Friday, May 27, 2005

"Teaching to the test"

One of the phrases recited by rote by educationists is the moronic phrase "teaching to the test," proving again that educationists preach "criticial thinking" but either refuse or are unable to practice it.

Try as I might, I can't follow the logic of this typical educationist pronouncement cited in this NYT piece.

"If the fourth graders are scoring well on these tests, what does that actually tell us?" asked Bree Picower, a former sixth grade teacher at Public School 19 in Manhattan who now trains teachers as an adjunct professor at New York University. "It tells us they are spending more time in after-school programs in test prep and it tell us that teachers are being pressured to teach to the test. But it doesn't tell us much about what students are capable of, what they know and what they are able to do."

Ms. Picower is a member of a group called the New York Collective of Radical Educators, which plans to stage a protest against testing this afternoon outside the headquarters of the city Education Department.
Of all things, this Ms. Picower now trains teachers but seems unaware that tests can indeed demonstrate what students know and are capable of doing and perhaps test what they should know. What does she think should be the purpose of education?

A reader at joannejacobs put it succinctly:

It's teaching to the test, but since the test should be based upon what they should be learning, the teachers are just being forced to teach the kids what they should be learning. Not that radical of a concept...

8 comments:

EdWonk said...

We've linked this post at this week's Tales From The Trenches: Classroom Teachers Speak.

Alan said...

I am confused, testing yes, as long as there is some balance in regard at what age and how much testing is done! Teaching to the test, no! This paragraph, “It's teaching to the test, but since the test should be based upon what they should be learning, the teachers are just being forced to teach the kids what they should be learning. Not that radical of a concept,” surely admits that the system is not working so it’s alright to spend time teaching to the test. Why would you start your commentary by throwing insults? “One of the phrases recited by rote by educationists is the moronic phrase, accusing those who might be of the same opinion of having a mental age of between eight and twelve years is not a productive start to a dialog! The roots of this problem are the NCLB act. When local control is lost to the feds and test results equal income, what’s the natural consequence? Teaching to the test, is the symptom of a problem but not the root cause. And while we are at it, constructive communication starts with good listening skills, awaiting your response. Alan.

Instructivist said...

"Teaching to the test, no!"

If a test tests what should be taught according to sound standards, then teaching to the test is the same as teaching to the standard.

Of course, not all "standards" are sound (i.e. not really standards). Likewise not all tests are sound.

Alan said...

Thanks for the response, but you must be pulling my leg! When “teaching to the test,” isn’t one taking time away from what should be going on? Tests have questions that relate to a “small percentage” of the broad content of material to be mastered by the students. In any particular text book the full range of content should be covered by the teacher. The long range problem is the shrinking knowledge base over the school life of a student. When teaching to the test is taking place within the context of the regular school day, the time used for that activity is diminishing the availability of time for including the broader range of content! The resulting dilemma is that a thirty chapter text is often not covered adequately because only a fraction of that content is needed to ace the test. Testing results equal state funding and that’s the bottom line that the institution has to focus on at this time in our educational culture. Please respond in detail because, if I have it wrong, I would like to be further educated. Warm regards, Alan.

Instructivist said...

"Thanks for the response, but you must be pulling my leg! When “teaching to the test,” isn’t one taking time away from what should be going on?"

I thank you for a thoughtful response.

However, you make it sound as if there must be a necessary disjunction between tests and curricular requirements, i.e you seem to see tests as some extraneous object that bears no relation to the material to be covered.

The merits of teaching to the test cannot be judged in a vacuum. If the test is comprehensive and covers all major areas of the curriculum (assuming there is one) and its accompanying standards, then teaching to the test is the same as teaching to the standard. Since a comprehensive test could be unwieldy, you could also conceive of tests as a form of statistical sampling as used in quality control. This forces you to cover all required areas since you wouldn't know which parts will be tested. All you know is that a selection of a range of topics will be tested. You are still teaching to the test because you know the range of topics that can potentially be tested. This is a good thing because it prevents you from going off the deep end, for example in the form of time-wasting trivial and pointless hands-on activities and projects.

On the other hand, if you know the SPECIFIC questions beforehand and you have a test with few questions of the sampling kind, and you limit your instruction to only these questions, then you are obviously not doing your job.

But why would you need to spend all your time on "questions that relate to a “small percentage” of the broad content of material to be mastered by the students?" If the percentage is really so small and it still takes up all your time, then you should take a closer look at your instructional methods.

Alan said...

Maybe we should get on the phone and talk this issue through as this back and forth process does not adequately allow for a detailed intercourse unless one is prepared to do essay length posts! If that is an option for you I will give you my #.
A question; what percentage of tests given, through grade eight in Illinois in private and public schools are truly comprehensive? I have no idea! If it’s the majority, then your premise works for me, if not, teaching to the test is not about learning but all about cutting the mustard for the system rather than the student!
The question of pointless hands-on activities and projects depends upon what educational philosophy one considers to be most advantages to the overall educational process. You most certainly have uncovered my bias. The educational process, in my mind, should always include elements like music, art, theatre and the like if one really would like to see balanced human beings at the end of the process. In fact, the arts should be seamlessly woven into the process so that there are no distinctions between the use of the head, conceptual work, the hands, practical- hands on activities, and the heart, development of the social senses and teaching that stirs the student to become engaged inwardly. I believe that involvement on that level greatly helps with genuinely incorporating content in such a way as to be better remembered and integrated into a “fabric” of learning rather than disjointed parts that might be regurgitated only so as to be able to ace tests. That’s were the NCLB act is taking us.
Basically I think we are not in disagreement, but would have to know what we individually consider to be most important elements of the educational process are and to what end!
“The system,” is out of kilter, in my mind. I look forward to a possible personal conversation. Regards, Alan.

SpakKadi said...

The problem with teaching to the test is that it tends to prevent depth of study. Is it better to memorize the name of every war that has happened since the year 1000, or is it better to study some of those wars in depth? Do both, you say? Okay, which wars should we study in depth? Some teachers might prefer to focus on more recent wars (like, say, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam). Others may prefer to focus on wars that effected the formation of the United States such as the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Still others may want to introduce their students to conflicts that shaped parts of the world they are less familiar with (like, say, Asia or South America). If you study just a few concepts in depth, it makes you more capable of going out and understanding less familiar concepts in light of what you already know. But, for fear of leaving out something in the "breadth" that standardized testing looks for, depth is pushed aside.

Another problem with "teaching to the test" is that students get the impression that what is on the test is the only thing they need to know. My college professors were often frustrated by students who only seemed to care that something would be on an exam, not that it might be a good thing to know.

NYC Educator said...

I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of teaching to the test, but I often question whether the test is a valid or important one.

I've spent a great deal of time and energy devising a formulaic approach for my ESL students to pass the English Regents, and I've been very successful at that. For them it's a high stakes test--they can't graduate without it.

But I don't like what I'm teaching them--four paragraph canned "essays" with prescribed references to a handful of so-called "literary terms." I'm almost certain that the skills I give them are useful only for passing the test. Were I teaching writing, I'd find these compositions artificial, tedious, uninteresting and unsatisfactory.

I also strongly feel that their time would be better spent improving their English language skills, oral, written and otherwise. Works of literature I give them are chosen for their brevity rather than quality, in order to give them as large an inventory as possible with which to respond to the literature question.

I'd like to send Thomas Sobel to Korea and give him six months to pass that test in Korean. He couldn't do it if I provided him with the questions beforehand.