What Mexico Taught Me About Common Core and Standardized Testing

In the Fall of 2006, just a few weeks after getting married, my wife and I packed two suitcases each and headed to Mexico.

We both had found jobs at an English speaking International School. I was to be the only math teacher for grades 10-12, teaching 6 different courses from Algebra I through AP Calculus. If you’ve taught before, you know that 2 or 3 “preps” can be a handful. I was stepping into 6, and 4 of which I had never taught before. I was probably in over my head, but it sounded fun and I was up to the challenge.

The front of the high school - a 100 year old victorian house.
The front of the high school – a 100 year old victorian house.

When I arrived at the school, just a week before classes were to begin, I asked the administration about what curriculum or materials were available. It seemed like a reasonable request – I wanted to know what exactly I was to be teaching the students, and start making my lesson plans. It turned out that at the end of each year, the teacher of each course chooses the textbook that would be ordered for the following school year. We found the copies in the storeroom, and I had 6 different textbooks from 4 different publishers for my courses. I was given free rein to decide what, when, and how to teach.

I was pumped!

Up until this point, I had strictly taught in public schools in Texas. Texas is the birthplace and model of the original No Child Left Behind legislation. We’ve been fully indoctrinated in accountability and standardized testing for at least as long as I’ve been alive. I hated standardized testing as a student and grew so tired of the pressures and stresses they placed on me (and my students) as a teacher. Here I was living the dream. Now I set the standards. Now I made the tests. And I just knew my students would be better for it.

Unfortunately, it didn’t all quite work out that way. My enthusiasm and ambition couldn’t make up for some serious flaws in my plans.

I would consistently plan a project or lesson, only to see it fall apart when students didn’t have the prior knowledge needed. There were gaps of concepts that were never taught in prior years like I would have expected.

You see, teachers at international schools hardly ever stay for more than two years at a given school. It is part of the allure of teaching abroad to be able to move to a different country every few years – and really see the world. This can lead to discontinuity from year to year. Particularly in schools where no two teachers teach the same course.

My classroom (a converted bedroom) that I shared with two other teachers.
My classroom (a converted bedroom) that I shared with two other teachers.

After just a few weeks in, and as much as I hated to admit it, I found myself missing standards, pre-assessments, accountability, and everything that comes with it.

And that’s exactly what I turned to for help. I gave all of my students a released version of the 8th grade “pre-algebra” state exam from Texas. This is a test all 8th graders are required to pass before being allowed to go on to high school. I chose this test because I knew it well and it covered the basic building blocks my students would need in all of their high school math courses.

The result: even the majority of AP Calculus students had a hard time with the test.

Though the scores on the test were discouraging, I was able to use the results to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses. From there, along with more regular and ongoing assessments, my lesson plans were much more successful and better tailored to the needs of each student.

Soap Box

Accountability and high-stakes standardized testing can certainly be exhausting, demotivating, and flat out awful.

But as I hear the calls from an increasingly louder and louder movement of educators, parents, and politicians to cut back on testing, eliminate common standards, and roll back on accountability, I can’t help but fear we’re beginning to move backward.

It isn’t the tests or standards themselves that are evil. It is how they are implemented. If we perceive them as something happening “to” us and not as a tool we can use to better our teaching and our students’ learning, then of course we’ll continue to hate them.

If administrators prescribe exactly the scope, sequence, and daily lesson plans that teachers must follow, then they totally miss out on the benefits of being able to use data to drive instruction.  I can’t tell you how many schools we work with that still prescribe to requiring all teachers to teach the same thing on the same days and in the same ways. Scary. And sad.

What most parents, students, and teachers hate most is really the daily “teaching to the test” and how these tests become the ultimate definition of success and failure. For students, teachers, and schools.

It is the tone of the conversation that worries me the most. A tone that understandably comes from years of frustration in a system that we all feel stuck in.

As standardized testing season begins here in the US in the coming months, let’s take some time sharing with our students and their parents the benefits of accountability, remembering back to why it came to be in the first place, and demand to our policymakers that instead of killing off tests, we learn how to learn from them better…

Your Thoughts?

I’ll admit, it is much easier saying all of this now when I’m several years removed from it all. Please leave a comment below, or share a link to your own blog post, with your thoughts, disagreements, and ideas.


Some of my former students may stumble across this post as I still stay in touch with a handful via social media. I see, with great pride, that they have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, scientists, successful business leaders and so much more.  I was a bit afraid of sharing too much here as I didn’t want to belittle the education these students received. My time in Mexico was amazing, mostly because of the students that allowed me to share a little math, and taught me so much more than I taught them.

And for fun, here are a few more pictures from our time there.

9 thoughts on “What Mexico Taught Me About Common Core and Standardized Testing

  1. Thanks for sharing. So, basically there was not any common core curriculum the school had or followed. Right? You just got to choose your textbooks and create your own scope and sequence. Right? It is nice having the freedom to choose what you’d like the students to know but I do appreciate when there is a curriculum to follow, at least as a guide to see what students need to learn or what they should have learned in the previous grade levels. Sounds like you had a lot of work to do but I bet living in a different country made it worth while. Thanks again for the insight! I appreciate you sharing.

  2. Ronnie,
    Thanks for sharing. You gained a lot of wisdom in your early years of experience. I like this quote a lot:

    “If we perceive [tests and standards] as something happening ‘to’ us and not as a tool we can use to better our teaching and our students’ learning, then of course we’ll continue to hate them.”

    The students themselves won’t find tests so awful if they could be assured they are a tool for the teacher and for students to better learn.

    Thanks for sharing this great sample and encouragement for the next #edublogsclub prompt. It has given me ideas of my own.


  3. Great story man, I love hearing about wonderful stories like yours
    and more particularly, people that are not afraid to give up even when all odds face them. You are a great Teacher and i’m sure that your students will forever be grateful with your hard work and dedication. Thank you for making a difference on those students lives.

  4. Thanks for the reflection on the usefulness of the CCSS. All the same, I have to take issue with the way we use them.
    The very fact that the CCSS have grade level expectations for performance makes them unrealistic. They don’t take into account the level a student is starting from. Rather, they say where everyone should be at the end of that grade. Students who fall behind feel overwhelmed and it’s compounded year after year. The educators feel that way too. They are the ones who are tasked with working the miracle of catching students up to grade level.
    I understand having a road map for the direction of learning goals but we would all be better served if we let students work from the place where they are along the learning path and take away the grade level stigma. Some parts of learning come more easily than others but nearly everyone can get to the destination in their own time. I can give extra help to my higher needs students but they often don’t reach expected goals at the time the CCSS says they should. They often need another 3 to 6 months and that’s just in kindergarten. The fact that kindergarten is the new first grade only makes it harder for kids to be developmentally ready. I am pushing a rock up hill and trying to bolster enthusiasm for learning while shoving more and more material at them.
    Often enough, some students in upper grades have lagged several levels behind, even with special support, and they feel like failures. They need to meet with frequent measurable success in reaching personal learning goals using the CCSS as a framework or a guide, not as a stick.
    IMHO ~ If we could remove the grade level structure of schools, kids could learn what they need to, when they are ready for it, and they could also race ahead in areas where they are more proficient. That is where common standards and expectations can best serve the learning community.

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