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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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"Weighing the Pig" in U.S. Schools

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn about the British educational system from a visiting professor from Cambridge University. When the issue of standardized testing came up, she used a memorable analogy. She said schools spend too much time “weighing the pig, expecting it to grow.” The expression, which apparently originated from a story by a farmer to his son in the early 1900s, teaches that the activity of weighing or measuring does not produce results or improve performance—it simply measures outcomes.

In today’s schools, an exorbitant amount of time is spent testing. While it’s difficult to actually quantify the amount of time students spend testing, some studies, such as ones reported in the Washington Post, give some idea of the enormity of the situation. For instance, a report from the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives estimated that New York State students spend about 2 percent of instructional time taking standardized tests, though that number has been criticized for being too low. A Council of Great City Schools study claimed that between kindergarten and 12th grade, students will take about 112 mandated standardized tests.

You also have consider the amount of time students spend preparing for these tests (taking practice tests, etc.). One begins to wonder whether we are putting the accent on the right syllable. If teachers are spending ample amounts of time preparing students to take tests, and students are taking lots of tests during the school year, when does instruction happen? If too much focus has gone to “weighing the pig,” what does that do to student learning and performance?

What if schools took a different, perhaps more balance approached? Maybe something that looked like this scenario:

Students take a pre-test at the start of the year (for elementary students, maybe this in reading, math, and science). School districts—and teachers more importantly—would have a baseline of data to determine where the students are performing when they enter the classroom. Then, schools issue a post assessment at the end of the year, say April or May, not too early in the school year, so there isn’t time to prepare and students spend two months thinking “learning is over.” In between, teachers have discretion to administer practice tests, progress checks along the way, to see if students are on track for those post tests. But it’s up to the teacher how many of those progress checks they want to give—and, how much time they want to spend teaching.

This model might provide a more balanced approach, one where we are not constantly preparing for tests with practice tests and spending weeks on end testing. Yes, we are using a measuring stick but we are allowing time for student growth and real teaching to occur.


Steve Haberlin is a graduate assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida. He spent 10 years teaching in K–12 public schools.