The Tests Don’t Test What They Purport to Test


My third graders (they’re eight or nine years old — keep that in mind) have finished their state testing for the year. They got off easy — just two tests, ELA and Math. The State of Michigan, a few weeks before the testing window opened, sent a letter to parents explaining the purpose of the tests:

“[The tests] are designed to provide information on student knowledge and ability to be career- and college-ready upon graduation. Schools and districts use the results for curriculum planning and school improvement initiatives that benefit all students.” [Source]

Let’s ignore for the moment the dubious claim that any test can predict how “career- and college-ready” a person will be nine years later and focus on what the tests are supposedly designed to do: “provide information on student knowledge.”

If that were true, most teachers would be fine with them. Want to find out if kids can read? Give them something to read and ask them a handful of questions about it. Need to determine if teachers are teaching kids math? Give them 20 math problems that they might someday encounter in the real world and see if they can figure them out.

Confucious said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

The same is true of those who make these tests.

Because instead of assessing whether or not my third-graders can read or do math, here is what they were really tested on:


It took my best student nearly three hours to finish the ELA test and almost two to complete the math test. Let me state this as clearly as I can: You don’t need three hours to find out if a kid can read or do math. A three-hour test doesn’t assess ability; it tests stamina.

How to Navigate Foreign Formats

The state of Michigan provides a way for students to practice using the tools they will encounter on the tests. And, in fairness, it does a decent job. However, of the 30 questions provided, not one of them required students to click on the tool necessary to enter a fraction for an answer. So I’ll give you one guess what happened when my third-graders had to enter a fraction on the actual exam.

Intrinsic Motivation

There are, as yet, no stakes attached to these tests for the students. And they know this. The state of Michigan makes sure of it. From the same letter as the one referenced above:

“State assessment results do not impact student grades.”

They don’t impact anything else, either, as far as the students are concerned. Which means that there are really only two reasons for them to try their best. Either they’ve learned to always give their all, or they want to please adults. No wonder, then, that a handful of students breeze through the test every year. I can’t say I don’t understand why.

In an earlier article, I suggested a potential remedy: bribery. That’s because studies show that it works. In one, researchers concluded that if the U.S. had used financial incentives during the 2012 PISA test, the country’s math ranking would have risen from 36th to 19th. In another, the impact of incentives had an effective size similar to a one standard deviation increase in teacher quality or a 20% reduction in class size.


For the record, I have no problem with these tests assessing student perseverance. Persistence, grit, or whatever you want to call it is a trait that serves people well in school and in life. The tests do an excellent job of assessing it with long reading passages lined up one after another and multistep story problems embedded in a test that students know will take more than two hours.

But if grit is what we’re testing, then be honest about it. Don’t say it’s a reading test or a math test, when it’s really a test of character. School districts use these results to make curricular decisions and journalists report the results to inform the public on the status of our schools. So when a test doesn’t test what it purports to test, it leaves districts fixing a problem that may not exist while ignoring those that do, and newspapers describing the wrong deficiencies.

Reading Ability

You have to be a good reader to do well on the ELA test. That’s good, to a certain extent. But what the test doesn’t do a good job of doing is determining what reading skills students have.  If you want to find out if students understand cause and effect relationships, you can do that with a fairly simple text. Same goes for every other skill students are supposed to learn K-3. But the test doesn’t include below grade level passages, which means that if you can’t read the text, it doesn’t matter how well you can find the main idea, or understand the organizational structure of a non-fiction article, or differentiate between your and the author’s point of view,  or literally any other thing your teacher did an excellent job teaching you.

And if you aren’t reading at grade level come test time, you’re really screwed on the math test. Because the math test only sort of tests math knowledge. Mostly, it’s another reading test. So when the state of Michigan claims that schools “use the results for curriculum planning” and the results show that your students aren’t very good at math, you might want to think twice before throwing out your math curriculum, because you may have a reading problem.

Don’t Trust the Results

The tests don’t test what they purport to test, which makes the results confusing and not very useful. Schools believe they have a problem here when they may actually have a problem there. Journalists write stories with headlines like:

Less than half of 12th-graders can read or do math proficiently

65 Percent of Public School 8th Graders Not Proficient in Reading 

Only 25% of Nashville elementary, middle school students on grade level in reading, math


Those are misleading, and they are the gift that keeps giving to those who want to dismantle public schools.  If you set out to design a system to undermine public education, you could do a lot worse than designing tests that are harder than they used to be, longer than they need to be, and have no stakes for the people who take them.

