Bruce Montplaisir: To succeed at testing, students need real-world experiences

A lot of people ask "What is wrong with teaching to the test?" My first response is "Absolutely nothing." There are some pretty prominent educators that say you should design a curriculum that identifies what you want children to learn, design a test to assess whether students are learning the curriculum, and then teach to the test. That is what most schools and teachers do.

But there is so much more involved in taking the blank slate of an infant and turning that person into a responsible adult.

Thirty years ago a high school senior was working in the district office over the summer. She had some horses out at her dad’s farm. Her mare had a colt and she told me I should bring the kids out to her place so the children could see the 2-day old baby. As we were driving to the farm Mary Beth warned the kids that they had to be careful around the baby horse. Our 3-year-old at the time told us how careful he would be with the baby horse. "I will hold him carefully and be gentle when I pet him," said Henry. Mary Beth and I looked at each other and thought, "We need to get the kids out more."

We had three children, ages 3, 6, and 9 at the time. The kids learned that a baby horse was bigger than our 9-year-old and we learned the importance of experiential language. Children need to experience language in a real world environment for it to have meaning.

Teachers can spend all day everyday in front of a classroom, or even mixing among the students, but field trips provide the experience to place language into context. Some parents are able to provide a lot of additional experiences beyond those provided by the school. Other parents have little ability to provide experiences for their children beyond what the school provides.


When looking at ways to become more economical some school districts reduce or eliminate field trips. So, while these schools focus on teaching to the test they eliminate many of the activities that help children make sense of the words used in those tests.

Tests assess what is taught in a classroom but they are also constructed to assess the background a child has outside the classroom, experience the teacher has no control over. Some people call it cultural bias, but it doesn’t matter what your culture is if your experience is limited.

Some people are more successful than others as teachers and some people get certified as teachers who aren’t very good at it. We can assess whether a teacher is proficient in: planning and preparation, providing a classroom environment conducive to education, instruction, and sharing in professional responsibilities outside the classroom. We can even tie in test results of their students, but we don’t assess what kind of experiences outside the classroom a child has grown up with; we just see the results.

There is a bigger gap in the experiences of 3- and 4-year-olds now than there ever has been. That gap, which is reflected in test scores later on, can only be addressed by early child experiences provided through the school setting.

That need for early intervention is difficult to address because many people believe it is the parent’s responsibility to provide those experiences. Many people believe our nation is too poor to provide the early intervention necessary to enable children to be successful and would rather spend money incarcerating those children when they become adults.

People who prepare the long-range plans for future prisons need look at the children in 2 ndgrade to assess what those future needs will be.

Another thing about assessments that frustrate school people is that there are a lot of kids above the average that could do very well on the tests if they cared, but they just don’t care. Some schools try to provide incentives for a class to do well, such as a party if the class scores above a specific level.

With the advent of computerized testing we also know that the longer a student spends on a test the faster the answers are clicked into the system. The faster the student clicks in the answers; the lower the accuracy.


There is a lot of research that tells us what is needed to improve student success and we know it involves early intervention. While there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test, we know that if we want kids to be successful we need to start the experiences leading to success on the test a lot earlier than the year the test is given. We also know that if we want test results to be reflective of a student’s ability the test result has to be important from the student’s point of view.

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