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Got Coffee? Getting Testing Off Caffeine

Today's guest blog is co-written by Michael J. Corso, Ph.D. and Russell J. Quaglia, Ed.D.

When we are in schools at the end of the school year, there is this bizarre combination of pushing toward some standardized test followed by a learning lull. We see test pressure, test prepping, test practicing, and test taking for weeks. Just the other week, with a couple of weeks left in the school year, we came across fifty juniors in a library with seemingly nothing to do for 40 minutes. When asked to explain, they said they had recently completed taking their state's graduation test "so there was nothing to do."

It reminds us of what happens when we drink too much coffee and go, go, go...only to crash and burn when the buzz wears off.

What causes this fairly common experience of being educationally jacked up towards a test only to crash into a stupor of learningless activities in June? Why does this seem to recur in most schools most years?

There is little doubt school leaders, teachers and students feel pressure to "do well on the test."  Some would even call that an "addiction."  To increase test scores we become concerned about time on task and staying focused on content that will be covered in the test.  We teach "bell to bell."  We eliminate recess to make more time for reading. We implement "writing across the curriculum". The problem with this solution is that it will work in the short term. Test scores may go up a little.

But two things follow: First, we do not feel compelled to seek the real solution to raising test scores, which is to have students be academically motivated. Second, in our quest to increase test scores we decrease student engagement, disregard student voice, diminish teacher-student relationships, and lessen any effort to have learning that is relevant to our students hopes and dreams. 

But opting for the short-term solution over the longer-term effort to improve academic motivation means we will eventually need "two cups" of quick fix solutions. So schools caught in this system move from time on task strategies to teach to the test strategies. These also work to improve test scores minimally, yet quickly, while at the same time further diminishing academic motivation.

By the time we get to the "full pot" of quick fixes that is cheating to raise test scores (we have seen this in the news), academic motivation is nowhere to be found, boredom is rampant, teacher student relationships are strained if not outright hostile, and everyone seems like they are just trying to survive.

Once the test has passed we feel justified in crashing into end-of-year experiences that turn teachers into glorified chaperones and students into three-legged racers. In September, the whole ghastly cycle resets itself.

According to the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations in My Voice National Student Report 2013, which surveyed nearly 60,000 students:

  • Students who have self-worth are 5 times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not experience self-worth;
  • Students who are engaged are 15 times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not experience engagement; and
  • Students who feel supported by their teachers are 7 times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not feel supported by their teachers.

Therein lies the fundamental solution to doing well on tests. Yet the fact of the matter is that:

  • 44% of students do not experience a sense of self-worth at school;
  • 40% of students do not feel engaged in learning; and
  • 40% of students do not feel supported by their teacher.

With so many students lacking the sources of academic motivation, we resort to the quick-fix solutions of teaching to the test in the same way that someone who lacks good sleep habits resorts to caffeine in coffee to stay awake. Note that none of this is due to well meaning teachers and administrators. We know of no teacher who became a teacher to teach to the test and no administrator who became an administrator to sit in a locked room erasing wrong answers on standardized tests. We are all caught up in this addiction to perform well on tests and feel powerless to stop.

What is the solution? As anyone who has tried to eliminate caffeine will tell you, it's not pretty...at first. Having the courage to stop quick fix strategies and pursue academic motivation to improve test scores means test scores may go down initially. Developing the self-worth, engagement, and sense of purpose in school that lead to academic motivation and student aspirations takes time.

Alongside the cheating scandals that have made the news recently, we have also read about schools, districts, and even states that are pushing back against this system of high stakes testing. Some are refusing to give the test. Others are taking a hard look at what a myopic focus on test scores is doing to their students and staff.

In addiction terms, the system is starting to hit its bottom. This is the beginning of schools recovering their true purpose: to motivate each and every student to achieve his or her full potential.

We must seek academic motivation as a source to improve test scores that are part of any healthy system of accountability. And we must seek as the sources of academic motivation: believing in each student's unique value, meaningfully engaging students in their learning, and having students be assured of our support for them.   We must give students an active voice in their learning and ensure someone is listening. 

We are listening, and it is time to get off the addiction of testing and find the real solution to improving the conditions in schools that promote student aspirations. 


Dr. Quaglia is the President and Founder of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations.  He is dedicated to making student aspirations and student voice a bigger part of learning and teaching today.  He is a firm believer that students have something to teach all of us.

Dr. Corso is the Chief Academic Officer for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. In his role at QISA, Dr. Corso combines research on student perceptions of their schools with educational theory and the living, breathing practice of students, teachers and administrators.


They are the co-authors of Student Voice: The Instrument of Change (Corwin 2014).

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