Stand up to Standardized Testing with Effective Reading and Writing Instruction

Shara Sarnelli is an English major with minors in Education and Women’s Studies. She is graduating this May, and will begin chasing her dream of becoming an inspiring high school teacher soon after. She is heading to Boston College to pursue her Master’s of Education, which will help her fulfill her career aspiration.

Imagine being a sophomore student in a high school English course. You are thoroughly engaged in the class, which is assessed through individual and group projects, interactive class discussions, and papers that deviate from the five-tier standard essay. Your favorite project was acting out a scene from Hamlet in a group. Through a project like this, you are able to better relate to the characters of Shakespeare’s play, grasp the writing style and language of the author, and understand the underscored themes.

Unfortunately, such dynamic projects do not directly teach to high-stakes standardized tests. As a result of enjoying class, your testing scores or ability could suffer, and thus your diploma is in jeopardy. Furthermore, your passionate teacher’s job could be threatened. On top of that, if a majority of students score low on standardized tests, but perform well in class and even enjoy learning, the school itself fails to meet its AYP. The school’s reputation is damaged, and funding is at risk.

Standardized testing is a reality in the realm of education, whether we like it or not. We can challenge tests like MCAS and SATs until our energy is extirpated. Or we can simply prove that teaching good reading and writing skills can prepare students for standardized tests without necessarily teaching to the test.

High-stakes testing tends to obliterate student-centered learning, and narrow the curriculum, as well as take away from the reading and writing experience. The student-centered approach and teacher flexibility have been displaced by focus on test preparation and accountability (Higgins 310). But does this have to be the case? Can we maintain quality education while preparing students for the tests they are bound to take?

“High-quality, evidenced-based instruction need not be sacrificed in preparing students to succeed” on standardized writing assessments (Higgins 310); yet these sacrifices occur too often. If teachers are encouraged to instruct with best practices “rather than explicit teaching to the test” (Higgins 310), then students may be able to perform well on standardized writing tests. This instruction should be comprised of writing in a variety of genres, giving students choices of topics to write about that relate to their interests, providing time in and out of class for writing and revising, incorporating writing conventions (Higgins 310), and making use of peer evaluation.

Some studies show that students who have effective writing instruction score higher on formalized writing tests than those who receive instruction based solely on skills assessed on the test (Higgins 310). Effective writing instruction can be implemented by giving attention to the social nature of language, recognizing the importance of a student-centered pedagogy, and using developmentally appropriate practices (Higgins 311).

An example of instruction that combines all three focuses is the writing workshop, followed by the writing process. First, students select topics to write about, then they engage in prewriting activities. Finally, they begin developing their drafts. Prewriting activities include topic discussion, setting goals, creating outlines, and mini-lessons. Before a writing workshop begins, the teacher delivers a mini-lesson to center on one specific technique, such as voice (the writer’s tone and style as fit for an assignment) or point of view (first person, third person, omniscient). For most of the workshop, students should write and engage in both teacher and peer conferences. At the end of the workshop, the whole class shares individual writing (Higgins 311). Students can read passages directly from their work, or they can offer a summary of what their work is about and how they went about their writing process.

With such instruction, students are not denied the experience that comes with reading and writing; they can still become caught up in a book, engage in the characters, explore an array of perspectives, challenge universal truths, and develop positions (which could turn into a thesis) that they are passionate about. Teachers do not have to stick to the five-tier essay, although it should be discussed for test purposes; they can have students write memoirs, reviews, short stories, persuasive essays, and blog posts. A student’s strength and confidence in writing increases with experience; experience is limited if a student only learns to write formal essays. Students will learn to notice and correct conventional errors more easily if they have experience with a vast assortment of writing styles.

Also, effective writing instruction turns students into lifelong learners, providing them with lasting habits. It seems when students learn just for the test, the information is plainly memorized and then forgotten, never grasped.

