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Yesterday’s PISA results stimulate a real discussion about the role of testing in learning

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Yesterday’s PISA results will be the subject of a lot of debate and analysis but one exchange illustrates how rich the discussion can become when it goes beyond positional warfare:  Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish education guru, Alan C. Jones, a commenter on a blog, and New Hampshire teachers all go beyond the usual debates about the evils of testing to talk about meaningful learning for students.

When perennial education leader Finland lost its top spot in the PISA scores this year, Pasi Sahlberg, said (quoted here on Diane Ravitch’s blog),

Finland should not do what many other countries have done when they have looked for a cure to their ill-performing school systems. Common solutions have included market-based reforms, such as increasing competition between schools, standardization of teaching and learning, tougher test-based accountability and privatization of public schools. Instead, Finns must protect their schools from the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that has failed to help schools to get better in other countries.

The better way for Finland is to ensure that schools are able to cope with increasing inequality, that teachers have tools to help students with individual needs, and that all schools get support to succeed.PISA results are too often presented as a simple league table of education systems. But there is much more that the data reveal.

….see the full post here.

That led to this very interesting comment by Alan C. Jones:

What Mr. Sahlberg is pointing out is the distinction between what Fenstermacher & Richardson (2005) have named “successful schools” and “good schools.” Successful schools require a quantifiable outcome that is evidence of student learning. Good schools focus on the process of education —balanced curriculum, ambitious teaching, inclusive environments—and let the test scores take care of themselves.W. Edwards Deming, the father of TQM, (who incidentally warned that his methods should never be applied to education), warned of the danger of end point measurement systems. Even in the private sector, Deming noted, the focus on quantifiable outcomes can distort the processes designed to produce quality. The shame of the accountability movement is taking away from children the opportunity to learn in a joyful and meaningful school environment — a good school. In the pursuit of successful schooling, administrators and law makers have been victimized by end point thinking. We will never be able to link what teachers do in classrooms with some quantifiable outcome. What we can do in schools is make every effort to make a child’s experience in school a meaningful one—the processes that teachers are pursuing in Finland.

New Hampshire teachers make the same point.  Angela Manning, 5th grade teacher at Portsmouth’s New Franklin Elementary School, said,

“Our teachers are saying, “Ok. This is a standard that we have to teach and we’re going to make it applicable to our students so it’s meaningful. How can we make it best for kids’ learning? The bigger things that are coming out of Common Core are that the thinking required will benefit these kids.

When it comes to testing, that will take care of itself.”

Sue Hannan, Manchester middle school teachers, says,

“You can’t teach to these tests anyway….But we’re teaching all year long to the standards. By the time the test comes along in April or May, we should have accomplished those standards and the students will be prepared for the test.

And reviewing the test results when they come back is going to enhance our performances as teachers and allow our students to see what they can do.”

Manchester fourth grade teacher Debbie Villiard, says,

“I took the sample Smarter Balanced test and it was scary.  There were real-world problems.  You needed the skills to be able to get there to figure them out.  The reading test was very specific: “Look at these two paragraphs and find the two sentences that both mean ‘this’.”

Very specific.  But it was definitely within the kids’ reach.

After that, when I went back to teaching, I took a copy of whatever book we were reading and circled, highlighted and wrote questions in the margin.  If I found a passage that I knew would be tricky for them, that’s what I’d focus in on.

These kids are ten and eleven so sometimes it’s a little too much for them.  But they would rise to the challenge – especially if you make it, “Okay, you need to find three things. Who’s going to find it first?” And then they’re all diving in and finding it and I would say, “Okay, jot it down on a piece of paper. Let me see what the three things are.”

Really, you could say I was teaching to the test…but in the best way.”

Melissa Keenan, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, White Mountains Regional School District, says,

“…we know that if the students can take the knowledge, skills and understandings that they are learning and apply it to new situations, inevitably they are going to do well on the tests.

