When In Doubt, Pick “C”

An interesting topic came up in my speech class, of all places. We were going over the format for our midterm and how it was to be taken. Someone made the comment that “As long as it’s not like that stupid CSAP test, I’m good with whatever.” We laughed back and forth for a while, sharing testing horror stories from our elementary years and talking about how much we had collectively despised the test, until our professor reigned us back in for the rest of class.

For those of you out-of-state readers, the CSAP, or Colorado State Assessment Program, was something that haunted most of our grade school years. With long bubble sheets, questions that seemed worded to trick us, and long answers that we could have cared less about, the CSAP test was the implementation of a standardized test to show how students were progressing in the curriculum assigned to that grade level. It originally started in 1997 with the assessment of 4th grade reading and writing, but it quickly grew to include testing in subjects such as math, reading, and writing for all grades 3-10, and an additional science portion of the test for grades 5, 8, and 10. It focused on reaching a fixed objective, and grades were based off of this.

I remember going through the CSAP practice packets that our teachers would hand out in the beginning of January. The test usually was not until late March, but we started practicing early. We were all drilled in test taking strategies like restating the question in short answers, how to correctly fill in the answer bubbles, what to do if you found yourself stuck on a question, and so forth. Our English teachers worked with us in the art of writing timed essays and providing  detailed plans for our writing. Eventually, the tests we took in class started to look like the practice booklets. The teachers said it was to give us even more practice.

I will never forget the smell of sweaty palms and wooden number two pencils on test days. When we started taking the tests back in third grade, we could not believe that we would have to sit still for a whole hour and answer a bunch of dumb questions. Little did we know how answering those seemingly dumb questions would change our academic careers. If we tested well, we were given more challenging work in class. If we tested poorly, we were given more attention or swept to the side, depending on the teacher. The tests became progressively harder with each year, but if you had paid attention in class, or were really good at guessing, you had nothing to worry about. I remember keeping a book under my desk for when I finished early. There were some years that I would finish the test as fast as I could because I wanted to know what happened in the next chapter. We, both teachers and students, were all in agreement that the tests were useless, but there was nothing we could do but sit through the reading of the instructions (which many of us would have memorized by the time we ended our final year of testing) and fill in the bubbles.

Testing week through the entire school out of whack, and made getting back to our studies that much harder after what we called a “lazy week.” No one looked forward to the test. Some students even blew it off. Our teachers were never excited about them. It was just… blah.

During my senior year of high school, I spent an hour of my day tutoring at the elementary school in my town. I grew up in a place where the biggest graduating class in history was 32, so it was almost tradition that the older students helped the younger students. The elementary kids loved when us esteemed and glorious high school students would descend from our lofty hallways to come sit in their classrooms with them. They idolized us, just as we idolized those who went before us. I worked in the classrooms helping struggling students and working with the teachers. I was shocked, however, by how things were being taught.

Most teachers taught in the same manner I had seen in my elementary years-they focused on the concepts, critical thinking, and skill development. We were encouraged to ask why, and when we did, we were shown how to find the answers to our questions. Yet in several of the classrooms in which I worked, the teachers were instead teaching their students how to fill in the blanks and find the right answer without questioning why something worked or what made that answer correct. In comparison with the students in the critical thinking-based classrooms, these students simply did not have the capabilities to go beyond what was being asked of them and really learn. This made tutoring extremely hard. I would ask a student why a math problems worked, or what made this a poem and not a paragraph, and get an answer like “because that’s what Teacher said.” They never learned to learn. Instead, they learned how to beat the test and make their teachers look good.

This really spiked when our school began to use CSAP scored to determine a teacher’s effectiveness. All of a sudden, terrible teachers were able to stay in the classroom because the tests made them look like they were doing their job when, in fact, they were not helping the students advance academically at all.

The CSAP test, which later became the TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program) test, was designed to be the accountability system for Colorado Schools. Tests were meant to show where teachers were not meeting student needs, what areas the school could improve in, and which schools were doing something right. Many other states use similar methods of standardized testing to hold their schools accountable and to help ensure that students have access to a well-rounded education. On paper, this looks fantastic, and if implemented correctly, it really is a great idea. It is an easy way for schools to definitively prove their worth and maybe even gain grants to help them continue to improve.

Yet that is not what it has become. Instead of teaching students to think critically and letting good scores on the standardized tests be a byproduct of that, teachers have instead started catering to the test and neglecting to teach students how to ask why. As a result, scores across the nation are falling dramatically. Our standards are lower than nearly 25% of the rest of the world. We were once an academic powerhouse, and now we are being laughed out of international lecture halls.

Learning is so much more than being told how to find what goes in the blank or being told to pick “C” when you don’t know the answer. As future teachers, we need to remember this and tailor our teaching accordingly. Do we have to teach testing strategies? Of course. It would be foolish not to. Do we have to let those strategies rule our classrooms and compromise our students’ learning? Absolutely not and we never should.

I can’t help but wonder where our education system is headed if this becomes the norm. I can’t imagine what our society will become as a result.



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  1. Beth, I think you would be interested in an oldie-but-goody book called _Writing on Demand_. It’s basically a book-length version addressing the claims you make toward the end of this points; that is, yes, we do have to teach kids *about* taking tests, but we can do it *without* teaching to the test. The authors contend that the key to this approach is teaching students that tests and the prompts themselves are actually genres. Writing successfully in them requires the same skills and processes that writers use when addressing any rhetorical situation. The authors cover standardized tests like the CSAP, AP exams, etc. Let me know if you want to take a look at it at some point, and I can lend you my copy.


  2. I would love to read it! I’ll let you know when I get a free week to devote to it. Thanks for the offer!


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