The change from teaching for learning to teaching for test results is a narrowing of the curriculum (Higgins 310). With a narrower curriculum, students are actually learning far less, and teachers are deskilled (Ricci 343). So it’s time to take a stand. Balance best practices and testing requirements. Instruct writing and reading freely, encourage creativity, and simultaneously teach mechanical conventions and the necessary rules of the English language. “Fluent, independent writers” (Higgins 315) develop when we teach effective practices, not when we simply ”teach to the test.”

Higgens, Betty, & Miller, Melinda & Wegmann, Susan. (2006). Teaching to the Test…Not! Balancing Best Practices and Testing Requirements in Writing. International Reading Association, 60(4), 310-319.

Ricci, Carlo. (2004). The Case Against Standardized Testing and a Call for a Revitalization of Democracy. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 339-346


24 thoughts on “Stand up to Standardized Testing with Effective Reading and Writing Instruction

  1. YES! I wholeheartedly agree, that if you teach a student how to read and write effectively, they will have the skills to succeed when taking standardized tests. Standardized testing should never result in a narrowing of the curriculum, rather a teacher should truly educate students. A complete and full education should result in high test scores. Just because the standardized test is testing ‘x,y, and z’, doesn’t mean that you can’t also teach the ‘a, b, c’s’!

  2. For me standardized testing is the educational equivalent to measurement by the bottom line and so will always reduce the human being in the direction of a commodity. I would argue that it’s time to move away from teaching to the standard and perhaps instead time to teach about the unique quality of each human life. Reading and writing might be a good way to begin that process.

  3. It occurs to me that teaching to a standardized test is less like education and more like teaching people to win a game. Wouldn’t it be nice if our education system helped students develop as thinking people with rich inner lives rather than merely churning out competitors (and leaving some of the non-standardized in the dust) ?

  4. I have some feelings about standardized testing which is a subject that many people feel strongly about. Most people either think that it is the best way to assess students’ abilities or it is a stress-invoking nightmare for everyone involved. However, if you step back and look at it objectively, it becomes clear that it is neither. Standardized testing has both positive and negative aspects and when used effectively can play a significant role in bettering the education.

  5. Great teachers utilize a multitude of teaching methods, students learn in diverse ways, and yet we are testing them all on one standard. Standardized testing, is one way to guaranty failure for so many students and teachers alike. When you look at the goals of education: namely to educate students and give them the skills to learn as they grow, standardized testing has no positive effect. None whatsoever. So, i disagree. There is no positive aspect to standardized testing.

  6. I also agree that there are no positive aspects to standardized testing. Teaching to the test is merely a way of getting students to pass a test; not succeed in the future. Students often study the day before a standardized test, in attempt to memorize the information that was once taught. It is important for students to not only memorize material, but also be able to apply it to their lives. A standardized math test, for example, would consist of a student memorizing mathematical functions and equations; however the student would not be able to apply it to the real world because the reasoning for learning the equations will have been missed.

  7. For me, teaching to a test requires a student to know what works to solve a problem, but not why it works. When teaching to a test the students tend to memorize information, recite it in their heads again and again and then regurgitate it on a test. There is no other way for me to describe this because I feel that when this occurs the student forgets the idea as fast as they learn it. Without practical use of the material the student has no need or desire to retain the information after the test, but if a student fully understands the idea, they will remember it for a long time. An example is a history test about the causes of the American Civil War. A student could just memorize a list of a few reasons and answer the test and then forget the causes one month later. Although if the student learns the reasons and why they came to be, the student will have a more full knowledge of the subject thus retaining the information for much longer periods of time.

  8. Student engagement is crucial for their understanding of material. As an 8th grade English teacher in my fourth year of teaching, getting my students engaged in what we are doing is still one of my biggest struggles. However, this year I have taken a different approach when it comes to writing. I have tried to tap into the interests of the students and then build many of my writing assignments from there. If I can get them interested in doing an assignment, I can then try and mold it to hit on certain strengths they will need for MCAS. It has not always worked this year, but I’ve found that more students are doing the work and handing in finished products. If we can find a balance between “teaching to the test” and getting students involved and interested in what we are trying to do, then maybe we can all start to see the improvement in our students.

