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It’s testing week. Here are 5 things I learned.

favicon Yesterday and today, students at my school took the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). They need to pass the test — which covers basic skills in English and Math — in order to graduate.

Don’t worry, this post won’t extol or decry testing in general. But in observing the students, I noticed some trends that could help me become a better teacher.

1. The English part tests reading stamina. Several students said, “This is too much reading!” That’s not a good sign. Sure, the reading is boring, as it is on every standardized test. But by no means is the reading too much. My students’ frustration speaks to how little we expect our students to read. These comments embolden me to champion voluntary reading, where students get to choose what they read. Students who completed the 1,000,000 Word Challenge last year had no problem with the exam.

2. The writing prompt tests following the rules. If the prompt calls for a letter and you write an essay, that’s a problem. (So is misspelling a word that’s in the directions.) Figuring out a prompt is a crucial skill. Some may say that making students adhere to a prompt lessens their creativity. I think that’s hogwash. Rather, deciphering a prompt shows precise reading and critical thinking skills.

3. We need to teach more content in social studies classes. At our school, we teach concepts well. Our students understand social justice and civil rights movements and equality. Those are important things to learn. But I wish we taught people, places, and events better so that students have more precise evidence to back up their claims. It’s a problem when students have to recall something they learned in seventh grade social studies class.

4. We need to teach writing genres more explicitly. What’s the difference between a business letter, persuasive essay, expository essay, and analytical essay? I don’t think my students know. In my students’ minds, the teacher assigns them something to write, and then they write it. In fact, the teacher likely will simplify the task for the students — offering templates, a suggested organization, perhaps even sentence starters. This scaffolding doesn’t help students learn how to write for different purposes and different audiences.

5. More practice working alone is necessary. Our school values collaborative learning. Indeed, our society needs more inventive, creative people working together to solve problems. But I worry that my students have trouble figuring out how to do things on their own. There’s a quick give-up factor, and it’s tough for them to utilize resources (e.g., context clues, prior knowledge, test-taking strategies). We need to do more to teach hard work through personal struggle.

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The last two days of CAHSEE made me proud yet extremely nervous. I’m proud because our students took the test seriously and did their best. But I’m nervous because I know that many of our students will not pass. You can bemoan our society’s overboard test-taking culture. But that’s just an excuse. After all, the CAHSEE tests basics everyone should know. What’s really happening is that our students of color in urban areas have low skills and have a history of not learning in chaotic classrooms. And we must do something about it. favicon


  1. Sergio

    Thank you for your detailed, thoughtful essay on the CAHSEE. I really know very little about it. I left teaching nearly 10 years ago, and one reason (among many) why is because of the rabid movement to standardized testing and teaching. Does CAHSEE require or allow for holistic testing? Having been in the trenches of public education, I would strenuously disapprove of a one-size-fits-all exam. But then again, I don’t make the rules.

    • Mark Isero

      Thank you for your comment, Sergio. I’m in agreement with you about the statewide CST test (and about No Child Left Behind), which tests too often and which is too important in evaluating students and schools. But the CAHSEE is a test that every student should be able to pass. If they have trouble with the questions on the CAHSEE, they’ll have trouble doing basic things after they’re out of school.

Please share your brilliant insights!