioral economists have studied, cheating seems to spread and lead to more cheating.)

        The difference was primarily the leadership. Some principals (and I think the fact that Park’s was unusually young and relatively inexperienced is probably important) pressed teachers to cheat instead of facilitated growth. They looked at the goals and decided they were impossible. So instead of working on growth and/or pressing back on unrealistic goals, they cheated.

        Other principals, the vast majority, either protected their teachers from the pressure or found other ways to help teachers without suggesting cheating.

        In a similar way, I think unhealthy views of law/grace tend to come from leadership, not the pews and it tends to gather in local congregations not be spread evenly throughout the christian world.

        I do agree that spiritual growth is not easy to measure in simple charts and quick quizzes. But because it is difficult does not mean it is not possible. I think like education, spiritual growth should be focused on long term progressive growth (knowing that growth is never a straight line) and not a measure against some external benchmark.

        Somewhat unrelated, my wife is a teacher outside of Atlanta, her school two years ago literally received an award for improvement and on the same day was listed as one of the school most in need of improvement in the state because the measurements had changed. Under the old measurement they were doing great, but the state decided they wanted to measure something else and suddenly they were no longer doing well. So after two years they are about to come off the low performing schools list based on the new measurement and likely the goal will again change.

        What was different was the leadership. Some principals passed down a lot of pressure and either directly or indirectly it became known that the right way to solve the problem was cheating.

        Other principals chose different methods, either maintaining integrity in the face of pressure or shielding teachers from the external pressure.

        The key point is not that many teachers cheated, it is that the vast majority did not.

        The pressure may have been inappropriate, but it was the leadership at both the schools and district that was wrong.

        In a similar way, I think we have healthy churches that have leadership that walk with people through law/grace issues, but we have a subset of churches where either law or grace is pushed to an unhealthy extent.

        Cheating breeds cheating (as other studies have shown from Daniel Airley and other behavioral economists). So I think the problem is not standards, or evauation, but weakness in the face of reality. District needed to understand reality and what was possible.

        I do agree that spiritual growth is much different than educational growth. Simple charts and quizzes do not acurately reflect spritual growth. But that does not mean that evaluation is not possible, just that evauation (like in schools) should primarily focus on growth, not external goals

        • Adam Shields says:

          not sure why my comment got mangled that way. It disappeared and then I retyped a slightly different version, then both published. Can’t edit, so feel free to edit or ignore the mess of a comment.

  3. Em7srv says:

    Good discussion and post…thanks Ethan. The law/grace here is thought provoking…is my growth really a result of intentions and,as in Adam’s example above, does the husband who wants to leave his family need law to change? What role does measure play with those who just aren’t getting it?

  4. Rob says:

    I find this issue confusing. As a doctor, we have standards of knowledge with testing during medical school, residency, fellowship, and every 10 years in practice. The expectation is that a basic knowledge is needed to proceed and care for people. How would patients feel if we set our own standards individually or at the school level? Inherent to the issue is that statistically 95% of people are similar with a distribution of skills but all share the same goal or expectation. In reality, each kid is not unique just because their parent believes them to be. Set a common standard, identify the kids who have have cognitive defects/learning dysfunction and apply a different standard. Kids (like patients) are rarely inherently unique, enough that the teaching (or their care as in patients) requires a specific method or treatment. I’ve heard too many times, “my mom/child is unique, they need a different method/treatment for their learning style/septic shock”. In reality, you have septic shock, need treatment 1,2,& 3, as science has shown. Move on, next patient. We are not as unique as we believe we are.

    • Adam Shields says:

      I think you are right that there should be a single set of standards. But how we get there is where the uniqueness should come in. Some kids learn better in small groups, some are better physically interacting with things, some need to help teach something to someone else to learn it better.

      Right now best practice among education from what I see is some sort of small group model where a teachers works with small groups who all need a particular skill. Say 2 digit plus 2 digit addition. The teacher will have introduced that to the large group in a short session earlier, but then because they are constantly working with students, they identify which students continue to have problems and re-teach in different methods.

      It is not so much everyone is unique as it is, when someone doesn’t get it, you try again until they do get it and in trying again, you don’t do the same thing over and over, you try different methods until something works. You start with the way most people get it and then try alternatives. By your example you use the standard treatment for septic shock and if that doesn’t work then you go down the list of methods that work until you get one that works.

