Friday, February 24, 2006

Let's Teach to the Test

Let's NOT teach to the test. Mathews doesn't see what teachers mean when they complain that they are being forced to teach to the test. In all fairness, neither do most teachers reference larger systemic issues related to not testing, per se, but the system of testing born out of state and federal education policy. I give credit to Linda McNeil, Professor of Education from Rice University who was the first to make note of the astounding similarities between Enron and our state’s accountability system. Specifically, she addresses the 'double-ledger' accountability model whereby gains in students’ test scores are recorded on one ledger, and all the children and teachers that we are losing are recorded on another, hidden ledger--as if the two have nothing common--though in reality, they are intimately connected. She addresses this powerfully in her chapter, "Faking Equity" which appears in my edited volume titled, Leaving Children Behind: How Texas-Style Accountability Fails Latino Youth.

The point here is that inordinate weight is attached to a single indicator. Hence, it is hardly far-fetched-as Mathews would like his readership to believe-that this results in a narrowing of curriculum and the pushing out of children from the schooling system as alluded to above. Why? Because combining both the assessment of the children with the monitoring of the adults in the system (teachers and principals) via test scores-two distinct functions in one-corrupts the assessment.

I also want to challenge another view that Mathews has, namely, that teaching to the test and a focus on test prep are aberrant behaviors limited to only a thin slice of deviant teachers nationwide. In response, I draw here from a published piece of mine (with co-author Nathalia Jaramillo) that appears in a UCLA on-line journal called, INTERACTIONS. You may download the whole artticle if you wish here.

First of all, teaching to the test can be a very caring response to children. Why? You, the teacher, want job security; and this, too, is typically of immense concern and interest to the children as well. A context of turnstile teachers and principles is of no benefit to anyone.

However reduced or narrowed the state curricula, you want your children to learn and progress to the next grade level. And you may especially want to do so when such resources as a print-rich curriculum and certified teachers are in short supply. Why should children be held back when one, the test is the obvious ticket and two, the resources that correlate to the outcome are in short supply? Particularly in under-resourced schools where teachers often lack experience and where children are "chancy," teaching to the test and even testing to the test (where district- and teacher-made tests mirror standardized tests) become acts of survival. I'm not condoning any of this. I'm simply highlighting the perverse logic that has been set into play by the current accountability framework.

Let me give you an example of this. And I have permission from my daughter's previous fourth-grade teacher to share this. Now, my daughter is in a very good public elementary school that serves upper middle-class families in southwest Austin. Her fourth-grade teacher is a very experienced, seasoned professional who imparts her craft, albeit with extraordinary effort, in the face of numerous state and district mandates. The year that my daughter was in her class, she kept meticulous notes on how much time she dedicated to test preparation, administering the test, and reviewing the results of the test. Test preparation involved a slew of not only state- but also district-mandated exams. She calculated dedicating upwards of 90 hours of what otherwise would have gone toward instructional time into testing. She further claimed that to have done otherwise would have been an injustice to the children in her classroom. She indicated that a lot of unfortunate exam errors track back to children's lack of familiarity with test formats and that the children's minds, bodies, and fingers have to be disciplined in order for them to complete the physical aspects involving technical know-how of the task.

My daughter's teacher didn't rob her students of curricula, however. She imparted her vast subject-matter knowledge by providing students with daily after-school enrichment opportunities that most of the children took advantage of, effectively extending the school day another hour-and-a-half. While her efforts are praiseworthy, no reasonable parent or school official can expect this level of commitment from any member of their staff-especially without paying for it.

There are clear instances, you bet, when dumbing down the curriculum is a clear violation of professional ethics. On the whole, however, I would say that we are in a particular historical moment in education and this behavior that Mathews sees as aberrant is really symptomatic of larger factors that track back to existing inequalities and a flawed systemic design.

So Mathews, this broad-based critique doesn't come out of thin air, nor is it always illegitimate. -Angela


Let's Teach to the Test
By Jay Mathews
Monday, February 20, 2006; A21

All signs point to 2006 being a crucial year for testing in America, with the first national results from the new SAT due, as well as significant changes underway in how states use the tests that rate schools under the No Child Left Behind law. If only, then, we could figure out a way to speak clearly to each other about what we think of the many tests our children are taking. Let's start by trying to clarify what I consider the most deceptive phrase in education today: "teaching to the test."

Teaching to the test, you may have heard, is bad, very bad. I got 59.2 million hits when I did a Google search for the phrase, and most of what I read was unfriendly. Teaching to the test made children sick, one article said. Others said it rendered test scores meaningless or had a dumbing effect on instruction. All of that confused me, since in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible and likely to produce more learning.

There are, of course, ways to teach to the test that are bad for kids and that occur now and then in schools. Principals afraid that their scores would look bad have forced teachers to go over the same questions from old tests day after day, to prepare for some state assessment. But there is no evidence that this happens often. Strong teachers usually raise a ruckus, administrators back down and everybody goes back to the traditional lesson reviews that all good teachers use.


1 comment:

  1. my thoughts on that same article:

    Matthew's article clearly demonstrates why opponents of high-stakes,
    standardized-test driven systems of accountability should NOT be using the
    phrase "teaching to the test" when constructing a critique.

    The more correct term is "teaching OF the test." This descriptor better
    describes the skill and drill test preparation activities found in many
    schools and classrooms--most prevalently in schools populated with
    low-income students of color.

    As he says, we SHOULD be teaching TO the test (especially in states that
    have a "criterion-referenced test").

    But, that said, the teaching of test-taking skills, practice testing, and
    skill and drill with materials that mirror both the content and form of the
    state test is what Haladyna and colleagues call "test pollution." Such
    activities make invalid the inferences one can make about the overall
    quality of a school or teaching based solely on "the numbers."

    So, as Bill Mahrer would say, "new rule": It's not "teaching to the test"
    that's bad, it's "teaching OF the test."

    And this is what is happening nation-wide