There’s a saying, “Don’t believe the hype,” which suggests people ignore the marketing and media buzz around a phenomenon. When it comes to the standardized tests students are taking today, I suggest people “not believe the tripe.” Because the tests just don’t test what they claim to test.


Teachers’ Extra Hours Are Different


For something that should be relatively easy to calculate, there is a lot of debate about just how many hours teachers work. Read the comments on nearly any online article about teaching and you will be met with vigorous disagreement on the matter. Make the claim that teachers should be paid more and you can be sure that someone will point out our seven-hour days, summer vacations, and breaks for the holidays. Argue that teachers are overpaid, and you will be besieged by outraged educators who will tell you just how many hours they spend on the job each week, how even their breaks are actually just more work, and how, when they’re dead and buried, they’ll still find a way to grade papers.

The data isn’t particularly helpful, either. Like most topics people enjoy arguing about, you can find a study to support damn near any conclusion you want:

The NEA reports that teachers work an average of 50 hours per week.

The NUT teachers’ union, in a survey of 3,000 of its members who were age 35 or younger, found that 74% worked 51 hours or more each week.

A 2012 report from Scholastic and the Gates Foundation put the average at 53 hours per week.

Teachers self-reported working a mean of 43.7 hours on the Census Bureau’s Current Population survey.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employing time-use surveys, found that the average teacher works about 40 hours per week.

But whether teachers are working five hours beyond their contractual time or fifteen, what’s almost always left out of this debate is the fact that teachers’ extra hours are different.

When a police officer works extra hours, she gets paid extra money. Same for nurses and nearly every hourly employee in the country. You’ll never see headlines like these about teachers:

Detroit police overtime pay up 136% over 5 years

Overtime allowed several East St. Louis police officers to earn more than $100K in 2017

5 Lansing bus drivers made more than $100K in 2016

Outcry over firefighters making up to $400,000


There is no overtime pay in education. Teachers who work even one extra hour per week know they will get nothing in return.

Hard-working teachers also have no hope of being promoted. To what job would they be promoted? There’s no going to the principal, explaining how many hours you dedicate to the job and how your efforts have resulted in greater student achievement, and then asking for a raise. Teachers who work extra hours do so with the full knowledge that it will not lead to a better, higher-paying job.

No matter how great a teacher you are, how much you improve test scores, how loved you are by parents and students, how respected you are by your boss and colleagues, and how much your contributions improve the performance of your school, you will not receive a year-end bonus check. There are no bonuses for hitting targets in education. Teachers who work extra hours to be successful with students will get nothing but satisfaction for their efforts.

Unlike small business owners, who are well-known for their long hours, teachers have no hope that their sacrifices today will lead to a brighter tomorrow. There’s no slaving away for ten years as you build your classroom practice with the hope that, eventually, it will all pay off in the end. Teachers start over every year. No one cares how effective you were if you no longer are. Extra hours early in your career don’t lead to riches later in your career.

This is how teachers’ extra hours are different: In literally every other field, the person who puts in extra work expects to benefit financially. Only in education do we expect people to work more hours solely for the benefit of others. And that’s why whenever I read something that questions how many hours teachers actually work I want to scream.

Even teachers who donate a single hour of their time can claim the moral high ground over every other professional because teachers’ extra hours are, by definition, altruistic.

Merriam-Webster: Altruism refers to a quality possessed by people whose focus is on something other than themselves.

Every time you see a teacher leave work thirty minutes after her paid day has ended, or take work home on the weekend, or check papers at her kid’s soccer game, you are seeing a person who is acting selflessly.

No one will pay her for her time.
No one will promote her.
No one will slip her a bonus check at Christmastime.
Most of the time, no one will even thank her.

Instead, they’ll hop on the Internet and explain how selfish and greedy teachers are for those pensions they’ll earn after working countless hours at no taxpayer expense over their 30-year career.

And if the ignorant carping weren’t bad enough, teachers who go the extra mile are often punished by their employers. In every other field, going above and beyond is rewarded. In education, doing more leads to more work. If you work hard to become an expert classroom manager, you can expect to get the toughest students. If you’re competent and conscientious, you get asked to lead school initiatives (usually with little or no extra pay). If you’re dedicated and hard-working, you’ll be expected to attend after-school events (again, without pay).

