When you’re immersed in the jargon of your profession it can be difficult to step back and reflect on the meanings and implications of everyday words. Recently it struck me how often we talk about student performance, rather than student ability, student skill, student knowledge or student understanding. We constantly hear that we need to measure student performance, raise student performance and be concerned about which other schools, states or countries might be outperforming our own.

The word performance has multiple connotations and definitions, but they all relate to an action of one type or another. Furthermore, its various meanings are almost always associated with an outcome rather than a process. As far as I can tell, in the field of public education the word usually refers to a student’s ability to come up with correct answers, especially on standardized tests. The fact that we use this word as much as we do reveals much about the expectations we set for our students and by extension our overall approach to teaching them.

It seems obvious to me that this focus on student performance belies our obsession with standardized tests, but the fact that we avoid the word understanding when we talk about those tests is an admission of their limitations. In mathematics it’s easy to see how a student can learn to come up with correct answers without having any real mathematical understanding of what they are doing. At the same time, a student who understands a concept perfectly well can be thrown off by the language or format of the question. Furthermore, a student’s success on standardized tests depends as much on their test taking strategies than on their mastery of the material. Some of my brightest and most capable students do horribly on multiple-choice tests because they don’t manage their time well and they rarely consider all possible choices before answering.

By constantly stressing performance, teachers have very little incentive to spend time building up the conceptual foundations that underlie the disciplines they teach. Instead the pressure is to focus on whatever strategies or routines will lead to more correct answers on the test. As discussed in earlier posts, this problem is compounded when students have gaps in their baseline knowledge. Those students tend to fall further and further behind as teachers try to skip to the material that will be on the test, even though the students lack the background knowledge and understanding necessary to really master it. Even the students who can keep up and do well on their report cards are often missing the deeper levels of comprehension. Math department chairs in high schools bemoan the lack of conceptual understanding they see in the students who have earned straight A’s while being accelerated through algebra and geometry in middle school. Universities struggle to reeducate freshmen who earned outstanding AP test scores, but lack basic writing and critical thinking skills.

So maybe we think of our students like athletes. If they work longer and harder their test taking performance will improve, just as their athletic performance would with more hours in the gym or on the field. Or maybe our students’ performance on standardized tests is more like an actor’s performance on screen or stage. We prepare them to play the role of someone who has mastered the material, and the suspension of disbelief only lasts until we see them in a context that is less scripted.

At any rate, it is clear that we need to make it our baseline expectation that students really understand what we are teaching them, not just that they can produce correct answers in a well rehearsed setting. Of course, we also need to make sure that our curriculum and assessments are relevant and appropriate to the needs of our students. Until we make these fundamental shifts, we are going to continue seeing many students who either fall hopelessly behind, or who graduate with skills and knowledge that allow them to perform well in certain settings, but lack the depth of understanding to apply their knowledge in novel ways in higher education and their careers. We owe our students an education that leads them to become lifelong learners, problem solvers and critical thinkers, not one that just teaches them to play the part.


About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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15 Responses to Showtime!

  1. Jennifer Goodheart says:

    well said, my friend.

  2. elisa says:

    Brilliant Mitch. I love the analogies. Thank you for caring so deeply. We need more people like you in the world. Also, thank you for reminding me that, even though I can feel overwhelmed in my little bubble, I should rattle my lump and be a better citizen.

  3. janet lowy says:

    Perhaps the bean counters are not concerned about producing critical thinkers. Too many critical thinkers in the populace might mean that there are enough voices saying, “The emperor has no clothes” for the rest of the people to believe it.

    What about pacing guides? What about the developmental stage of the adolescent brain?

    I really enjoy your writing and I think you are on the right track.

    • maestromitch says:

      Thanks for the comments Janet. You may be right about the bean counters, but I usually don’t give them that much credit. I don’t see evidence of any coherent plan, sinister or otherwise. I definitely want to delve into pacing guides and developmental readiness more. What great fodder for future posts!

      • Mike Rockow says:

        I have been teaching for 15 years as well. I find myself falling into the traps that you mention too often. Moving too fast (have to cover all the material before the March 15th test), Skipping over connective concepts (takes too long, must keep moving). And when I move delibrately so all learn well, I stress because I know I wont cover everything. Then the district office looks over my shoulder and says “You should be on chapter 5 already, whats taking so long?” I like to think that, as the teacher, I should know better how to do my job. But so many people think they know how to teach my kids better. Thanks for writing – and thanks for teaching.

      • maestromitch says:

        Thanks for sharing that Mike. I’m hearing from a lot of people who are feeling the same way. Hopefully we teachers can raise awareness about how ineffective (and irrational) the current lockstep approach is. I think one of my next posts will be about the lunacy of pacing guides.

  4. Cap Lee says:

    You are right on target. Let’s take acion. A demonstration of learning shows more of what the student understands than does a test. And when we slow down to recognize students blossom at different times,we give them time to fully understand the subject at hand.

    Currently, we give a 6 weeks test, and even if they fail or get a D- we immediately move on to the next chapter. So many move on without understanding very much. Systemic change is necessary to stop this carousel from spinning out of control.

    Go to to see a student poem that really says a lot.

    Cap Lee

    • maestromitch says:

      Wow, thanks so much for sharing that. Yes, it’s so rare that we actually get to use the assessments we give for any purpose other than targeting further test preparation. I remember when assessment was supposed to inform instruction on the actual curriculum! I’m hopeful that the pendulum will start to swing back towards sanity sometime soon. Let’s make it happen!

  5. What an insightful way to express what we need to be doing for our students-helping them become lifelong learners and problem solvers-not expert test takers. I can’t wait to read your future posts!

  6. Diane Ravitch has tweeted the link to your blog, which should step up the discussion all the more.

    Agree with you, and would add that “performance” also bears a connotation of conduct executed for an audience, in this case, the testers and those who value test scores. The mere presence of an audience changes behavior, whether one be acting to make a desired impression, or choking and unable to function at all, or something in between. I don’t want students focusing on an audience; I want them truly learning and exploring and wondering and engaging in all the messiness that goes with it. I want to know what they understand, yes, and also how they came to understand it . . . and how they might be prodded to broaden and/or deepen that understanding.

    In nursing we speak of “performing” a dressing change, or “performing” a physical exam. I always want to scream, “Cut to the chase and stop performing, for Pete’s sake! Evaluate the wound and determine if it’s healing well and what needs to be done to facilitate the process! Assess the patient and determine what s/he needs and how to help meet that need in the real-world context of that patient’s actual life!” And in schools, lose the focus on performance and consider how and what the students actually are learning, and how we all can help them do it better.

    Thanks for posting; we need more like you in our classrooms!

    • maestromitch says:

      Great comment Sue. You’re so right about how the audience changes everything. I have students who routinely perform worth on assessments because of this “stage fright”, and others who do actually do better because they gear up for their time in the spotlight. I don’t think that means we should never use standardized tests (or other formal assessments), but it certainly suggests that we shouldn’t read too much into them, much less make them the basis for all major educational decisions.

  7. Pingback: Standardized Tests as Measuring Sticks for Teacher Performance « ontteacher

  8. Pingback: Fear Is the Mind-Killer | Ok, Lower the Bar

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