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Unethically Teaching to the Test

One teacher's inner journey as he takes on his principal--and the Texas testing culture

Everyday, teachers are confronted with many challenges, from prodding stubborn learners to subduing undisciplined students. But one of the most important parts of every teacher's equilibrium can go unchecked day after day.


What is ethical? When teachers are working with children whose minds are susceptible to every will and whim placed before them, teachers need to remember to review their ethics regularly. While it may be easy to discern unethical behavior, what would you do if the things you feel are unethical were the standard for the rest of your campus? What, then, is the right choice?

The students were, from January to the day of the test, drilled every single day on just mathematics and reading. The other subject areas were ignored.

I'm referring specifically to the practice known as teaching to the test. Math can be an easy subject to teach; however, there are times when you can put things so directly that you are teaching to a test. This is unethical, and this has been my experience as a teacher in Texas.

Texas Pressure

I began my career in 2001 when I took a job teaching third grade at a top-notch school district in Texas. I work at one of the more successful elementary schools in that district. I love my colleagues and working at the school. But, soon after I started, I began to question the administration's and the faculty's motives during the huge testing time at the end of the school year.

My mentor began giving the new teachers information about the types of questions on the final test. These were tips that could maintain the exemplary status our school had for the past seven years. She told us all of the types of questions the test had. We were to teach our children exactly how to answer these questions.

To me, it was like working word for word from the test. We looked at the prior years' tests to see examples of how the test was. We took these old tests and gave them to our students as "practice" for the real TAAS (now TAKS) test. The students were, from January to the day of the test, drilled every day on just mathematics and reading. The other subject areas were ignored. There were several classrooms where no science or social studies were ever taught.

Also, students were only allowed to have recess on Fridays for 10 minutes. School became like a military camp. If the students did not understand or did not pass one of the practice tests, they were given extended day for extra practice. It started with just two days of extended day, then stretched to three. These students lived, breathed, ate and probably even dreamed about that test.

We spent so much time focused on the test and teaching to the test that on the day of the test many of the children were ill. If the ill students were poor test takers, our administration did nothing. However, if the sick student was bright and sure to bring up the overall score for the school, then the principal would go to the student's house and pick that child up in order to make sure the student was in the classroom.

Short-term Gains

There are many unethical practices that take place every time the Texas state test is taken. After the test was completed, my mentor continued to quiz her students on the things they should have learned for the test and needed to know for basic everyday life. They had forgotten it all. They committed to memory what they needed for the test, they got the school its exemplary status, and then they forgot all they had memorized.

Is this truthfully being a teacher? Is this giving our students the best possible education? I think this is where teachers need to question their ethics. Teachers need to always look at what is in the best interests of students and do that no matter what the administration says, no matter what everyone else in the grade level is doing.

Being a first-year teacher, I stuck my neck out for those third-graders. I wanted to provide them with the best possible education and the skills they would need throughout their lifetime. I continued to teach my students science, social studies, and every Friday we talked about the presidents of the United States and the first ladies. The students would ask me challenging questions. I would challenge them and allow them to see that anything is possible. But this strategy met with resistance.

One day I was teaching my students about multiplying two-digit numbers by one-digit numbers. They had enjoyed the lesson and were asking some thought-provoking questions. They were even asking me about how to divide. This was not a part of the benchmarks for third grade; but they wanted to learn. The principal came into my room and I was demonstrating to students how to divide.

She watched for about five minutes. When a lull came, (this usually happened when the principal came into the room, because the students feared her) the principal seized the opportunity to tell me, in front of the class: "This material is not going to be on the TAKS test. Please get out a math warm-up and work on that so the students will be prepared." My jaw dropped! How could I stifle the students and go back to worksheets? I feared my principal, so I did as I was told.

For the rest of the day, the students did not say a word; they refused to answer any of my questions. Some of them became so bored they started falling asleep. I killed their excitement to learn because I complied with my principal. From then on, whenever the principal was in my room, I conducted the classroom how she wanted. However, when she was gone, it was my room, and I taught to my students the way they wanted and the way I wanted. We had fun and the learning was ongoing.

Escape to First Grade

This went on for the rest of the year. This year, the principal asked me to switch from third grade to first grade. I complied. This gets me away from the ugly testing. I have received several compliments from my colleagues about my students because they are the ones who are recalling the most information from the previous year. My students are the ones who are showing an interest in learning and a real passion to exceed beyond expectations.

There is no reason why any teacher should teach to the test. We should always give our students a love of learning and the skills they will need throughout their life. If they love learning, they will be well educated. And we will have done our job as teachers..

Thomas Rosengren is a happy first-grade teacher at an undisclosed elementary school in Texas.