Here is what a typical school year is like for many students in US public schools. The teacher gets a copy of old state tests. She then proceeds to drill the students with these old questions, because everyone must pass that year.
Rather than teaching the applied learning and thinking skills for the grade level, she is in charge of, the teacher is forced to use boring test prep materials and templates for very particular “item”-based learning. Quite a lot of time is wasted on low-value rote learning.
Many people believe this is the result of mandatory standardized testing in schools, something that students, teachers, and parents have been struggling with since 2002. The purpose of learning for the entire school year culminates in filling in bubble sheets on multiple choice tests.
Here is another scenario. A newly appointed public school teacher in a school that mostly caters to low-income children is handed his manual of information for a standardized test his students will be taking that year.
He does not find the description in the manual adequate for developing a curriculum around the test items in it because he does not understand the skills or knowledge that these items represent.
Instead, he manages to get his hands on the test that his students will take. He then proceeds to copy parts of the test for class, to teach the kids the kind of content they are to expect in the test.
Alternatively, else he slightly changes these items for practice, with no regard for the cognitive skills they represent. There are a few questions to ask here. Is standardized testing in schools leading to such poor teaching practices?
What is wrong with “teaching to the test”? Do students who cram do better on standardized tests than those who are guided through traditional activities, projects, and cross-curricular skill-based models of teaching?
The answers to these questions are not easy. Is standardized testing in schools leading to “teaching to the test”? Since the phrase is often applied broadly, it is useful to define “teaching to the test” in its many forms.
According to some educators, it is the practice of just aligning instruction in the classroom as well as the curriculum to standards. However, this is not a definition that most frustrated teachers subscribe to.
For them, teaching to the test is the misguided practice of dumbing down instruction to focus on memorization and rote learning. Such a system is carried out for nearly the entire year in many of the 100,000 public schools across the US.
High stakes standardized testing in schools multiple times a year left many educators with little option, say teachers. For almost six to seven months of the school year, young minds in these K-12 classrooms are missing out on essential knowledge and skills that they should be taught. Where learning should involve the mind and the heart, it is instead stripped down to a narrow set of experiences devoid of meaning.
Some people argue that it is only below average teachers who resort to teaching to the test. It may be more common in schools in disadvantaged areas. Regardless, it is necessary to put a stop to the practice. It cannot be debated that standardized tests have their place.
When used appropriately in moderation, they help teachers identify the strengths and weaknesses of students. Tests should tell teachers whether students are learning and whether teachers are indeed teaching. However, there is a fear that test preparation can be taken too far, to the point where the test becomes all-important and not the learning.
Parents are often afraid to place their children in public schools for the reputation that they have earned for their “drill and kill” teaching practices. However, for many parents, private schools and alternative schools with well-balanced and holistic curriculum are beyond their means.
What is wrong with “teaching to the test”? The vast majority of teachers agree that “teaching to the test” is misguided, though it can be argued that there are instances when teaching to the test can help – with the right teacher and depend on the test.
Worksheets, practice tests, drills and other such rote practices are a part of the worst teaching to the test practices. In the best meaning of the phrase, it means teaching strategies to tackle tests. In most cases, it is a waste of valuable teaching time.
Very often, teachers depend on repeated drills and old test questions to prepare students. Alternatively, else, they follow a curriculum that is not directly related to the test that the student is preparing for. In both cases, the student does not learn skills that can be utilized for critical thinking.
Then there is the fact that reading, math, and science are given the spotlight for standardized tests. Other subjects like the arts, physical education, foreign languages and social studies often end up getting less attention. Many schools even cut back on recess so that students can spend extra time on preparing for these state tests.
In the end, for students, the joy of learning seems to have been replaced by anxiety and overwhelming pressure to perform. There are reports of increasing tension, and ironically, slipping performance. There are also studies about the pros and cons of this method of teaching.
These studies have come out inconclusive about how effective or ineffective the practice is. Some studies have shown that the practice does not raise low scores. In some cases, the practice has been correlated with dropping results in schools.
However, the truth that comes out unequivocally from research is that many teachers do not know the difference between “item-teaching” and “curriculum teaching”. The only alignment between the two, and aiming to meet state standards through a focus on grade-level content, can make for good test preparation. It cannot be disputed that there are useful test-taking skills that students must also learn.
These include skills of time management, following directions, comprehending reading passages, developing an instinct to eliminate incorrect answers. These are skills that can be acquired by preparing for tests, and they will come in useful throughout life. However, preparing for a test should not interfere with the core curriculum.
