Waiting for the Assessment: Why the Standards Need to Be Adopted Now

Jim Ryan recently asked, “What is the difference in teaching to the standards and teaching to the test?” I, too, have heard this question raised again and again over the years, and now that many states are adopting the Common Core State Standards, the differences between teaching to standards and teaching to a test are growing increasingly apparent. When asked about implementation, the common response is, “We are waiting for the assessment.”


During my twenty years of teaching mathematics, I can honestly say that I did not teach to the test; I taught mathematics and higher-order thinking and let the test take care of itself. I instead taught my students test-taking strategies, and they did well on high-stakes testing. Here’s the advice I gave them:

When you solve a problem, you start with an infinite number of possible answers. The creators of this test have already narrowed that to four. Skip all the steps of good problem-solving and go to the last step. Check your answer; or, rather, check their four answers to see which one fits.

This approach obviously does not assess problem-solving skills. It just allows kids to pick a correct option, thereby passing a high-stakes assessment. As a teacher, I evaluated their ability to apply high-order thinking skills daily in the mathematical tasks that I provided, tasks that ask kids to communicate and justify their reasoning.

I have worked in districts that use “pull-out” programs for high-stakes tests. I’ve always questioned the implication of such programs. If we use them, aren’t we openly admitting that what we’re teaching is not worth assessing, and what the state is assessing is not worth teaching?

High-stakes testing—where students can fail to graduate based on their performance on one test on one day, and teachers can be determined competent or incompetent based solely on student scores—seems to derail good initiatives. For students, the pressure and anxiety brought on by testing can detrimentally affect their performance. For good teachers, the pressure can detrimentally affect what and how they teach. I’ve heard many teachers express a desire to teach in ways that develop higher-order thinking skills, but feel like they must teach what’s on the test. I’ve even seen districts whose curriculum is comprised of daily worksheets of sample test problems. Do their kids do well on the state test? Yes. Are their kids ready for college and a life after? Only if they look like questions on the test! If we rely on high-stakes testing only, then our evidence for decision-making is one-fold.

I don’t want to imply that we can’t do a better job of educating our students or that we shouldn’t evaluate the effectiveness of our classrooms. But assessing and evaluating are not synonymous terms. Assessment is the process of gathering evidence of what a student knows and is able to do. Evaluation is the process of interpreting the evidence and making judgments and decisions based on it.

The Common Core Standards for Mathematics include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills. If we wait to see the assessment, as we so often have done, we’re saying that we can accomplish teaching “rigorous content and higher-order skills” in one year. Or, we’re saying that we can assess “rigorous content and higher-order skills” on a multiple-choice, computer-based test.

If forty states have agreed, by adoption, that these standards “define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs,” then we can’t afford to wait until the assessments are released in 2014. Mathematics educators are issuing the call to take action now. We need to immediately start familiarizing teachers with the Standards for Mathematical Practice. We need to start teaching the “rigorous content and higher-order skills” of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. The assessment of school year 2014-2015 will then take care of itself—and our current students will be all the more prepared to tackle problem-solving challenges once they leave our classrooms.

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