Texas Snow Days Expose the Gaming of Standardized Tests


As you might have heard, considering all of the Super Bowl media hype from here in North Texas, our weather has been pretty bad. Between different ice storms, we've been “snowed in” four separate days in the last two weeks, including this past Wednesday. It wasn't just some sort of Super Bowl curse.

Many students have missed four days of school. Unfortunately, that seems to have teachers and administrators in a panic over the upcoming “TAKS” standardized testing that is taking place soon here in Texas… let the dysfunctions begin!

As Dr. Deming (Out of the Crisis), Brian Joiner (Fourth Generation Management), and Daniel Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) have written about, measurement often leads to dysfunction, gaming, and suboptimization, especially when these measures are used for individual evaluation – punishment or rewards. This seems to be true in any sort of organization – pressure a nursing manager too much over any one performance measure and I'd guarantee dysfunctions will occur.

Dr. Deming emphasized that not everything that's important is necessarily measurable – and I think education often falls into that category. This is the polar opposite of the “if you can't measure it, you can't manage it” cliche' that is often wrongly attributed to Dr. Deming.

Alfie Kohn (check out my podcast with him here) takes a very strong position that grades and scores are harmful in books including Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes.

From a practical standpoint, I have a number of teachers in my family – I know they are pressured to “teach to the test” and that the scores on these state tests often take priority over more important learning. That seems to be the case here in Texas.

Case in point are all of the news articles talking about how teachers need to make up for these four lost school days and they are panicking to get kids ready for the tests.

From the Dallas Morning News (“Dallas-Fort Worth teachers scramble to make up lost lessons before state exams begin“):

Some teachers have begun looking at ways to make up the lessons, if possible, and may hold Saturday and after-school sessions.

“The people who are most freaked out right now are the writing teachers,” said Linda Price, a teacher at Sheffield Intermediate in north Dallas.  Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams in writing, reading and English language arts are scheduled for March 1 for some grades.

Price said students normally prepare for the writing test with compositions — writing one per week leading up to test day. She said her students need more work, judging from rough drafts.

“They're looking horrible,” Price said. “We can't catch up in writing.”

So let's assume that the last four years have included a lot of “teaching to the test.” This is likely (if effective) inflating the scores each year, creating a baseline that doesn't reflect reality.

If they don't have as much time for teaching to the test this year, the scores will likely drop.

Would those lower test scores be ANY indication of:

  • Our kids being dumber?
  • Our kids getting an education that's worse than last year?
  • Our teachers being less effective than last year?
  • The curriculum being substandard?

I guess we will be able to quantify the impact of “teaching to the test” if the scores drop, but how is that helpful to society and our education system?

This all seems like a bunch of “muda” or waste. I managed to get a GREAT public school education in my hometown of Livonia Michigan without there being so much emphasis on standardized tests. Yes, I remember taking a few of these, even going back to 2nd grade. Do more of these standardized tests mean better education? I'd be hard pressed to believe it.

Are many teachers being unfairly rewarded or punished based on these scores? That I would believe.

Last week's panic was about there not being enough seats at Cowboys Stadium (seats < tickets = lawsuits). This week the panic is about not having enough time to teach to the test. I'm not sure which is more embarrassing.

Final thought – Another artificial “test” in healthcare includes things like Joint Commission inspections. I'm sure that some hospital here is panicking because they lost preparation time, if some employees couldn't make it to work and there's now less time to move all of the stuff out of the hallways that's normally stored there when it shouldn't be! Teach to the test… make things look good for the Joint Commission. This doesn't really improve the system. Do you see dysfunctions like this in your workplace? Are you distracted from providing customer value because of these sorts of things?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark,
    I’m with you that the current system is not working, but I think it is better than not testing at all. There is a third option, though. Measure something that matters.

    Deming actually does have a big emphasis on measurement throught his whole book. But he just doesn’t focus on the results. Instead, when the results are below expectations, he looks at the process, but he still advocates a lot of measuring. He probably mentions control charts a hundred times in his book. His buzzword is ‘how would he know?’ whenever he talks about a manager making a change without information.

