Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Preparing for Tests Undermines Long-Term Growth

The pressure is on in Virginia schools to prepare for the high stakes "Standards of Learning" tests that are coming up in a couple months. The teach-to-the-test mentality adopted by many (or most) teachers not only makes schooling unpleasant, it likely stunts the long-term academic growth of our students. I wrote a personal anecdote relating the experience of my 10 year old daughter intending to include it in this post. I've decided to save that, and many other things I've written, for a book on motivation. More about that later. In the meantime I am counting on you to contribute your own anecdotes, interpretations, and/or comments to keep this conversation interesting!

In my last post I cited a recently published study of German students who were followed from fifth to tenth grade in order to identify the factors that led to growth in math achievement over those five years. [] The researchers measured intelligence, motivation, study strategies, and math skills. They concluded that growth in math skills is predicted by motivation and study strategies, not intelligence. The results were unsurprising to the researchers, whose initial hypotheses were confirmed. My post was critical, but more about the perceived implications of the study than of the study itself. I expressed my concern that motivation may not be as distinct from intelligence as we tend to think. Educators efforts to edify young people are similarly constrained by both.

An important finding of the German study that I haven't yet mentioned will help us understand one of the ways our efforts are unwittingly sabotaged. Recall that growth in math skill was predicted by intrinsic motivation, i.e., students who scored highly for intrinsic motivation showed greater gains over several years of math tests. [Intrinsic motivation was measured by self-reported questionnaire items like "I invest a lot of effort in math because I am interested in the subject."] That was expected. What was unexpected -- and most interesting -- was that these intrinsically motivated students tended to score lower on any given year. They were outperformed in the short-term by extrinsically motivated students, but they showed greater gains in the long-term. [Extrinsic motivation was measured by self-reported questionnaire items like "In math I worked hard because I wanted to get good grades."] I will quote the analysis of the researchers at length:

Students with high intrinsic motivation are less concerned about how well they perform on upcoming achievement tests. Accordingly, although intrinsic motivation should provide long-term benefits, such a non instrumental approach to learning may not add much to current performance. As for deep, elaborative learning strategies, previous studies indicated that elaborative learning may not be an efficient means of dealing with an upcoming achievement test because semantic elaboration is a relatively slow learning process and therefore costly if time is limited.

Learning is a slow, gradual, and ultimately personal process of who we become. Students who respond to short-term extrinsic motivators like grades and scores on tests may be favored by school systems under pressure to perform on annual exams. Students who are motivated to make sense of material according to their own interests may not only underperform on annual exams, but they may be disfavored by the school systems which, paradoxically, will undermine the interests of everyone in the long term.


  1. I teach "honors" and "regular" classes... and a quick straw poll done at the beginning of each term is revealing. Students who have, or demonstrate, a self-concept that they are not intelligent always answer NO to the question "are you good on standardized/MC tests?" I fully believe that student's opinion of their own intelligence is heavily skewed by their vast negative experience with standardized testing. They get the message we send - "there is only one real measure of intelligence (the SOL) and if you do bad on it you are stupid." We tell them (by test scores) that they are stupid long enough and they eventually believe it - they aren't stupid, you know.

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