Two Goals, One Path: Why Interesting Work Makes for Better Test Scores

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 15:28 -- Hillary Procknow

When the CRAfT team began meeting with teachers across Texas to provide professional development for the implementation of College Readiness Assignments (CRAs), a number of teachers expressed concern that, while using CRAs in their class appealed to them because the depth and scope of thinking they required was commensurate with their expectations for their students, these assignments might interfere with preparation for end-of-course exams.

It’s not just in Texas that teachers worry about the balance between preparing for standardized tests and teaching their students the skills and habits of mind that employers and colleges are seeking. It’s a concern across the country. (For examples, see: Career Readiness: What is it Really? and Top Ten Things to Know about Readiness). What the CRAfT team would like to emphasize is that using CRAs in your classes is neither additional work for you, nor a distraction for your students. Rather, CRAs provide the academic setting and expectations for students that will help them to succeed in college, career, and on standardized tests.

Let us take a moment to visit a Dr. Seuss book, Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, that addresses this very dilemma of having two simultaneous goals.

In this 1998 book (published posthumously from Dr. Seuss’s sketches with help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith), the happy, free-thinking students of Diffendoofer School, who love their quirky and eccentric teachers for all the interesting things they teach them, are faced with news that if they do not pass a standardized test (starting in 10 minutes!), they will be forced to go to school in “dreary Flubbertown.” After a moment of fretting, Ms. Bonkers calms the students and tells them not to worry, saying, “We’ve taught you that the earth is round, that red and white make pink, and something else that matters more. We’ve taught you how to think!”

When the students begin the test, they recognize several of the questions from subjects they encounter regularly at school. Interestingly, the students are even delighted to find questions that cover topics they have not seen before. They are able to answer them correctly because they have been given the opportunity to think deeply about interesting topics in their classrooms. (You can listen to an animated reading of the entire book here.)

Teaching Authentic Writing

You don’t have to take Dr. Seuss’s word for the importance of authentic and challenging work in the classroom. Higgins, Miller, and Wegmann (2011) make specific suggestions for authentic writing teaching that also lead to higher standardized test scores. They describe “effective writing instruction” as “teaching students to write in a variety of genres, providing time for writing and revising, allowing students to write on their choice of topics, encouraging creativity, and incorporating writing conventions—all aspects of writing workshop” (p. 310). They cite Manzo (2001), who states, “Students who have effective writing instruction score better on state writing tests than their counterparts who receive specific instruction in the skills assessed on the test” (as cited in Higgins, Miller, & Wegmann, 2011, p. 310). They also refer to Tchudi and Tchudi (1999), who found that “the broadest and richest preparation in writing produces the highest test scores” (as cited in Higgins, Miller, & Wegmann, 2011, p. 310).

Both the English/Language Arts and Social Studies CRAs have authentic writing practice that will help students think critically, revise work, and choose subjects that interest them. Here are some good examples to start with:


Teaching Number Sense

It’s not only in writing that challenging and interesting work leads to a better understanding of the material than simple memorization or test preparation. Research in numeracy and the development of number sense shows similar results.

In her paper “Fluency Without Fear,” Stanford researcher Jo Boaler (2015) argues that memorization and the ability to deliver math facts quickly are not what make a strong mathematics student. She argues that high achieving math students are those who know how to use numbers flexibly and to think about them deeply. This is not related in any way to speed or rote memorization, strategies often used to prepare students for tests. High math performance is seen in those students who are flexible in their thinking with numbers. (You can read the entire paper here.)

In this vein, the Math CRAs offer students the opportunity to think about math concepts and develop number sense in a context not based on memorization. All of the math CRAs teach numeracy through conceptual work rather than timed production of math facts. For some examples that students love, try these:


We hope to have demonstrated here that preparing students for the critical and creative thinking they will need in their lives and making sure they pass required tests are not disparate goals. By encouraging the development of key cognitive and foundational skills, such as perseverance, critical thinking, and how to find and use data, teachers are preparing their students for all kinds of academic and personal challenges, whether on a test, in college, or career.


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Boaler, J. (2015, January 28). Fluency without fear: Research evidence on the best ways to learn math facts. Retrieved April 2, 2015, from

Higgins, B., Miller, M., & Wegmann, S. (2006). Teaching to the test…not! Balancing best practice and testing requirements in writing. The Reading Teacher, 60, 310-319.

Manzo, K. (2001, December 12). Schools stress writing for the test. Education Week on the Web. Retrieved August 2, 2006, from

Tchudi, S.J., & Tchudi, S.N. (1999). The English language arts handbook (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.