Our NECAP test pushes kids to take knowledge and skills and apply it to a new situation but the Smarter Balance is going to take it to another level.  Our teachers value the importance of engaging kids in meaningful learning and in the process of doing that, they are pushing kids to think and apply what they are learning to new situations.  That that’s going to have a positive impact on the test.”


  1. Jack Blodgett says:

    Bill, I can’t help noting that each of the teachers’ comments, though cited to illustrate that the test is not the object of their highest concern, seem to suggest that “meaningful learning” is understood only with reference to the achievement of CC standards and expected success on related assessments. I’d be interested to see if you can find any discussion among teachers that reflects something closer to the spirit of what Sahlberg characterizes as “meaningful” in Finland:

    “Reading, science, and mathematics are important in Finnish education system but so are social studies, arts, music, physical education, and various practical skills. Play and joy of learning characterize Finland’s pre-schools and elementary classrooms. Many teachers and parents in Finland believe that the best way to learn mathematics and science is to combine conceptual, abstract learning with singing, drama, and sports. This balance between academic and non-academic learning is critical to children’s well-being and happiness in school.”

    The CC standards, assessments, all the related commercial instructional/technology paraphernalia, etc., have potential for upstaging and trivializing what many, possibly even most, good teachers privately feel are the deeper motives and purposes that inspired them to go into teaching in the first place. It’s this “potential” that is seldom reflected in teachers’ positive comments about the standards and their role in what teachers and students do together in the classroom. Beyond being advocates for higher and higher standards, teachers are also daredevils, high-wire performers without much of a net, balancing their understandable doubts and questions about their lasting impact on the lives of students after giving so much of themselves, with their professional, public confidence that buoys them day after day in the often tumultuous, often wonderful world of the classroom. Without doubt and without question, there can be no genuine meaning.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      If I understand you right, Jack, part of what you’re saying is that teacher may be keeping up a brave face in their comments. I really don’t know and, by definition, can’t know about that.

      But I would point out that these comments are only partly about the Common Core standards. They mention NECAP and preceding standards, for one thing. They apply to the new science standards, which some schools are implementing. And the comments apply to history and other standards currently in place. I would not at all agree that these quotes “suggest that ‘meaningful learning’ is understood only with reference to…expected success on related assessments.”

      I do understand the political position that says “all this standards and testing stuff was developed together by corporations for commercial purposes” and I agree that we should keep Pearson from getting its clutches on our kids, but a teacher saying “teach to the standards and the test will take care of itself” is not the same as saying that the only valid teaching she does is teaching that is tested in the annual assessment.

      I’m interested that you conflate the standards with “all the related commercial instructional/technology paraphernalia.” The idea of teaching without standards doesn’t make sense to me and I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone make the case for that. So then you have the question of whether and how the testing is to be done. Testing will be a perpetual topic here in the U.S., as it is in every other country in the world. So, take a position, defend it…enter that debate in any way you want. But it’s a separate topic from which set of standards we use for which subjects.

  2. Jack Blodgett says:

    I would not expect you to agree that your selected quotes from teachers suggest that “meaningful learning” is understood only with reference to the achievement of standards and expected success on related assessments. It’s just that I don’t see anything in the teachers’ comments that associates meaningful learning with anything other than the measured accomplishment of priority academic objectives. Though in most cases led into teaching with more holistic and might I say moral or virtuous ideals and purposes in mind, we teachers are also quite adept at cheerleading for goals proposed to them by respected or more powerful others inside and outside the system. There is more to the story, more to be expressed before it’s forgotten or gets buried under an acquired language that seems always to miss the point — or so I always thought as I sat listening over the years to yet another announcement of a curricular initiative for which my practitioner feedback was obligatorily invited. We teachers are being honest when we defend our positive approach to the Common Core and the Smarter Balanced test down the road. We would be less than honest, however, if we implied that “meaning” and “purpose” reside exclusively there, rather than in the less common, more unique, less definitive hopes and dreams that distinguish us as both professional educators and vulnerable persons with more questions than answers.

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