Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Teach to the Test?

For some time now, I (and I'm sure you as well) have encountered blog postings and articles that lament the TEACHING TO THE TEST - the justifiably maligned standardized test. It seems that both teachers and administrators believe absolutely that such an approach is mandated! AND I'm sure it is in many cases.

The question to me at least is WHY? The research that makes most sense to me suggests that EFFECTIVELY LEARNING THE MATERIAL is the best approach to doing well in any measure of learning (including even standardized tests)! Consider the following:

1. Probably the most important contributor to effective learning is motivation. If you haven't read and studied Dan Pink's book, "Drive," do yourself a favor and pu that at the top of your list of things to do. There is nothing in teaching to the test that will provide student motivation to learn!

2. Unless you are preparing for a quiz show such as Jeopardy, there is very little to be gained by knowing large quantities of facts. AND, from my observations, I'd suggest an equally important if not more important capability on Jeopardy is the ability to "ring in" quickly! There must be an honest determination of CORE KNOWLEDGE for each subject and each grade level. By the way, to me at least, that is an important effort required but for sure NOT simply a listing of the core national standards.

3. IF THE CLASS TIME USED to push facts and teach to the test is eliminated, there is now significant time to facilitate effective learning! To me that points to significant inquiry / open-ended problem solving in all subjects. Ask any one (including educators) how they really learn material and they will tell you it's by using / applying that material to solving interesting assignments AND the inevitable "instructing" others about the material presuming students are expected to work on groups on the assignments.

A personal recollection: A number of years ago on public radio heard while in the car, I learned about an elementary school in Florida. It seems that the school had scored near the bottom among Florida schools on the fourth or fifth grade standardized math test. Wishing to improve their ranking, the principal / school board found some money and employed the teachers over the summer in efforts to improve the mathematics materials and pedagogy hopefully improving the school ranking. After the summer effort, really only two significant changes were made. First, the concentration of emphasis on the standardized test was eliminated. Parents were told of the dates to improve attendance, etc., and students gained experience with the test formate through other assessment for grades. Second, the existing math period was divided into two periods and placed at different places in the schedule (NOT adjacent to each other). One period was used for facilitating core knowledge. The other period was used for math applications. THE OBJECTIVE OF EITHER PERIOD COULD NOT BE ADDRESSED IN THE OTHER PERIOD - regardless of any apparent need to do so! Students were forced to struggle with ongoing assignments, waiting to the next period to correct their issues. Not surprising to me at least, the school performance on the standardized test improved significantly - near the middle of the ranking the first year! Only changes in subsequent years: reduced "core knowledge" period length, added to the "application" period. And the scores continue to improve each year. My read: The student motivation and effective learning improved because of the interesting (to them) assignments in the applications. AS IS TRUE FOR ANY PERSON OF ANY AGE, IF THEY ARE ENGAGED IN MEANINGFUL AND THUS FUN ACTIVITIES, THEY WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO SUCCEED AND WILL DO IT WILLINGLY. AND THEY WILL SUCCESSFULLY LEARN THAT NEEDED MATERIAL - good standardized test scores being a byproduct.

SO WHAT'S THE REAL STORY? Is the mandate to teach to the test or is it to get acceptable standardized test scores? If it's the latter, then the former is absolutely the wrong approach. Either way, what's required is to do what that school in Florida did: Bring the interested parties together and work to find the BETTER ALTERNATIVE (another must read from Stephen Covey noted in a previous blog posting).

To me, the greatest travesty is accepting the inevitable mandate of teaching to the test! The students most especially are being hurt - and thus so is all of our and the country's futures. As cyber friends such as Peter DeWitt, John Merrow, and Walt Gardner (as well as the previously mentioned Dan Pink and Stephen Covey) have routinely and repeatedly pointed out, there are better approaches to effective learning and acceptable test scores. Anything less that full efforts to change the learning culture and approach to accomplish effective learning is unacceptable. I for one am ready to join with any of you in this effort - just let me know when, where, and how and I'm in! I'll keep,you informed of my intentions and efforts as well.

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