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Adjusting to Accountability

Voice of ExperienceHas the No Child Left Behind Act changed how you teach? Educator Max Fischer says it has affected what and how he teaches. NCLB's emphasis on testing means he has to pace his teaching differently. He's changed the format of the tests he creates for students too.

Max W. Fischer

One summer during my college days, I worked as a desk clerk at a large motel along a busy interstate. Each evening, demanding travelers would swarm the desk. Things could get pretty stressful as I tried to meet all their needs, but when I got most frazzled, one veteran clerk was usually there to reassure me. "Don't panic, just adjust," she would say.

In the hotel business -- as in most businesses -- satisfying the customer is the ultimate goal. More than ever before, that's the case with public education too. Conditions in our "marketplace" -- including competitors such as parochial schools, e-schools, charter schools, and homeschools -- have made it that way.

And our government has chipped in too. Ever since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, the government has sought ways to make public education more responsible for its product. Today, spawned by the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, instructional accountability has never been greater. Now, with yearly test results making headlines in the local press, state-test scorecard watching has become a popular community sport. Football and basketball coaches are no longer the only ones who feel the heat if students' scores fall behind those of local rivals.


More Voices

Have you seen these Voice of Experience columns from previous weeks?
--- Learning to Cope With Larger Classes
--- Advice for Future Teachers: Five Questions to Consider
--- Add Literature -- and Life -- to Content Instruction
--- When You Disagree With the Principal, Don't Stew in Your "Whine"
--- The "Art" of Comprehension

Like most teachers, I've had to make adjustments since the wrapping was pulled off test scores for all to see. Now all of my lessons must be focused on state-mandated standards. Gone are the days of adhering to the text. If an indicator or objective isn't addressed within the text, I create supplemental materials to achieve that objective. Now I ignore whole segments of chapters -- even whole chapters -- because they don't relate to my state's standards.

I've even reconfigured the way I test students. I no longer give chapter tests with several forms of objective questions. In order to prepare students for state tests, I create tests that mirror the formats of those state tests. Seventy percent of my unit-test questions are multiple choice; the remaining 30 percent are divided between short response and essay questions.

My state has deemed writing to be a critical component of our social studies standards. That's a good thing, because essay writing has always been a part of my classroom expectations. Even here, however, I've had to tweak my instructional plan. In the past I concentrated on persuasive and interpretative essays. Now its seems from my state's tests that compare-and-contrast essays are the format du jour.


My seventh-grade social studies curriculum presents the biggest challenge. The state mandates that I cover several millennia of ancient and medieval history. Maybe that was always the case, but now they've given the curriculum some added teeth -- an achievement test that reflects the entire 3000-year span. So now I must take extra care not to get bogged down with any one culture or era. I understand the government's desire to eliminate teachers' personal infatuations with topics or time periods, but hitting the highlights of every major era of western civilization from classical Greece through the Age of Discovery is taxing every bit of my instructional expertise.

State tests have also resulted in some school-wide changes. My team used to use extrinsic rewards -- bowling parties and swim parties, for example -- to motivate better homework habits. New district directives have eliminated any rewards not tied to state standards. That hasn't been an entirely bad development. It led my team to create our first ever "Pumpkin X Games" this fall. Students used science, math, and social studies skills that are part of the curriculum as they traveled among ten activities set up outside. Events such as "Pumpkin Bowling" offered a most extraordinary afternoon of learning.

"The concept of a well-rounded education may soon be characterized by 90-degree corners!"

A single-minded focus has also taken its toll on other areas of the curriculum. Art, music, and foreign languages are being cut back to satiate the insistent appetite of academic standards. Some middle schools in my state have eliminated home economics and industrial arts too. The concept of a well-rounded education may soon be characterized by 90-degree corners!

Only time will tell if the demand for academic standards is a passing fancy or an evolving tradition. For teachers just entering the profession, standards-based education may be the only professional environment they will ever know. As for myself, I will just have to adjust.


A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.  

Article by Max Fischer
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