Sunday, February 12, 2006

Testing Taken Too Far, Part Deux

Most of the heroes out there probably think I'm a standard United Federation of Teachers test-hater after my post last night, but my views on standardized testing are a bit more nuanced than that (as are, frankly, the UFT's views on testing).

Why Tests Can Be Helpful: Testing puts numbers to the realities that teachers like me see every day in low-income schools. When everyone takes the same standardized test, it becomes obvious that we are, as a society, preparing white middle-class students much better for success in our society than we are African American and Latino low-income students. Because of testing, that fact is no longer just seen anecdotally through stories about how bad inner-city schools are. We have numbers that show that across the board, low-income students are being left behind, and that information forces politicians and everyone else in our society to do something about it (even if it's done poorly).

I don't think students and teachers in upper-middle-class schools like the ones all three of the writers on this page went to could appreciate how important that attention is when we were in high school (my view on testing then was simple -- they're stupid because they're hideously easy and we don't want teachers "teaching to the test"). Statistics that make at least thinking about how to fix education morally unavoidable are important.

Theoretically, if a teacher is teaching based on state standards (which they are supposed to be), they are "teaching to the test," so that is not necessarily a bad thing. Tests should have some power to determine what teachers teach, forcing everyone (including those in inner-city schools) to get with the program laid out by the (usually) experts. As long as one is not using instructional time to teach test-taking strategies (more on that later), there is nothing ostensibly wrong with teaching students all the things they will need to know/know how to do to be successful on a standards-based assessment. I think that "teaching to the test" argument is taken way too far.

In fact, testing is rightfully supposed to be at the heart of any teacher's instruction. One needs to know how much students know or have learned in order to know what to re-teach or teach in a different way. In the ideal classroom, those who test poorly are the ones who get extra help during class or after school. It makes sense that cities and states should accrue global data on who is falling behind, and they should really use those statistics to guide attention and dollars (it's only nominally done that way now).

Why They Shouldn't be Such a Centerpiece
: Of course, the extent to which primary and secondary education has become focused on tests is a little ridiculous.

In New York City, 7th graders take a two-part English Language Arts test in January and a two-part Math test in March. If that were it, it would be acceptable, but it's just the beginning. We've had testing basically every month of the school year so far. There were "interim assessments" in October and December and practice ELA and Math tests in November and February. And taking a test isn't as simple as just giving them out -- it disrupts the whole teaching day because the kids are a little off (routines and normalcy are very important, though they are regularly broken) and they usually take up a couple periods of the day, so it throws off everyone's instruction. We've basically lost two weeks of instruction (which, you'd think, the kids who are furthest behind would need the most of) to tests already.

Which subjects are tested also ends up directing attention to those subjects. Social studies is, of course, not tested, so it takes a back seat. Math and ELA teachers got a professional development day at my school the week before it started. Social studies teachers got basically nothing. Social studies and science are the classes from which special education students are pulled for their extra help, and students are much more likely to wonder "what's the point" in social studies (that's partially my fault too -- I need to do a better job of teaching them why history is important). Math and language skills are clearly the most important determinants of student success later in life, but that should not be at the expense of other subjects.

And, of course, my school showed why "teaching to the test" can be taken in the wrong direction. Every ELA class spent a month before the test doing a test-prep unit that included a fair amount attention on test-taking strategies, which is not how class time should be used. That's fine after school (which we do as well), but during school hours, class time and attention should be focused on content and subject-area skills.

* * *

I need to wrap this novella up, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of my feelings on testing. My thoughts continue to get more and more nuanced on this subject -- it is simply impossible (and wrong) to either turn to tests as the answer to all of our education problems or turn away from tests because people think they're narrow, unfair and wasteful.


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