With Regina Barreca
I just did a Google search for the phrase "teaching to the test" because I've been getting lots of e-mails from readers asking me to comment on the practice.
Many of the notes I received used rather harsh language when describing what they felt was a punitive practice put into place by non-classroom administrative and political types; indeed, several of the e-mails would have made me blush, were I the blushing sort. But since I've heard those words before, and since I love finding out more about what gets folks riled up, I decided to throw myself into the maelstrom.
Being highly professional, I wanted to make certain I had some idea what "teaching to the test" actually meant in the real life of real teachers -- as well as in the minds of certain administrators and professors of education who occasionally chew on trendy concepts the way a squirrel chews on nuts. And, although it might embarrass my university colleagues to hear me admit it in print, "research" and "Google" have, for me, become virtually synonymous as a first portal into a new world (especially if that world is one filled by moment-to-moment commentary and debate).
Imagine my surprise, however, when "teaching to the test"-- in quotation marks so that it remains entirely specific
-- called up 98,700 pages (in English, yet -- heaven only knows what they're saying in Urdu, German, and Sanskrit).
But since I needed absolute confirmation of the topic's significance, I used the only surefire gauge of whether
an idea or trend has fully entered our culture's imagination: I checked whether it has been addressed on an episode
of The Simpsons.
And here's what I discovered: an exchange between Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers about upcoming changes
in the school curriculum:
Skinner: So, what's the word down at One School Board Plaza?
Chalmers: We're dropping the geography requirement. The children weren't testing well. It's proving to be an embarrassment.
Skinner: Very good. Back to the three R's.
Chalmers: Two R's, come October.
Not very encouraging.
Perhaps, then, a test on the subject might help us assess our collective understanding of the material under discussion.
- Isn't "teaching to the test" sort of like draining the spontaneity and inventiveness out of an activity so
that only the outcome has meaning, sort of like having sex only when you want to conceive? Not that a person won't
take what he or she can get, but still...(Essay question, 11 minutes--that's the national average, anyhow, including
prep time -- for 10 points).
- Is "curriculum alignment," defined as "teaching knowledge and skills that are assessed by tests designed largely
around academic standards set by the state" (Kevin Bushweller, senior editor of The American School Board Journal,
September 1997), the same thing as teaching for the test, only tarted up in slightly different vocabulary? (True
or false; 1 minute; 5 points)
- When one of the "Carnegie Conversations" on teaching methodologies (April 26,2005) "tackles the thorny issue
of high-stakes testing," doesn't it make you feel as if the word "testing" should be replaced by:
(Multiple choice; no time at all; 70 points -- hey, they call it "high stakes" because there's a lot riding on the
gamble and presumably all of us high-rollers hope for at least a quick if short-term payoff...)
- Which of the synonyms for "standardized" would you choose?
(Trick question; these vocabulary words were not listed on the checklist for what this exam would test; 5 points
will be deducted if you answered this question in any way because you should have been doing a task that could be
measured successfully by your school, district, and state).
- If you think that standardized tests might not adequately measure the abilities or achievements of most individuals,
you are probably:
- a member of one of the more than 65 national education and civil rights groups who issued a joint statement
sent to Congress calling for major changes in the No Child Left Behind Act that recommends, for example, that
"the law's arbitrary proficiency targets" be replaced "with ambitious achievement targets based on rates of
success actually achieved by the most effective public school";
- just bitter because you did not get a raise and all your students still suck their thumbs;
- a "test-wise" person who knows how to "maximize gains" in any "traditionally monitored" exam taken within
an "education setting" by "informed and educated guessing" or, as it used to be called, a "person" who is "lucky."
(You do the math, sweetheart, and we'll all end up with 100 percent.)
How did you do?
If you did well, can I copy?