Why are We Testing Students Before We Teach Them?

In “A Tough New Test Spurs Protests and Tears,” New York Times reporters Javier Hernandez and Al Baker describe the uproar in New York City in response to the Common Core standardized tests.

The mission of Common Core standards reads as follows:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Unfortunately, Common Core’s mission—like the mission statement at the U.S. Department of Education website—valorizes global competitiveness as a primary goal. While “relevant to the real world” implies education about global issues, it’s telling that full preparation “for the future” translates into competing “successfully in the global economy,” rather than successfully solving global challenges as contributing citizens within graduates’ chosen professions.

Despite this limited and somewhat myopic goal, Common Core is meant to raise the standards our children must meet and produce critical thinkers who can analyze, not just memorize. This is a good thing, but the article in the Times reveals that the tests—at least the particular one under discussion—left many students (the ones not actually boycotting it) shell-shocked, rather than prepared and eager to demonstrate their greater skills and knowledge.

In the article, David Coleman, president of the College Board and one of the architects of the Common Core standards, said he did not understand the skepticism about the tests. “When the alternative is shallower passages and shallower questions, what are we debating here?”

This is not the only alternative.

If students are stressed by the tests, if they are failing to finish them, if they find them too opaque and difficult, then they are being tested before they are being taught, a persistent problem with our test-crazy “reforms.” The choice isn’t between deep or shallow questions; it’s between preparation to answer meaningful and important questions or punitive tests administered prior to full teaching, which demoralizes students and defeats the very purpose of learning.

Results are crucial. Evaluation and assessment are critical. It’s not enough to have high standards if we aren’t meeting them. But testing doesn’t ensure we meet standards; teaching does. The day that our students walk into what they should perceive as opportunities for assessment without stress and anxiety, ready to share what they have learned through evaluative processes that are engaging and interesting in and of themselves, and fully prepared and excited to demonstrate their solid skills and thinking minds within a time frame that doesn’t reward speed over depth, is the day that we will know that they were taught before testing.

Furthermore, the day that we abandon “global competitiveness” as our primary goal and replace it with global citizenship and preparation to lead meaningful, contributory, satisfying lives that do the most good and least harm to all, is the day that our students will eagerly head to school each day, relishing their chance to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they’ve gained through their work, projects, and ability to answer deep, relevant, thoughtful questions.


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

Image courtesy sarah-ji


Mary G.
Mary G.2 years ago

Students are overloaded with different test and topics while their studying. Whys should we test them before their studying? It will definitely take the wind out of their educational sails. They check custom writing paper service and ask for their assistance with many paper works because they don't have so many time to do everything they are assigned to. They should prepare to different test daily, they have no time to study something really interesting to them or do other homework. That's not fair, let them breathe with full lungs sometimes.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you Zoe, for Sharing this!

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

Also, why are they testing students and punishing them for the teacher's failure to teach them?

Sabrina I.
Past Member 4 years ago

thank you

Walter G.
Walter G4 years ago

Just another tax dollar benefit for those trapped in the "Empire State," built in segregation in schools.

Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Margarita P.
Margarita P4 years ago

I was really good with book learning when I was a child, but I joke that I flunked recess.

Lori Ann Hone
Lori Hone4 years ago

All I ever ask or expect is my 10 year old son to do his best on these tests and that's good enough. Don't really care what the government thinks.

Diana S.
Diana S4 years ago

Any scientist or scientific researcher will tell you that you need a "baseline" reading to determine the initial direction of any enterprise, else you are just flying blind, and any information gained after that is pretty well meaningless without that baseline for comparison.

This is what the standardized tests are trying to achieve - a baseline reading, so they know what areas are most deficient, and where to start remediation.

Who gives a flying f**k what the stated end-objectives are?!?!? A well-educated young adult will make up their own mind where they want to take their intellectual expertise, be it competition or social responsibility! Further, a well-educated young adult is far less likely to be "herded" like a mindless sheep into a path that does not agree with their own ethical standards!

Parents and educators should shut up and stop whining, and watch the government "sheepherders" get very, very afraid of a well-educated, individual-thinking, energetic younger generation!!!

Andy Kadir-buxton

IQ improves little with present education. It is simply about learning facts, so exams are a memory test. Logical progression should be taught in schools because it increases IQ. (IQ test questions are simply logic problems).