      What is hard, is that as a teacher you need to know not only a basic reading level or math level, but within that what skills does each particular student have or need. Unless there is some assistance from a computer assessment or a teacher is really good with data, then what happens is the standard large group teaching where you target the middle and once most kids have it you keep moving.

      My wife, when she was a classroom teacher, would meet with every students multiple times a day in small groups for reading and math while the rest of the students were doing individual or group work. She could do it, but very few teachers can handle that much data well.

      I am working with a charter school/after school program that is attempting to put in place a computerized version of this. Students would be in classes of about 45, with two teachers and a bunch of computers or ipads. 15-20 at any time will be on a computer learning software. Two teachers will be teaching small groups of 3 to 8 depending on need and other students will be working in small groups or individually but not on computers. There would of course be some large group instruction and would continue to be special classes like art and music and PE.

      This may or may not work in the end. But the model is independent of standards, although in order to be effective you need enough schools that have similar standards so that the computer software can be written cost effectively.

  5. Lauren says:

    I agree, Rob, that this issue is, in fact, confusing. However, I think drawing a comparison between the standards of knowledge used to ensure a doctor’s proficiency is quite different than a common set of standards for the assessment of students. For your analogy to work, one would need to argue that standards of knowledge for TEACHERS should be put in place, with testing during undergrad programs, practicums, student teaching, and throughout a teacher’s career. As you pointed out, “the expectation is that a basic knowledge is needed to proceed and care for people.” One could argue that the same is true for teachers in that a basic knowledge is needed to proceed and effectively educate students. The problem is not that we simply need to, “set a common standard, identify the kids who have cognitive defects/learning dysfunction and apply a different standard,” as you suggest. If it were that easy, we would have already solved the problem, considering that’s exactly what the Common Core has done.
    It seems to me that using medical standards of knowledge as an argument for common standards for students is faulty and would more accurately translate to a situation in which a common set of standards was applied to how ALL PATIENTS should or shouldn’t react to a specific treatment, and then your abilities and success as a doctor would be evaluated based on how closely your patient came to the suggested patient response as set by some third party. While I don’t pretend to be a medical expert, I think it’s safe to say that despite your being a highly skilled and talented doctor, there may still be occurrences when patients do not respond to treatment in the ways you (or the medical community) would predict. Just as you cannot medically treat an individual taking ONLY into account his/her current condition (septic shock, for example) and expect positive results, you can’t teach a student based only on what a third-party deems appropriate for what students should or shouldn’t be able to learn without taking into account other vital information about the individual student. So while, indeed, I agree that, “we are not as unique as we believe we are,” is that what you tell patients who do not react to treatment in the ways that you predicted because they had a small and formerly undiagnosed heart defect that caused complications that you couldn’t foresee during their treatment? While some cases are more “textbook” or “cut and dried,” you as the doctor have to understand more about your patient than just his/her current presenting symptoms.
    Imagine if you only focused on the end result, the treatment, the outcome, instead of taking the time to figure out what the best course of treatment for a particular individual would be based on his/her medical history, family history, allergies, etc.? Likewise, when teachers are pressured to value achieving certain scores over valuing who their students are as learners and individuals, we might as well replace teachers with computers altogether or doctors with machines. Practicing medicine is an art. Teaching is an art, and they both start with understanding that humans are highly intricate beings.

    Furthermore, one could argue that because of the rigor of selection and preparation for the medical profession, it draws candidates who are highly qualified. Not to mention the salary makes it a desirable profession. As long as we continue under preparing and underpaying our teachers, no matter how many common standards we have, neither students nor teachers will benefit.

    To finish, just as one cannot achieve his own salvation through works and following a set of laws, a doctor cannot expect a patient to be cured just because the doctor follows the medical procedure suggested as close to perfectly as possible and has the standards of knowledge mastered. Likewise, student success cannot be defined by their demonstration, or lack there of, a standard and a teacher’s effectiveness according to the same. We are saved through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; it’s the relationship with him as our savior that changes us. Yes, it is by grace through faith alone that saves us, but his grace works in our lives in vastly different ways. In the same way, the foundation for good teaching is relationship. As long as teachers are pressured to focus on achieving targets over caring for their students as learners, unfortunately, students will continue to lose. Yes, standards and assessments of those standards are important, but not at the expense of student learning. Students are not square pegs to be stuffed into square holes. They are wildly different depending on their life circumstances, family of origin, genetics, etc. Imagine treating 30 patients at exact same time in the exact same method. This is what teachers are called to do every single day. By all means, this is a worthwhile issue to continue bringing to the forefront of our conversations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *