In Praise of Test Prep in the World of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards Tests

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Coach Anon.

In the pure, idyllic world of David Coleman, the Common Core spokesperson (watch “Bringing the Common Core to Life,” April, 2011) the only impact on kids would be teachers and each and every teacher would teach lessons within the Common Core, curriculum-free, skills-based and Common Core tests would only reflect the skills of the teacher without any impact from environment and context, an idyllic world that never existed and never will exist.

We test all kids in grades 3-8 each and every year and the tests are “high stakes,” for kids, for teachers and for schools.

Do some kids do better than others because they have “smarter” genes or “better teachers” or were “better prepared” or “studied harder” or come from a “culturally richer environment?”

Can we draw analogies with sports?

David Epstein, in The Sports Gene (2013) explores the classic question, “nature versus nurture.” Are there genes which determine success in sports, or, does practice determine success?

… he forcefully argues that no single known gene is sufficient to ensure athletic success. His answer to the question “Nature or nurture?” is both … Mr. Epstein argues that we often confuse innate talent with spirit or effort.

If “spirit and effort” are crucial factors, Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success, tells us,

“Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger role preparation seems to play.”

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

We argue that preparing to play basketball or golf or preparing to take the bar exam requires practice, candidates spend innumerable hours taking a cram course, aka, test prep, to prepare themselves for the bar exam. Did your kid take an SAT prep course? Kids spend hundreds of hours preparing for the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT).

Ironically the leader of the NYC School System and the NYS Governor both bemoan excessive test prep,

Chancellor Carmen Farina’s latest message to principals encourages them not to go overboard in their preparation for state tests that begin in just three weeks.

Governor Cuomo’s hastily assembled Task Force also derided test prep,

Cuomo’s group made the same suggestion, arguing that schools should spend no more than 1 percent of instructional time on state exams, no more than 1 percent on local tests and no more than 2 percent on test prep.

Test prep is not synonymous with poor instruction, if by test prep you mean mindlessly taking practice tests you are correct. Test prep must meet the same high standards we expect from all instruction. Kids will be taking “tests” throughout their school lives – a classroom quiz, a graded classroom oral presentation, a graded essay or project, end of year summative assessments, Regents Exams, Advanced Placement Exams, SATs and/or ACTs and on and on. Preparing students to take tests is called test sophistication, and, the very same Department of Education whose current leader reminds principals “not to go overboard” has also prepared a 43-page test sophistication guide

Test taking strategies can be taught and practiced. The Guide begins by listing thirteen General Strategies: from a simple “Manage time effectively while test taking,” and moving towards some more complex strategies. The Guide discusses Essay Questions and suggests, “Use checklists to assure all parts of the question are answered,” and “Use key vocabulary words.” and provides a course in test sophistication, a lesson by lesson guide to assist students in preparing for tests.

Lloyd Bond, “My Child Doesn’t Test Well,” from Carnegie Perspectives delves,

It turns out that a sizable percentage of students perform well in their schoolwork but poorly on standardized, multiple-choice tests. Some may question whether this is a genuine phenomenon at all, arguing that low expectations and standards, and rampant grade inflation result in school “high performance” that is largely illusory. But I believe the phenomenon is real. There are students who genuinely perform well in school, but consistently do poorly on standardized tests of academic achievement. So what are the causes of poor test performance in the context of otherwise successful schoolwork?
I would propose four candidates: (1) test anxiety, (2) lack of test sophistication (or test-wiseness), (3) lack of automaticity and (4) test bias.

No one walks onto a basketball court or a golf course and excels, some are better natural athletes and will have initial success, unless they engage in thousands of hours of intelligent practice their skills will stultify.

Using test items similar to the items on the State tests on classroom tests is simply doing your job as a teacher – the State tests should not be a surprise. The State does provide “Sample ELA annotated questions” and some school districts have provided materials for their districts

Hopefully teachers do not stop regular lessons and begin weeks and weeks of test prep. Whether you call the instruction test prep or test sophistication one would hope instructional strategies would be embedded in day to day lessons. Teachers send messages, if they abhor test prep the message to the kids is clear and teachers are doing a disservice.

The decision-makers in the aeries of Washington and Albany have created a system – it is the job of the classroom teachers to teach their kids to beat the system.

“One man invents, the next circumvents,”


4 responses to “In Praise of Test Prep in the World of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards Tests

  1. Pingback: Strategies To Follow When Dealing With Anxiety | Anxiety Symptoms In Women

  2. “One man come he to justify/One man to overthrow”

    Cramming is cramming regardless of instructional strategy.

    We need no more sports analogies in education. The mind and body are different.

    We need to get away from prepping unless it is uniform and required for all.
    Gaming usually creates or exacerbates inequality.

    Is this piece service or disservice?


  3. I won’t tell you anything new, but it is just the same with everything in life.
    You would think history teaches us at least anything, but no.
    Disagree if you will but the world changes rapidly, and we have no control whatsoever over it.
    For instance, If only Barack had any balls to put Russian bear to his place, but it seems like it’s never happening, welcome WW3.
    A truly inspiring post, thanks!


  4. If you think about the 10,000 hours it will take a teacher or principal over 7 year to become good at what they do.


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