  9. I agree that testing has its place. I agree that good teaching also has its place, but this place must be “bigger.” Good teaching must grab the attention of all students so that they will want to learn MORE than standardized tests discourage them. I know so many adults who are seeking to obtain a GED and are amazed at their own intelligence. Why did they not know this in school? Where were their teachers? WHO were their teachers?

  10. I agree 100% with what you are saying. I think that teaching just to the test is a very limiting and ineffective way to teach. I really liked how in your blog you weren’t saying that we should get rid of teaching to the test altogether because that simply isn’t an option but that you were saying to do both. Teaching the skills that you are tested on in standardized testing can be achieved through all the alternative ways to teach. I also agree that if you are taught only to the test then the information is simply just memorized and doesn’t stick with you for the rest of your life. Obviously we can’t get rid of standardized testing altogether even though that would be great, but something does need to be done about it and this is a great start.

  11. Your comments are timely and noteworthy. Standardized testing may evolve but most likely will never be eliminated. It is most unfortunate that the government turns a deaf ear to the advice of school systems and also the test-makers. Test-makers admit that no single test should determine the outcome for a student. I also agree that effectively teaching the workshop approach and writing as a process is critical in creating life long learners. Exposing students to different forms of writing and different genres widens their knowledge base. There must be some equitable compromise which will satisfy teachers who want to truly ‘educate’ students and adminstrations who must comply with government requirements ‘cover’ material so that it can be regurgitated on a standardized test.

  12. I also feel that standardized testing can be harmful to education and all those involved, both students and teachers. The tests simply make it harder and more stressful to reach our goals. However, we do know, and we that there are ways to teach and learn effectively despite the tests. A wide range of creative projects can be implemented to learn and to teach writing effectively. If the students know how to write well, they will have the skills to do do well on the test, regardless. It’s just a shame that so much precious time and energy is taken up with these tests, when actual, real learning and teaching should be the focus, not an unreliable test score.

  13. I also agree that “teaching to the test” is neither effective nor helpful to anyone involved in the learning process. Students definitely get less out of the learning experience when they are unintelligibly memorizing data to recite, and as Mike said, to regurgitate it back up onto a testing response form. The pressure of needing to pass a standardized test to graduate is also unnecessary and daunting for a student, and encourages teaching and learning to the test. It also decreases the individuality found naturally in human nature. However, I do think assessment, not testing, should have a place in schooling. By this I mean that students should improve, but not by any standards that would pigeon-hole a student and categorize them by how well they performed on a once-taken standardized test. Assessment should look into the progress of a student throughout school and their understanding of things, not unintelligible memorization. Some form of assessment is important because schools should be held partly responsible for the learning and understanding of their students. I understand the reasoning behind the existence of standardized tests, but how these assessments are measured and what kinds of assessments are forced upon students and teachers should definitely change because standardized tests certainly are not the way to measure student’s learning, as learning is a process.

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  15. What is most important is that teachers are allowed to find a way to help students show what they have learned in a variety of ways. This is the only way that students will be able to show what they are capable of. Testing is a very subjective way to see what a student has learned over the course of time. High stakes testing dose not work. When you look at how humans remember and retrieve information a person’s state of mind is vital to their performance. Under the principle of State dependent learning, organisms retrieve information better when they are in the same physiological or psychological state at retrieval as during encoding (Myers 2006). This means if a student learns a concept in a positive environment and is not under pressure or stress; they will not show their full potential in a high stress environment like in a test. We are able to see that putting students in stressful situations is not helpful to their learning process. Yet students are continuously expected to do this.

  16. Thanks for all of your comments and feedback. I really appreciate what you have written. I wish we could all discuss this matter together, in person!

  17. I really agree with your blog! Standardized testing doesn’t seem like a very effective method. Students do end up learning just for the test and not for the sake of learning. In the end, they often don’t remember what they’ve “learned.” I think that work shops sound like a smart idea because they are learning through application, not memorization or drills. The interactive process (group work, work shops) is engaging, which can make learning less like a chore and more like a fun way of life.

