On today’s blog, we reintroduce you to our friends and colleagues from North Carolina, Hope Reagan and Alice Oakley. Testing is a hot-bed topic in education and in this post, they share some of their thoughts and observations about test preparation as well as some insight about staying the course during this hectic time.
‘Tis the season of testing and with this season comes a real pet peeve of ours. This pet peeve being schools who choose to essentially shut down instruction to start the heavy duty test preparation work, months before the actual test date. Seemingly, they move into panic mode. It has been our experience when panic mode sets in, the game plan for what is best for children can be misplaced. This kind of work can be disguised with fancy names such as strategy groups, data clusters or Links, as in linking what you know with how to take a test. Beware.
According to many people, teaching to the test is as unavoidable and those who opt not to succumb to the pressure will reap harsh consequences under tough accountability systems.
We worry when we hear such stories as the principal who turned up the dial on his staff to start test preparation as early as three months before the test and a brave teacher spoke up challenged this idea, “Wouldn’t it make sense to just keep teaching in a purposeful and meaningful way like we do everyday in our classrooms?” he suggested.
We are thankful for teachers who teach this way and think this way.
In stark contrast we celebrate when we hear about a principal who told her entire staff if she saw test preparation in the form of item testing before two weeks of the actual end of grade test, she would put them on an action plan. She explained that the practice was unethical and “curriculum teaching” should continue in classrooms to prepare students for the EOG not “item teaching”. She also compared it to fool’s gold – you don’t actual have what you think you have.
We are thankful for principals like this.
What is wrong with teaching to the test?
There are different ways of thinking about “teaching to the test”. We really like the way assessment expert W. James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: “curriculum teaching” and “item-teaching.”4 Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.
For example, if students will be tested on author’s purpose in reading, curriculum teachers will set students up to think about (evaluate) the many reasons authors choose to write, the structures in which authors use to lay out their message and how the message is created through main ideas and details or a well developed plot. Students will read and discuss many types of texts to experience and evaluate author’s purpose and they will also practice authentically writing for different purposes in order to apply these ideas.
Item teachers narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on state assessments.
Mr. Popham goes on to say the latter is unethical. We believe it!
Staying the Course
Tony Dungy says in is book Quiet Strength, “Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan.”
We would argue that the best way to prepare students for high stakes tests is to stay the course with teaching the curriculum with rigor and purpose. As we work in classroom as coaches, we see effective instruction – students gathered together talking about a good book they are reading, writing that is being revised, edited and finally published, application of content through project based learning and math concepts being explored at a deep level so that more complex problems can be solved. What more could we ask for?
We know, based on research, that effective instruction is correlated with student achievement. Why would we want to stop this type of teaching months before the end of grade test?