This was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook blog.
Those who think that there is too much pressure to “teach to the test” find this time of year to be infuriating. Schools typically cease to focus on their regular curriculum and begin to prepare their students for these venerated exams.
Some schools stop all social studies and science classes, as well as gym, art and enrichment activities, so they can spend all day on test prep in Math and English. This overhaul of the curriculum is extreme, but not unique. Unfortunately, for the students, it sends a larger signal that learning for the year is just about done.
At the middle school where I teach, we prepare by taking practice tests, timing them, going over the answers and familiarizing students with scoring methods. We teach strategies — how to restate the question on short answer questions, how to organize their essays and make sure that they answer completely.
The tests are theoretically designed to measure how much students have learned in the classroom throughout the year. But the reality is that educating students on how to take a test can determine success nearly as much as learning the content.
Is this a terrible thing? Sometimes. But sometimes not. It really depends on how you answer the question: Is it valuable to learn how to take tests?
The truth is that we do use standardized tests to measure achievement — not only in middle school, but in high school, college and after. Some people “test well” and others do not. It’s not a perfect measure of achievement or knowledge, but it is the one that we use, and our students are well served when they are taught how to demonstrate their knowledge in this way.
Some of my brightest kids have terrible time management skills, and consistently find themselves having finished only half the test with only minutes remaining. Others have a habit of flying through the test, racing the clock, and giving up on all questions that seem vaguely unfamiliar. They have to be taught to take their time and to write something even if they aren’t sure.
All of them have to be taught to write down their thought processes, even when it seems painfully obvious, so that the person scoring their test can give them credit.
The reading passages are excruciatingly boring, and my students groan audibly as they read them. They get caught on challenging words, such as “folly,” the focal point of the listening section of a test several years ago. They also get stuck on passages that seem easier but are related to issues to which they have not been exposed, like farming or rural life.
As a teacher, I spend two or three weeks teaching to the test. During these weeks, I show my students scoring rubrics, we talk about how long they should spend on each question, they identify reading strategies that are most helpful. And we practice, practice and practice.
Two or three weeks out of the year doesn’t feel like much, and I don’t mind doing it, because I do know the importance of these exams. But the real problem, perhaps, is that I spend seven months teaching for the test.
In some schools, passing the state exam is a given; students don’t think about the exams because it’s not a challenge that they strive to overcome. In my school, where most kids think of grades as passing or failing, rather than nitpicking over percentages, the state exam is a hurdle to leap. It’s a goal that they understand, because everyone knows someone who has had to go to summer school or been left back because they failed one of their exams.
And so, unfortunately, I and my fellow teachers find ourselves using “The Test” to motivate them far more often than we use loftier goals that they can argue with. “You’ll need this in high school,” doesn’t pack the same punch as, “this may be on your state exam.”
My school does shut down, as all schools must, during the tests. And we do teach strategies that are specific to this test rather than to a lifetime of literacy. But that’s not our main failing, because in a system whose success is measured by those test scores, we would be foolish to do anything else.
Our failure is that we struggle to inspire them beyond the test. Every year, I think that I will overcome this, and I try to push them to achieve for reasons other than the test. And every year, after the test, when I load up my PowerPoint and write the daily objective on the board, I hear groans and shocked sounds.
“Why are we learning?!” they ask in a panic, “We finished the tests!” They look at me as though I missed the memo.
And every year we have to recommit them to learning, reestablish the reasons that they need to be in their seats for the sunny months of May and June, when they struggle to comprehend why they can’t just be outside.
“You know, no one is going to come to school after the test,” one of my strongest students informs me.
“Well, you can fail for attendance, even if you pass the test,” I counter.
“Oh. But we won’t have to be doing too much work, right? We can go on trips and stuff? What’s the point of working after the test?” Her grades are high. She is generally well above average in terms of motivation and effort, but she gives voice to the average sentiment of the students.
We always find something new to motivate them — the need to have a pristine, packed portfolio, or the final report card grades that are forwarded to their high school. And it is always something external, though it seems that the desire for knowledge, the ability to read and write on their grade level, the need to feel smart, should be what drives them.
I tell myself that they are young — that 8th graders are always motivated more by the external than the internal. But it seems like the biggest failing of the test — on top of the countless ones that we usually discuss — is that it gives kids a false barometer of success.
How sad to feel that the measure of your worth and the only reason to strive is contained in the number that you earn on that one day.