    So, instead, maybe if education focused more on the drivers during the educating process–time spent studying, physical health and fitness, parental involvement, homework turned in on time, behavioral issues, etc. and less on the results at the end, then the testing might not be such a big deal.

    Great article.

    • Thanks, Jeff. I didn’t mean to imply that Dr. Deming was opposed to all measurement.

      I think measuring something that matters in education would be fine. The education “industry” needs to get some professional ethics in place so that they stop cheating and gaming the system, but that’s more idealistic than practical. So I guess if education can’t manage these tests responsibly, then do away with them.

      To your second point, education seems to be completely results oriented. My mom was a teacher in a very poor area and she would often get blamed for students’ poor performance, which was ridiculous – these kids had broken homes and completely dysfunctional lives… I don’t what teacher could be “held accountable” for their success.

    • Great points Jeff.

      I have been focused on improving performance of clinicians and teams within healthcare for the past 6-7 years. While there is often more global measures of healthcare performance (cost, length of stay, mortality, adverse events, etc.), there is generally no useful information to guide managers or engage staff on meaningful performance improvement (as an aside, I completely agree with those that say the annual performance review process should be banned). When I consult with managers that feels they have a underperforming team, the manager is most often focused on productivity, not performance. I usually ask them, “What do you want them to do more, better, or differently?”… and if the manager cannot answer, they better be engaging the staff to figure out the answer and not making it up themselves.

  2. Hi Mark;
    I’ve talked much about NCLB and student testing in my blog. The system must change!!! “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education”, by Diane Ravitch, outlines the damage being done by standardized testing. She is a former Asst. to the US Secy. of Education and was originally a proponent of the current system. Now, she sees the damage being done by a system that makes testing a central focus.
    I did a Q & A with her: http://tinyurl.com/yfcnlwr

    Mike Sporer

    • Mike, thanks for sharing that interview.

      What jumped out at me right away (and makes me cringe):

      “The worst thing about No Child Left Behind is that it created a punitive attitude towards teachers and schools. If the school doesn’t raise scores, heads must roll! Principals must be fired, teachers must be fired, and schools must close!”

  3. Really like this post Mark. This problem has always vexed me and I’ve made several attempts to address it, or at least point it out. Years ago I was at a Deming Institute meeting where David Langford was one of the speakers (he has done some nice work translating Dr. Deming’s ideas to education). After the presentation, they broke the attendees into groups and gave them a challenge – “If the education system were destroyed tomorrow and you had a chance to redesign it, what would you do?” The group I was with (teachers, administrators, etc.) had all the typical ideas: tougher standards, stronger “no child left behind”, more money for teachers, tougher standardized tests). When asked my opinion, I said, “Why not find out what each child would like to learn about and give them the resources and guidance to learn, to love learning – for life?” Blasphemy! Who is this guy? At the time, I was the President of our local school board, but had also started home schooling our kids. I also taught my kids the hazards of grading and focus on testing through Dr. Deming’s red-bead demonstration (my 3rd-grade son & I had a paper published about the lessons of the red beads applied to grades and focus on the test). So, the current system of grading and focus on the test is strong. You have to keep chipping away at it and not give up.
    PS . My 3 home-schooled kids turned out just fine – M.S at UW Madison in Scientific Writing, Doctorate of Physical Therapy – University of La Crosse, Wisconsin, B.S in Physics and in Mechanical Engineering @ Iowa State University. They also took a lot of tests, but they knew how to put it into perspective.

  4. In the military, I remember learning to ‘game’ these multiple-guess tests which were given weekly in the technical schools. Our entire class learned how to do it, as well.

    Take out the absurd answer, factor away the homophone or misplaced decimal point if a calculation, and scan the previous answers for a pattern and score high! Real learning, it was.

    Of course, once we reported aboard ship and had to demonstrate our vaunted, test-proven ability to do the work, we went back and learned it the hard way: from the manual.

    My undergrad experience was a little different having to pass a weeklong oral comprehensive in order to be conferred a degree. Imagine that happening these days.


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