2020 Teachers' New Year's Resolutions
2. Teach your students, not "the test"
2. Teach your students, not "the test"
It's a new year and as is our custom here in the USA, we make resolutions which, while often broken, can be redefined as goals toward which we should strive.
[Updated and slightly edited from 2018]
NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION #2
- Teach your students, not "The Test."
NO, DON'T TEACH TO THE TEST
I taught third grade in the mid-1970s. At that time the State of Indiana didn't require standardized testing for evaluation of teachers or promotion of third graders. Nevertheless, my school system used standardized tests in grades three, six, eight, and ten. The purpose of the test was to see how our students were progressing and to diagnose any specific problems. We were specifically told by the administration not to "teach to the test." It wasn't professional!
When the results came back (always within a couple of weeks) we were able to see how each of our students was doing in particular areas, and plan our instruction accordingly.
10 years later, Indiana started the ISTEP. We were still told to remain professional and not to "teach to the test."
NCLB -- YES, TEACH TO THE TEST
In 2001 everything changed. No Child Left Behind shifted the attention from students to test scores. No longer were we told not to teach to the tests. Teaching to the tests was now encouraged because, we were told, the test covered everything the students needed to learn.
Our school's success depended on the test scores. Individual students were only important insofar as they contributed to the success of the school. It was time to teach so that test scores rose. Nothing else mattered. Teach test-taking skills. Teach test-like questions. Teach skills the students wouldn't normally get to until later in the year because it will be on the test. Focus on the "bubble" kids. Why are you teaching kids about dinosaurs...it's not on the test!
WHY NOT TEACH TO THE TEST?
What happens when you teach to the test, instead of teaching to your students' needs?
1a. It skews the curriculum.
When you spend your day (or most of it) teaching to the test, other content gets lost. Elementary teachers, especially, teach all subjects. If, in a 6 or 7-hour instructional day, most of the instruction is how to take a test and drilling on presumed test content, then there won't be much time left for non-tested content such as social studies, science, health, or read aloud (see Resolution #1). If the goal of public education is a well-rounded education, then a well-rounded curriculum is the logical route to take. Focusing only on test content is not the way to get there. FairTest says,
High-stakes testing often results in a narrow focus on teaching just the tested material (test preparation). Other content in that subject as well as untested subjects such as social studies, art and music are cut back or eliminated. High-stakes testing also produces score inflation: scores go up, but students have not learned more. Their scores are lower even on a different standardized test. This undermines the meaning of test results as well as education.
1b. It redirects a teacher from curriculum-teaching to item-teaching (aka it skews the curriculum).
Testing expert James Popham defines this as follows...
In item-teaching, teachers organize their instruction either around the actual items found on a test or around a set of look-alike items...
Curriculum-teaching, however, requires teachers to direct their instruction toward a specific body of content knowledge or a specific set of cognitive skills represented by a given test...In curriculum-teaching, a teacher targets instruction at test-represented content rather than at test items.
1c. It creates a one-size-fits-all curriculum instead of allowing teachers to focus on students’ individual interests and abilities (aka it skews the curriculum).
It forces teachers to focus on state (or national) standards instead of the needs of his/her students. Standards are important, but sometimes individual students need something else.
1d. It excludes the affective domain (aka it skews the curriculum).
A child is more than a reading and/or math score. The school day, and instruction, should reflect that. A well-rounded curriculum includes the arts, civics, play, and other content.
2. It promotes convergent, rather than divergent thinking – excludes higher-order thinking skills.
How much creativity is extinguished by focusing on one right answer? How is problem-solving improved?
3. It makes the test an end in itself, instead of a means to an end.
Not all students learn at the same rate. Some students take longer. When a standardized test-based curriculum is forced on a classroom there will be some students who aren't ready for some of the content. This is why many states have required the educationally unsound practice of in-grade retention to punish third-graders who cannot pass the test.
Instead of a test-based curriculum or in-grade retention, students should receive high-quality instruction and, when needed, intervention using best practices at their instructional level.
Student learning, not a test score, should be the goal of education.
4. When teachers are evaluated by test scores, it incentivizes a conflict of interest.
Ethical and professional problems can occur when a teacher's livelihood is dependent upon student achievement.
New Year's resolution #2 depends, of course, on where and what you teach. It might be easy for one teacher (an art or foreign language teacher, for example) not to teach to the test, since there aren't state-required tests for all subject areas. English and Math teachers might have more difficulty. If you're a classroom teacher who is forced to "teach the test" you'll have to adjust this resolution to meet your own circumstances.
NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION #1
- Read aloud to your children/students every day.
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