CST Aftermath

Many of you right now are in the middle of the annual string of testing that takes nearly six weeks out of the last two months of the traditional school year. There’s test prep, test drills, bubbling exercises for younger students and finally the testing itself. This testing mania, driven by federal mandates, is the biggest challenge to finding the joy of teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Barbara Kerr, California Educator, April 2007

A few weeks ago we took the CSTs, our year-end standardized extravaganza. Judging by the released questions and the rubric, the Geometry CST was an extremely fair measure of what my students learned. Students also came back and claimed they felt well-prepared, which may or may not mean anything come next fall when we get our scores and I find out exactly what kind of teacher I was this year.

I take this thing seriously, a fact which left alone would lead the anti-NCLB coalition to believe my classroom is something it’s not. So, in order to set the record straight:

What we did:

  1. I checked the framework online, which gives a conceptual breakdown of the test, at the start of the year and at intervals throughout. I knew early on that California hangs the course heavily on proofs so I made sure to give that section (which, in the textbook, carries the same weight as any other) extra attention.
  2. Whenever I wondered if I was doing proper justice to a concept — perhaps going too short on depth, too narrow on breadth, stopping with the easy problem set — I checked the released questions to see what the state of California wanted me to do.
  3. As a matter of daily routine I’d toss a released question or two up on the board — ones that corresponded to whatever we were working on. I’d walk around as they wrote down answers and update a tally (“Twelve right, four wrong so far.”) every few students.

    This strategy a) made test prep a matter of organic, ongoing review, b) familiarized my students with the form of the CST, c) saw them investing in it daily, which made it that much tougher for them to bubble in “FART” come game-day, and d) eliminated Barbara Kerr’s frequent waking nightmare of classrooms poring feverishly over huge packets in the week preceding the test.

What We Didn’t:

  1. Teach to the test, insofar as “teaching to the test” implies an artificial/schematic means of gaming our scores. (The test does assess Geometry, however, which I am in the business of teaching. So.)
  2. Crush spirits.
  3. Make children cry. (Except for this one time but that was a totally different thing.)
  4. Script curriculum.
  5. Skimp even a little on investigations, self-directed learning, all-school treasure hunts, or show and tell.

Not for nothing, this year, the year I took assessment the most seriously, a year which saw me building satisfying lessons while accommodating my state’s insistence on results, was the first year I found art in the science of teaching and felt worthy of the label “professional,” one declared antithetical to standardized testing by so many.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. This is also the year I’ve taken the CSTs the most seriously. I’m dying of curiosity to know how I did, but I’ll have to hunt those results down; we don’t have access to any scores except our current batch of students. By the time these results come out, my juniors will be someone else’s seniors. That’s poor reporting and something that the state/county/district should work to fix.

    I’m with you in regard to the lie passed that standardized testing equals the death of creativity or joy. I don’t think it does, but I do think that students are thrown a whole bunch of tests to take within a short amount of time, some of which matter to their future (SAT, ACT, AP) and some of which don’t (CST, except for juniors who take the EAP parts of math and English). This does equal at least the beginnings of the death of creativity or joy for our students.

    As you mention in #2:
    “see what the state of California wanted me to do.”

    We’ve had this discussion before and I again have to assume that the math standards are different from the English standards in this regard, but I don’t believe that the state of California knows what they want teachers to do. Nor do I believe that the state of California knows what’s best for students. The mandates we’re getting from CSU/UC schools and from the business world are different than the incredibly vague standards the state created 10 years ago.

    Teaching my students to read a brief passage and answer surface-level, multiple-choice questions about that text is nowhere near as important as teaching critical thinking and writing. Further, there’s a whole set of listening and speaking standards that are never (mark that, never) tested on any standardized test. That doesn’t instill me with much faith in either my subject area’s standards or the testing that ETS has created to measure progress on them.

  2. More from the Swedish point of view. I might be a bit of the mark here since I have no idea what the CST is (I guess it stands for California State Test or Standard Test or so) and I you want me to shut up Dan just say the word…

    We have national test at the end of every math course in Sweden and I do teach to the test. I think that these test are the best way for the government to tell the teachers what they want us to teach the kids. Maybe it is easier in math and physics then in English (Swedish in our case) but it is really the only way to give an education from different a chance to be equivalent. If the test is well constructed I don’t see anything wrong in teaching to the test. Ok, it is important to remember how the test in later courses will be even when teaching early courses and to plan for how the skills I teach will be used while working and at university, but still if the test is well made it will reflect that.

    I take great pride in my classes result on the national test (never had another class score better then my classes at the schools I have been working at to date ;-) and I think the result, at least in part, reflect the skill of the teacher.

    As an outsider looking at NCLB it looks like a good idea made to simple, from what I understand the system don’t take much consideration of all the different variables that is beyond the teachers and administration but I am for the idea to try and measure the result of education and to connect it to a reward/penalty system in someway BUT a system like that is hard to make and a bad system may well hurt more than it helps.

    Think I might wandered of the topic some but I have been grading national test for 15h today with only two short breaks so I have earned the right ;-)


  3. Yeah, this conversation feels familiar, Todd, and then as now I wish you had some recourse for lousy standards.

    Per, congrats on finishing your Swedish standardized tests (SSTs?). Not sure if your year is complete, but we’ve still got a month and, man, it’s hard not to feel a little depressed. Like, what are we working towards now?

    Am I to understand that the difference between the Swedish and American systems is that ours carries consequences with it and yours doesn’t? Are employment decisions ever made from a teacher’s testing record? Are the assessment results made public, even on a broad, aggregated scale? Curious stuff, there.

  4. I don’t think results on test matter on employment decisions very often even if I have been sure to mention my results when on interviews for new jobs. School district people sometimes look at results and use as reason for what they want to do (I think it is very rare that they look at it to get information about what needs to be done). The most important use of the test is an indicator to the teachers as grade information. You can use the test to “fix the curve” on your own tests. I usually give fairly hard test during the year but can do some adjustments after the national tests.

    The tests and the results of the test are public as a result of the freedom on information act we have here in Sweden (more or less everything the “government” do on all levels are public so almost everything we do in school is public) but if you want to start comparing different schools you will need to compile the information yourself. (some district put statistic together but not all).

    I wish the system could reward good results but if it does it need to take many factors into account like social composite of the students, quality of the schools the students went to before high school. A simple system could do more harm than good (imho)

    I have two and a half week left with regular classes. In one of my sections we do makeup work and will have a voluntary test on the last day for the ones close to a higher grade. My seniors will have the last test next Monday and after that I will not be able to make them do anything ;-). One section I have both in math and physics and I have been steeling time from physics to math and now we are paying back, the physics course go on after the summer so it is not that hard to keep the students going.