The Inherent Evil Hidden in the Highest Test Scores.

Check this out:

MV 1
It’s a graph detailing my results on our state’s end of grade exam for science last year.

I crushed it, right?  Totally crushed it.

I mean seriously:  A 6.08 out of 7 — when average performance in the state is a zero and average performance in my district is just below a two IS pretty darn good, isn’t it?

I should be dancing in the streets.  I should be walking around with a puffed chest and a REALLY big head.  I should be offering the entire free world suggestions on how to be a better science teacher.

According to these scores, I AM “that good.”

But here’s the thing:  I personally think that super high test scores are incredibly dangerous.

Here’s why:

(1). Super high test scores breed complacency in teachers and schools:  While LOTS of kids were “successful” in my classroom last year, I know full well that there are kids that I struggle to serve.  I’m not great at working with students who have learning disabilities or who speak English as a second language.

My goal as an educator should be to improve my practice in those two areas.  But with test scores like mine, it’s easy to be complacent.  “Look at how much better I am than most teachers!” I’m tempted to think.  “How much better can I really be?”


(2). Super high test scores can cause teachers and schools to doubt struggling students:  According to my results, my instructional strategies are “working” for the vast majority of my students.  If I’m not careful, then, I might be tempted to place the blame for struggling on my students — instead of accepting responsibility for helping EVERY child to succeed.  Excuses like, “Clearly, my teaching’s not a problem.  Those kids failed because they ________________” are a heck of a lot easier to throw around when your numbers say that you are amazing.

In How Children Fail, John Holt argues that the best teams and teachers never make these kinds of excuses:  “If the students did not learn,” he writes, “the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds, neighborhoods, attitudes, nervous systems, or whatever.  They did not alibi.  They took full responsibility for the results or non-results of their work.

It’s pretty darn easy to “alibi” when your numbers are amazing.  That’s equal parts sad and scary.


(3). Super high test scores can cause teachers and schools to overlook other meaningful definitions of “successful students”:  What’s really nuts about my test scores is that I don’t believe that they measure anything meaningful to begin with.  Our science exam is a 35 question, knowledge-driven multiple choice exam.  Know your vocabulary?  Memorize a ton of basic facts from the entire year?  Spend three weeks reviewing before the test day?

You are going to ace this thing.

But nothing about the test requires kids to act like practicing scientists.  They don’t have to learn to ask and answer interesting questions.  They don’t need to form a position about controversial topics based on interpreting data or examining evidence.  They don’t have to design an experiment to test a hypothesis or prove a theory.  There’s no critical thinking involved in earning high marks on a test that prioritizes nothing more than remembering stuff.

And that’s what’s so insidious about my “high marks.”  I’ve figured out how to best prepare students for a test that doesn’t prepare them for the world they will enter.  I’m the champion of the irrelevant.  And if I don’t keep those marks in the proper perspective, I’ll forget to examine just how well I’m doing at helping kids to master more meaningful outcomes that we all know matter, but that no one bothers to measure.


Is this making any sense? 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that unless you are honest about your strengths and weaknesses, willing to resist complacency, and ready to recognize that standardized tests rarely measure the outcomes that matter most, earning “high marks” can bring out the worst in teachers and schools.


Related Radical Reads:

If I’m .84 points from Statistical Perfection, Why am I So Darn Angry?

Meaningful Isn’t Always Measurable.

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?






6 thoughts on “The Inherent Evil Hidden in the Highest Test Scores.

  1. Kyle Hamstra

    Interesting post, Bill. You’ve heard it all from Radical Nation already I’m sure, so I’m leaving two comments and one challenge:

    1) You are a great teacher. That’s evidenced by the relationships you build with your students and the kinds of effective learning experiences you facilitate. What may eventually drive sustainable change is when what you’re consistently doing creates meaning and memories in the lives of students, extending way beyond your time with them.

    2) The end-of-year-assessment-topic comes up a lot in education circles, for so many reasons. It’s an exciting time to be an educator, and many conversations highlight major changes that could or should be happening in learning spaces today. However, I predict: Until the end-of-year-assessment and how we measure excellence in education changes, few other potential changes in education will take root, blossom, and come into full fruition.

    3) What would you propose as a way to measure effective teaching and learning?

    Thanks for making me think again.

  2. Dave Truss

    Such a good reflection Bill. I wrote a post about ‘injustices’ in education and this was the 3rd of 3 of them I brought up:

    3. We have students who go all the way through school getting ‘A’s and yet are never really challenged, and never given the opportunity to try something epic and fail.

    Every student will encounter failures later in life, ‘in the real world’, so if we don’t challenge them in school, we have not given them the tools to face adversity later on. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Are we challenging students enough, so that they are maximizing their learning opportunities?”

    Test scores also ‘hide’ some of the lack of learning, and challenges that happen (or rather that do not happen) in schools. When you said, “nothing about the test requires kids to act like practicing scientists.” you are hitting this point head on… We want young scientists, not young content memorizers and good standardized test takers.

    And it’s not just the students that need to reflect, challenge their thinking, learn and grow. Educators need to as well. I’d love to have my kids in your class, and that’s got nothing to do with your state test results! 🙂

  3. Chris Tuttell

    I love this post Bill! I love the honesty and the fact that you are also reflecting on the kids you didn’t reach and what the tests really represents. It always bothers me when people talk about moving teachers from high performing schools to low performing schools due to their ‘success’ – based solely on test scores.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got it, Chris.

      Being “successful” with one group of students doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be successful with a different group of students.

      What bugs me the most about the “let’s move accomplished teachers to high needs schools” debate, though, is that it suggests that the only solution to improving learning conditions for students in high poverty communities is putting the right teachers in the right places. That’s an “easy out” for school and government leaders — giving them the chance to ignore all of the other changes that are really necessary to create schools where every kid can thrive.

      Until we really invest in high poverty schools — things like smaller class sizes, more counselors, more social workers, more planning time for teachers who have more demands on their time — we are doing nothing more than relying on the altruism of teachers to solve systemic problems. That IS the greatest shame in education — and one that should be borne by politicians, not teachers.


  4. Edward McFarland _ Staff - EastWakeCoEdward

    Great post Bill! We all know test scores measure very little about what is actually useful to students I keep looking toward the future when we finally give up on these ridiculous annual assessments and get back to the really important work – always improving teacher practice and student learning experiences inside the classroom. Thank you for constantly challenging our thinking and always giving the very best to your students.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Edward,

      Thanks a ton for stopping by. Always love to know that you are listening.

      So here’s my fear: We’ll NEVER give up the annual assessments.

      Here’s why: The community doesn’t believe in public institutions — including education — anymore. There’s so much doubt about us that people are going to always look for numbers to evaluate us — and because no one wants to spend time or cash on more comprehensive assessments, we are always going to settle for the kinds of assessments we currently use.

      And no matter how much people in leadership positions say things like, “We have to work beyond the assessments,” for a classroom teacher or a building principal who take flak for test scores, “working beyond the assessment” can be a personal and a professional risk.

      Does any of this make sense?

      I’m not sure what the solution is — and that’s what scares me the most.

      Rock on,


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