Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How I Justify Teaching to the Test

Today was the New York State English Language Arts assessment. I know that it's a mere snapshot of my students' abilities, and that it shouldn't be transformed into the driving force of instruction, but that's essentially what happens for the month or so leading to the day of the exam. This is because, regardless of how hard my students work in class, no matter how much progress they make during the year, and regardless of how passionate they are to learn, it all gets boiled down to a four-point rating scale on this single exam. It sucks, but that's just the way high stakes testing works.

Try this little experiment. Ask the next teacher you see if he/she thinks it's okay to teach to the test. They will probably look at you uncomfortably and murmur something about how it's not necessary if the teaching in the classroom is of high quality. This is the perfect college methods course answer, but the reality is that this answer is completely wrong. (In fact, I conducted this survey last year via Twitter that proves that teachers, when anonymous, admit to the need to teach to the test.)

I liken it to learning how to drive.

To do so, you must learn the essential skills - starting the vehicle, accelerating and braking, turning, etc. But once these skills are mastered, are you ready to cruise around in anything with a motor and wheels? No way. It takes a specific skill set to show mastery of these basic skills while driving a motorcycle, for example, compared to driving a dump truck or a school bus. The vehicle is different and this factors in to how successful you can be with your ability to drive.

It's the same thing with state testing.

I don't spend the entire year examining item analysis information, and I certainly don't model every assessment in class after the big exam. But I think it's important for students to know the format and the expectations of the exam. They need to know if it's a dump truck or a school bus that they will be asked to drive.

This is not the first time I've written about my personal struggle with high stakes testing. Read more here.

Standardized Testing, Simpsons Style

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