With the exception of positions like coaching or department chair (which tend to pay peanuts), every hour — no, every minute — of time that teachers work beyond their contracts is given with absolutely zero expectation of it personally benefiting them.*

Teaching is the only line of work where this is true, and that’s why teachers extra hours are different and it’s also why the argument about how many hours teachers actually work misses the point entirely.


*Except in that warm fuzzy feeling kind of way we always expect should be enough for teachers, since they’re working with kids and the job is so meaningful and all that hoo-hah. Odd that we don’t feel like that’s enough for pediatricians.

Related Articles:

How Teachers Can Give Themselves a Raise

American Teachers Should Work Less

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home


To receive articles from Teacher Habits in your inbox, subscribe here.

Performance-Based Layoffs Are a Bad Idea

The board of the San Antonio Independent School District voted Monday to lay off 132 teachers in a cost-cutting measure designed to save $11 million. Due to declining enrollment (mostly thanks to charter schools), the district faces a $31 million shortfall for the coming year. So it’s perfectly understandable that the board wanted to cut personnel.

Of course, that didn’t stop the uproar. The laid-off teachers showed up at the board meeting, and, unshackled without a job to worry about, let district officials have it. That, too, was unexpected. People who are fired aren’t usually very happy about it.

What is different these days is the source of that anger. Not so very long ago, decisions like these were made by seniority. It was cut and dry. If you needed to lay off 30 teachers, you pulled the seniority list out and counted 30 from the bottom. The lists could be found in teachers’ lounges, and every May you’d take a peek at where you were, listened for rumors about the number of positions your employer was looking to cut, and hoped you’d be spared. It might not have been perfect, but it was at least easily understood.

Plenty of people hated this policy, and they had good reason. Why should a shitty veteran teacher keep her job over a passionate and effective new one? That didn’t make sense, so reformers fought hard to replace “last-in, first out” policies with those based on performance. Not too many people complained.

They should have. Just as democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, seniority-based layoffs are the worst way to cut teaching jobs, except for all the others.

San Antonio demonstrates why.

If you’re going to lay people off based on performance, then you better have an evaluation system that teachers believe is fair and consistent. And it sure sounds like San Antonio didn’t have that (and given how subjective and unreliable principal observations and student assessments are, I’m not sure it’s even possible to create one).

From an article in the San Antonio Express News:

“The union circulated a letter to the board written by Lisa Marie Gonzalez, who resigned two weeks ago from her position as associate principal of Lanier High School, in which she alleged that Lanier’s principal, Laura B. Cooper, in the fall gave administrators a list of teachers to “get rid of” and directed them to give those teachers negative evaluations. Potter, the union president, said the union heard similar stories Monday from assistant principals of two other high schools.”

It almost doesn’t matter whether those accusations are true. Because the trust between the district and its teachers is gone, and there is no reason to believe that district leaders made layoff decisions based on teacher quality instead of personal vendettas or money. The law makes it way too easy to do just that. Until that law is reversed, teachers across the country will continue to express the sentiment voiced by the SAISD teachers’ union president:

“Stop saying that the cuts are based on performance,” she told the board.

The Benefits of Certainty

Critics of protesting teachers often make the argument that teachers knew the pay when they took the job. They have a point. But here’s something teachers also used to know when they took a job: They were the first ones on the chopping block in the event of layoffs. There’s something to be said for that kind of certainty.

If seniority still mattered in San Antonio, district officials’ jobs would have been much easier. It is unlikely that teachers would be nearly as upset, and the motives of district leaders wouldn’t be called into question. Those teachers who didn’t get cut wouldn’t spend all of next year looking over their shoulders, afraid to commit the most minor of offenses out of fear of landing on some petty administrator’s hit list.

The district also wouldn’t have needed to ask teachers to resign instead of being laid off, because under the old system being laid off meant you were young and cuts had to be made. It wasn’t a blemish on your resume. Everyone understood how the game was played and a young, laid-off teacher could easily move to another district and continue their career.

Not so anymore. Now, with “performance”-based evaluations, the assumption that hiring districts must make is that teachers who were laid off from their previous districts must have sucked. Which, given how unreliable these evaluation systems are and how little proof there is that they actually identify low performers, is not only unfair to those teachers but bad for a system in desperate need of them.

It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for. Districts now have the power they want to fire teachers who aren’t performing. The problem is that they also have the power they want to fire teachers they don’t like, or who cost them more money than they feel like paying.

And even if these districts behave nobly and do the very best they can to identify and retain their best teachers (and there’s really no reason to assume they do), their motives when they lay off teachers will always be questioned.