A competent teacher, who has been given the resources and a free hand to develop their curriculum, will try and align these test strategies with the core curriculum through thoughtfully created content. However, educators in public schools often don’t have that luxury.
NCLB and The Pressures on Teachers: It is not just kids who have to bear the stress of high-stake standardized testing. Schools and educators are also strictly evaluated. Schools with perpetual low scores may end up losing funding and resources, having to dock pay, and have a harder time on the next exam.
For public school teachers, the joy has gone out of teaching. Many of them resort to downloading test items, which give teachers and students an idea of the content and format to expect from a test. Teachers often go on to create “clone items” that look so much like the actual test items that it is hard to tell the two apart.
Many believe that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act which was passed in 2001 is responsible for the mindset of inordinate standardized testing. A recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools has found that the typical student in a US school takes as many as 112 standardized tests between K-12. Eighth graders spend as many as 25.3 hours only taking these mandated uniform exams.
The aforementioned does not include the tests that teachers administer for specific classes. In comparison, many countries that outperform the US in international standardized tests only test their students about three times a year. The federal NCLB requires all schools to test grades 2 to 12 in math, reading, and science. The tests are based on set standards.
The aim of standardized testing in educational institutions is to help every student get a shot at meeting “measurable goals” and raise themselves to acceptable standards. The states have their tests and choose the standards of proficiency to award. This should, in theory, help teachers evaluate students and aid those who perform poorly work harder on the next test. What happens in practice is not so rosy.
Results of the tests are published publicly. Schools are held accountable for the performance of their students on these standardized tests. Schools that fail to meet the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) are labeled as “failing”.
Such pressure on schools, administration, teachers, students and other staff to do well can potentially have productive results; the ground reality is different. Pressure often leads to cramming and teaching to the test practices that are not in the best interests of the students.
On the positive side, students in poorer districts have shown improved basic reading and math skills. However, this advantage of the standardized testing system is not known to carry over into higher grades, where critical skills and more challenging problem-solving skills are needed.
In fact, disadvantaged students may be at a bigger disadvantage due to these tests. Meanwhile, if chronically under-performing schools lose resources and funding, poorly performing students suffer as they cannot be given the resources and care that they need to improve.
The NCLB has created some other challenges for educators today. Challenges are facing the teacher
1. Students hate school; teachers are losing their love of teaching:
Too much stress can be demoralizing and toxic, while a little of it can be motivating. This applies to the situations of many students and teachers today. There have been cases of students in elementary school throwing up and having nightmares on test days. Teachers have a fear of losing their jobs hanging over their heads. Is the students’ performance in high-stakes standardized tests the best way of screening the teacher?
2. Are standardized tests testing the right things?
There has been some concern in recent years that traditional academics and scores on these tests are not the only indicators of academic performance. Other skills like critical thinking, communication skills, creative problem solving, motivation, the ability to work in a team, etc. are just as important. Unfortunately, they are not covered by the scope of standardized tests. Teachers must work around these problems to develop their curriculum.
3. Teaching for standardized tests involves teaching manipulation, and not thinking.
Teachers have to find a way to avoid teaching kids to eliminate, find loopholes, guess and so on, rather than the ability to solve problems. Alignment is the solution. The only way for schools and teachers to break out of the nightmare that these tests often produce is an alignment of test standards with the curriculum content and instruction.
Teachers must first and foremost understand the difference between item learning and curriculum learning. They are not the same. Nor is teaching to the test the same as curricular teaching. In item-teaching, teachers organize their lessons around the actual items on a test or clone items based on them.
For example, one of the questions on a high stakes test is: Rita had six apples but ate 4.The student has to pick from four answers the number of apples Rita now has. Solely replacing “apples” with “bananas” in this instance makes it an item clone. This practice, sadly all too common in test preparation, does not teach a child any new skill.
On the other hand, curriculum-teaching needs the teacher to teach certain skills or a body of knowledge that is represented by a test. The materials of an effective and holistic curriculum may seem straightforward and simple to a non-teacher.
However, to an educator, it accounts for a deep-seated understanding of their subject and the best strategies for holistic learning. It is entirely possible for a teacher to make better choices about when and how to teach to a test.
Standardized testing in schools is not about to go away. Many schools provide their educators with a curriculum that is mapped to the state’s standards. They encourage teachers to teach through theme-based projects that aid critical thinking. It is time for the rest of our public schools to learn from example.