Thinkers or Test Takers?

Here are the thoughts from a colleague, John Borden, after the first day of the New York State ELA Assessment last week:

On Tuesday, the ten and eleven year old children in my class began taking the 2013 Grade Five Common Core English Language Arts Test. The students had 90 minutes to read a number of passages and answer multiple choice questions. These passages, with their increased “rigor,” challenged the children to read carefully and think critically about what they read before attempting to answer the questions.

For about 45 minutes I watched my students read the passages, often more than once. I watched them pause after each paragraph to think about what they had read. I watched them take notes. I watched them highlight. I watched them critically read the questions and carefully examine the different answers. I watched them turn back to the passage, back to the questions and back to the passage again digging deep for support and proof.

In short, they did everything a critical thinker would do.

I was so proud.

Then I realized they would never finish the test.

The children looked at the time and realized the same thing. Pressed for time and stressed, they made a choice. They quickly rushed through the test

In short, they did everything a good test taker would do.

Some might say this is fine. Students need to learn to stick to a deadline. I agree. It is part of the reason I assign homework and extensive, long-range writing assignments. Others may argue that it is important for children to learn test taking skills. I’d rather they learn life skills.

I thought about the students rushed approach all Tuesday night. Is it better to work carefully and complete part of the test to the best of your ability? Or is it better to hastily answer all the questions?

On Wednesday morning, before distributing any of the testing materials prior to another 90 minute session, I talked to the kids about it. I told them they come to school to learn how to think, to discover topics and worlds they didn’t know existed, and that they come to school to become better people. They do not come to take tests.

I told them it is much better to do work that you are proud of rather than simply finishing a task. I encouraged them to do their best. I told them that If they worked as hard as they could but didn’t finish the test that I would be proud of them. And that they should be proud of themselves.

I want my students to be thinkers. I do not want them to be test takers. If all my kids “fail” these state tests because they spend too much time working hard and not enough time just answering questions and in three years I lose my job because of it, I’ll still be proud of them.

And they should still be proud of themselves.



  1. I am very happy and relieved to read this today, 06062013. I am applying to graduate schools right now, and I am becoming weary and discouraged. My competitors are test takers, and it seems that that is all that schools are looking for. I am a methodically brilliant thinker who can fluidly articulate my way through information to recognize patterns, find flaws, and solve problems, so i am sure that I will think my way around this collegiate issue. But I am very happy to read this once again, because I was beginning to feel like I was an academic outcast. Also, you mentioned being proud of hard work. I am proud of my work even if i received a C on it and the next person received an A. I was a junior high wrestling coach for two years, and I learned first hand that the ones that take their time and learn, are always better off in the end. It is time the entire world comes to terms with this realization, or else mankind will only bury their greatest thinkers, from an inability to understand their strengths and only dwelling on their weaknesses.


  2. Those are all powerful messages..that you gave to te children…unfortunately, teachers are being threatened here in NYC.,,that if they impart knowledge about the test that differs from NYCDOE, they will be brought up on 3020a charges. Fight the good fight. I am with you on this!


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