And that is a bad thing for everybody involved.

God is Great, Beer is Good, and Students Are Lazy


There is a country music song with the lyric, “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy,” but the truth is, not that many people are crazy. Most seem pretty rational to me. What people are is lazy.

We are masters of the shortcut. We’ll spend five minutes hunting for a parking space if it means we save ourselves 50 steps. We’ll consistently choose the awkward proximity and uncomfortable silence among strangers in an elevator over lugging ourselves up (or even down) three (and sometimes fewer) flights of stairs. We’ll rent a cart at a par-3 golf course. We’ll read the headline but not the article. Some people can’t even be bothered to open a new tab and Google their easily-answerable question. They post the damn thing on Facebook.

We dream of spending our days lying on a beach with a good book in one hand and one of those umbrella-adorned drinks in the other. Plenty of people’s ideal weekend includes sleeping in, overeating, and Netflix bingeing. I’ll wager you know people who dream of retirement, not because they’ll be able to travel the world, or finally write that novel, or spend more time with their grandkids, but because being retired is a really good way to spend as much time as you want doing absolutely nothing productive.

Want to get rich? Find something that is already really easy to do, then figure out a way people could do it in an even lazier way. Remote controls, escalators, prepackaged apple slices, garage door openers, the Clapper, Alexa, Smuckers Uncrustables, Dash buttons — all of them exist because our quest for laziness is unrelenting.

One classic example of human laziness is Johnston and Goldstein’s study on organ donor rates. It found that those countries where organ donation is the default and you must opt out in order to keep your own organs have much higher donation rates than nations with opt-in systems. In both cases, humans displayed a tendency toward inaction. The same thing has been found when studying retirement savings. Those who have money automatically invested save much more than those who have to take proactive steps to save.

We like doing nothing, even when doing nothing harms us in the long run. It’s why more people own couches than treadmills. 

Such laziness seems to come naturally. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor who is an expert in human evolutionary biology blames our ancestors. “Our instincts are always to save energy. For most of human evolution that didn’t matter because if you wanted to put dinner on the table you had to work really hard. It’s only recently we have machines and technology to make our lives easier. . . . We’ve inherited these ancient instincts, but we’ve created this dream world and the result is inactivity.” Source

One study, cited in a Time article called, “Here’s Proof That People Are Wired to Be Lazy,” found that even on those rare occasions when we actually leave the couch to walk somewhere our bodies do it as efficiently as possible by choosing a speed and stride length that limits the calories we expend.

Laziness, it seems, is part of the human condition.

Students are humans, too. And they’re just as lazy as the older and bigger versions.

They cut corners. They copy and paste and pass it off as their own. They sneak on to game sites when they should be working. They write illegibly. They pretend to read instead of actually reading. They don’t work out the problem. They walk right past the crayon on the ground instead of picking it up. They cheat. They skip past parts of instructional videos so they can get to the end faster. They don’t reread. They go to the questions without reading the directions. They don’t put their names on their papers. They don’t walk to the trashcan, choosing instead to stash even more junk in their desks. They don’t copy your notes. They’ll sit there without a pencil instead of getting a new one.

Given our own lazy habits, none of this should surprise or upset us.

And yet it does. We proclaim to our colleagues how lazy kids are today. We bemoan the influence of our gotta-have-it-now society. We worry about the future of our nation.

And some of us blame ourselves. We’re good at that. We’ve bought into the narrative put forth by education’s most vociferous critics that how a child does in school is a reflection of his or her teachers.

But student laziness is not your fault. It isn’t a sign that you have low expectations, or that you didn’t model what you wanted clearly enough. It has nothing to do with how engaging you attempted to make your lesson. It’s not the fault of grades, or contrived tasks, or the way education is delivered. So stop beating yourself up over it.

Of course, student laziness isn’t really your students’ fault either. It’s human nature, and you’re likely as guilty of it as they are. You don’t exercise enough. You let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink even though the dishwasher is mere feet away. You haven’t registered as an organ donor.

One of the great challenges that teachers face is the same one that parents, employers, doctors, preachers, personal trainers, financial advisors, and literally everyone else who has to deal with other people face:

People don’t want to work very hard. They would prefer to not work at all.

So stop expecting more from your students than you expect from yourself. Cut them some slack. And quit worrying about the future of the planet. People have always been lazy. They will, in fact, search out even more inventive ways to be even lazier. And that might not be the worst thing.

