Answering an important question

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I wrote the following: “teaching (to the test) leads to substandard results in the cases of students who are too far out of line with their state’s standardized test expectations for their grade. For those students, teaching to the test frequently does more harm than good.”


It’s the nature of the game. To teach to an eighth grade test, I must teach eighth grade material. But if my student is operating at a fourth grade level, a great deal of that material will be incomprehensible to him or her. If my district insists that all teachers teach the same material, which is material on the test, I will be teaching material to kids who simply are not ready.

Eduhonesty: Why did education work better in the past? One reason is that when Anne-Marie finished the fourth grade reader, we handed her the fifth grade reader. When Ginger finished the third grade math book, we handed her the fourth grade math book. In the early part of the 1900s, a man named Lev Vygotsky captured the idea perfectly:


No one yet has proved Vygotsky wrong. Students work best and learn most in their zone of proximal development, the zone where they can do new work with guidance. Can we teach them material outside that zone? Only if we get them up to the point where that material BECOMES the new zone of proximal development. Sometimes this leap may be possible with a great deal of extra tutoring. If administrations script out all the lessons for the year, leaving little or no time for remediation, then many kids are left behind; if a kid won’t or can’t come after school, as is often the case, then that kid will simply be staring into space a lot of the time, a victim of irrational test demands.

If a student can’t add fractions, and doesn’t know square roots or the order of mathematical operations, algebra’s quadratic formula is outside of the zone of proximal development. Without remediation, that formula can’t make sense. If a teacher is forced to teach the quadratic formula anyway because that formula is expected to be on the test, we are wasting some students’ time, barring extensive tutoring that seldom happens. Even when tutoring is available, once a student has fallen that many years behind, the extra hour we usually provide in the afternoon might as well be a Band-Aid® on a third-degree burn.

Whenever teachers spend any significant portion of class time outside of most students’ zones of proximal development, we are wasting their time and incurring an opportunity cost, the cost of not teaching them the material inside the zone for which they are ready.