    I like the point that Heather brought up. I don’t really agree with the way standardized testing works and yet I do think that there needs to be some way to measure a students’ learning. After all, learning is a personal thing; people have different interests, needs, backgrounds etc. Of course, there are core essentials that people in given cultures need to know, but overall, learning is different for everyone and so how can we measure and compare everyone in such a strict, limiting way? Assessment seems like a much more permissive form of measurement.

  18. My middle school and high school hardly taught to MCAS testing. Instead, they simply gave students a good foundation in reading and writing skills (and thus proved your argument). I can only remember a few occasions when we practiced for the MCAS, and they were brief. Yet I know of other instances from friends were they felt like they did nothing in middle school and high school other than prepare for MCAS testing. Because of this, I feel like they do not have the motivation for education that I do. Instead of taking education and applying it to their lives in meaningful ways, students will only know how to apply what they have learned to this series of testing which will end when high school does.

  19. Shara, I couldn’t agree more! As Mike and Heather reiterated– standardized testing is a form of regurgitation, NOT a measurement of content understanding. It’s almost as if we’re asking students to take a deep breath, sit down, and exhale into a knowledge-gauging breathalyzer. Once this “air” leaves the student’s “lungs,” it’s leaves no trace of benefit to the student. Tests like MCAS don’t allow students to apply what they have learned, nor do they allow teachers the freedom to encourage students to come to their own conclusions. The five paragraph essay, for instance, forces the student to funnel their ideas into a one-size-fits all format. And when we get to college, the five paragraph essay is inevitably UN-taught! So yes, some form of standardization needs to exist to ensure that certain aspects of the curriculum are being fulfilled. But isn’t it time we had a little more faith in our teachers… and our students, too?

  20. Standardized testing does seem to cause teachers to shy away from teaching real skills and instead teaching only what should provide a good grade on the test. Although I do see the need for some forms of standardized tests, they should be used more as assessment tools for the performance of students and not requirements for their graduation or their teacher’s job. On a similar note, teachers should try their best to teach material needed for the test in ways that aren’t just lessons drilling principles and rules of writing or math into the students heads.

  21. Teaching to the test does nothing but program students into rote memorization and stuff-and-flush methods. All it does for students is teach them how to survive through standardized testing like the MCAS. There is no learning, personal growth, or intellectual perception that comes from it. To prepare a student for the MCAS is to train them to pass. One does not train a student or human being. Training is for a dog, or some other animal that does not think critically or analytically the way humans do. Standardized tests contribute to the “Culture of Positivism” coined by Henry Giroux, where students are becoming detached from their schooling, and therefore has no impact on the social structures of their daily lives. I agree with the writing workshops and having students practice by writing about topics they are intrigued by. Doing this enables the students to improve their writing skills in a stress-free environment and they are also learning from researching the topics they write about.

  22. I absolutely agree with this. Teachers are told that they have to have a certain amount of tests and exactly what has to be on it. This does not give a teacher much room to actually teach subjects that students have trouble with because they have to meet deadlines. Theres no time to teach extra necessary skills or really dive into a subject and have a good discussion about it. Also, if you think of another topic that relates to the subject you cannot really jump into it. They need to find other ways to test a students knowledge.

  23. Shara, you make a very good, valid argument in this blog. Teaching to the test is a counterproductive act and it is too bad that teachers nowadays are almost encouraged to do so because of state standards. In all subjects, by focusing on the concepts of the material and not just the specifics, students will be able to take any standardized test effectively. Like you said, allowing students to be creative when in the classroom, such as picking their topics, they are opening their minds which ultimately enables a greater understanding of the subject at hand. I think the instruction you spoke of involving the writing workshop and writing process seems to be a very effective one in my opinion. Instruction such as that would help me personally with writing, as i think it would with many other students in the classroom.

  24. Whether we like it or not, standardized testing is here to stay. So I agree with the idea of teaching students to read and write effectively, instead of just teaching for the test. The student’s improved reading and writing skills will likely result in higher test scores, while giving the students a more complete education. Also, I agree with Stephan that standardized tests should be used more as assessment tools for the performance of students and not requirements for their graduation.

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