Because it’s no longer necessity that’s the mother of invention. It’s laziness.

So that layabout in your class might just be a budding entrepreneur. After all, it takes some next level laziness to conceive of this thing:

You know you want one.

And here are some other gift ideas for the laziest humans you know:

The baby mop. It’s exactly what you think it is.

An automatic spaghetti twirler.

This is a stand to hold your blow dryer. Because holding things with your hands is so last decade.

And you shouldn’t need to spin things anymore either. Besides, you always knew Ashley spun the bottle in such a way that she was guaranteed a make-out session with Dylan.

Snowball maker. Because snow is cold and not everybody has gloves.


Lift the toilet seat without actually lifting the toilet seat!

Now if only you could buy a Bluetooth-enabled toilet and flush it with your phone…

5 Ways to Integrate Videos Into Your Classroom Routine

Illustrative, graphic, and engaging—videos are among one of the most used forms of multimedia in the classroom. Whether it is a K-12 public school class or a college setting, videos can add an element of wonder and inquiry, but how do you utilize them in a way that engages students rather than distracting them from the lesson? There are several ways to integrate videos into your classroom routine and be an influential educator for your students.

1 — Add value to lesson plans with pre-made video materials

If you are an educator then you know that planning instructional materials and lesson plans can be a challenge, whether you are a first-time teacher or you have just hit a roadblock with your lesson planning. The advancement of online curriculum providers and higher-education online institutions has expanded the availability of materials teachers can use to provide up-to-date resources that meet the status quo. On, for example, self-paced guided courses give teachers the option to follow pre-built syllabi or simply pick and choose resources that support their lesson and provide real-world imagery and examples to their students. Their video resources help students grasp and visualize the lesson in an engaging way.

2 — Get students interested in a career path

Another great way to integrate videos into your classroom routine is to introduce students to career options they may have that are connected to your lesson. For example, rather than just exploring disciplines in a traditional manner, teachers can showcase videos of engineers, doctors, software developers, and more to create an understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and how they apply to the real world. Research has shown that this approach can increase independent inquiry when students can connect the real-world to the lesson. This can also pave the way for students to get a head start on planning for their future careers. Once they are able to know what career path is the best for them figuring out what necessary additional skills and requirements will be easier than compared to those students who graduate that are still not knowing what the best career path is for them.

3 — Give students access to career advice, job search tips, and more

Giving students access to videos in order to figure out what careers exist in different discipline areas (such as STEM) helps students figure out what career path is the best for them. Giving students additional video resources to achieve internships, job-shadowing, or class credit is even better for students that are in high school getting ready to graduate or trying to incorporate a job into their everyday lives., for example, gives students access to instructional videos on searching for jobs along with many other tips. Integrating these types of materials into a classroom not only showcases your lesson, connects them to the real-world, but also gives them a chance to hear first-hand how it all comes together full-circle in the end and truly see the connectivity between learning and career building.

4 — Give students access to college credit

A big added bonus to any video platform is the ability to not only share resources, but to be able to give students the ability to gain access to college credit. Incorporating the importance of college in your classroom can easily be done with many providers and provides students with opportunities to earn college credit while still in high school. Many students are able to reap the benefits of up to two years of college credit earned while gaining the necessary understanding to be successful once they transition from high school into a real university or college classroom. Videos help this transition as they make clear connections in the lessons to the real-world, explore higher learning discussions and questions, and learn more about the requirements needed to obtain the degree of their choice. As an educator, offering these types of videos to students can help enhance the overall dual credit experience and prepare them to enter a college or university classroom with all the necessary tools.

5 — Prep students for the standardized tests

Integrating videos into the classroom is also a great way of helping students prepare for their standardized tests. For example, the SAT and ACT exams are requirements for acceptance into colleges and universities across the country, and having the access to videos that demonstrate necessary criteria to excel will support students as they plan for their futures. As an added bonus, integrating prep resources like’s into your lessons means that you can spend more time preparing content for your curriculum, rather than focusing all of your time on preparing your students for their exams.

In addition to their standard test prep materials, also offers a suite of preparation materials for common teacher certification exams to help you excel as a teacher in your classroom. From national exams like Praxis to state-specific exams like TExES and FTCE, their resources are perfect for aspiring educators and current teachers alike. Whether you are looking to pass your initial certifications or add additional qualifications for new subjects/grade levels, they have the materials you need to succeed.


The above article is a sponsored post from