On “teaching to the test”

The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Accountability” in Education Exposed: What teaching taught me about America’s failing education system by Kelly Matthews, M.Ed.

…Administrators often expect teachers to do the impossible. In addition to doing the impossible, teachers are expected to do so while working within the confines of the specific rules of operation the administrators set forth. These rules of operation are not put in place to help teachers to be better teachers; they are there to serve the administrators and make their lives easier. Administrators expect teachers to teach and grade in specific ways that are not conducive to improving test scores.

When administrators walk into classrooms, they want to see teachers motivating the students like something out of Dead Poet’s Society. They want teachers to be inspiring students to do magnificent work. Students will be engaged through inquiry and developing products that show their mastery of the standards. The real fact of the matter is that a student being able to show mastery through a specific task—such as a poster—does not mean that students can show mastery of the standards on the tests. But the administration wants to see both the fun, product-based teaching and the improving test scores.

One of my favorite things to have my students do is to make a mind map. It is a critical thinking activity in which students in cooperative groups must create a graphic representation of a character from a novel, play, or short story. The students must include two symbols that represent the character, two quotes from the story that add to his or her characterization, and two original phrases that help people understand the significance of the character. They create a face shape with all of these tasks.

The poster project is a great way of measuring whether or not students get characterization. They also must understand the significance of the work as a whole in order to understand the roles played by the individual characters. It’s also great if I am being observed because the students are engaged, working in groups, and I am facilitating instead of lecturing.

Although the poster project is aligned with the state standards, the poster project is not aligned with the state test. Just because a student can complete all of the tasks I have assigned, it doesn’t mean the student can answer a question on the test about symbolism, theme, or characterization. The knowledge doesn’t transfer. If I want to ensure that my students can answer questions about symbolism, theme, and characterization, I must teach them and assess them in a way that aligns with how they will be assessed on the test.

And if I teach like that, my students will do well on the test. I know this because I do and they do. But if an administrator drops in for an unannounced observation, I will fail that observation because students aren’t standing on the desks declaring, “Oh Captain, my captain.”

Do I want to teach like that? No. I would love to do mind maps every time. I would love to do as many projects as I could fit into the class period. It’s not just fun for the students; it’s fun for me. I love being a facilitator—it’s less work. I love getting to see the creativity with which these students create their products. I love students getting to develop their critical thinking skills.

But I also love having my students show growth on the tests. So, I can still do projects from time to time, but the bulk of my teaching has to be explicit, direct instruction. And this is what people mean when they reference teaching to the test. And, yes, it sucks the souls out of hard-working teachers on a daily basis….

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