Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Accountability: Test Prep vs. REAL Teaching

As we all know, the word "accountability" is thrown around like a baseball at a little league game. It's like this new mantra that we hear from the mouths of policy makers and common people quite often: "Educators must be held accountable each day for their students' performance." 

Because of this wave of test-based teacher evaluations (in some states 50%) Educators who are supporting a family can potentially lose their source of income based on numbers that do not reflect the variables that influence a child's learning, or the level of true teaching that has occurred throughout the year

For those of you who are wondering, this is what "teaching to the test" actually is (I am using English Language Arts as an example here) Let's take one passage in a test prep book with multiple-choice questions. I am used to the McGraw-Hill style, but I am thinking that testing companies all conspire together in their competitive, multi-billion dollar market, so in my eyes, they are all interchangeable. Let's take a non fiction text:

1. We are presented with a passage and between 6-8 multiple choice questions each with four answers to choose from.
2. I direct my kids to preview the title, the pictures (if any) the subheadings (if any) before they read the text. I tell them to "activate their prior knowledge on the subject".
3. Then, before reading the text, I tell them to preview the questions, because this will help them to find the answers more efficiently as they read. For example, if there is a main idea question, think while reading about the strategies you memorized about finding the main idea. If there is a vocabulary question, be sure to find the word presented in the question IN the story so you may choose the answer in the correct context.
4. Read the passage with ALL of these things stuffed into in your mind. (Leaves little room for the actual content of the text, huh?) Underline parts of the text that you think answers the questions, and label them with the corresponding question number.
5. Answer the MC questions using the following strategies: (some, not all, are listed)
     -go back to the text several times to make sure your answers are correct
     -use process of elimination. Usually there are two answers that are just silly, and usually there are two answers that appear to be right (or may actually both be right) If you are still not sure, guess between those two answers. Usually this applies to inference questions.
     -In context clues questions, replace all 4 answer choices in the sentence that presents the vocabulary word. (This does not require the child to actually use the word).

These are just some examples of test-prep strategies that are drilled into their heads all year. In an urban environment, ALL YEAR. It comes close to indoctrination. All that matters is the test. All that matters is the test. All that matters is the.....

Bored yet? 

Have you noticed that the child is interacting with the text on a very superficial level? The text is picked apart like a cadaver in an autopsy. The students are expected to make inferences, yet given four answers to choose from instead of forming conclusions in their own words. This is not reading instruction. This is test strategy instruction. The kids are not forming opinions about what they read. They are not making text connections, which is a great way to assess if a student has a deep understanding of a text. The instruction is COMPLETELY centered around the multiple-choice questions. This means that any part of the text that is not covered by these questions is not "worth" teaching, because time is of the essence. Remember, during the test, students are timed. Even if a student stops to ask a question or make a comment about a part of the text that is not included in the questions, we should "bring them back to task".

Of course, in my classroom, we discussed the whole text whenever we could, including my students' connections, opinions, and experiences, because that's how I roll. I believe that a student's unique perspective about is text is invaluable, and having the student verbalize (or write) this is a fantastic indicator of weather or not he/she has understood it beyond literal comprehension. Having rich text discussion is a very intricate part of my pedagogy. I refused to give it up. I dug my heels in. Teaching a text in a superficial manner was simply NOT AN OPTION. Don't worry, my door was closed and the call button under the speaker (squawk box) was on the "off" position. My principal was sitting in her air-conditioned office, doing the budget, I'm sure.

Now, this is ChalkDusters way:

Take any given non fiction text. No multiple choice questions. (I think this goes without saying). One similarity is, we preview the text. But instead of just activating Prior Knowledge, we make predictons, speculate, discuss, and explore the topic of the text. We may even have a full-fledged class discussion on the topic before even reading the text. I pull out vocabulary words from the text beforehand and ask for ideas on what these words may mean, using root word strategies and context, eliciting answers from the kids, and clarify the definitions before we start to read. I make sure this is written down and spoken, and I ask the students to synthesize, using the words in their own sentences. I tell my students to think while they read, to highlight points that seem important to them, to evaluate, and to draw at least one conclusion and form one opinion per paragraph. (I apologize for listing, but if I went into each one, we'd be here all day)

I take a small group of students who need support (I know this because I have observed my students, and assessed their level of understanding of non fiction texts through individual reading conferences)  and read the text aloud as they follow along, stopping to discuss whenever my students need to, I follow their lead. We form opinions together. We may draw a picture to represent our conclusions, or fill out a chart with different-colored markers. This is difficult because most inner city classrooms (middle school) have 30+ kids. My small group lesson is constantly interrupted by the rest of the class. "Can I go to the bathroom?" "He's bothering meeee!" "Can you help me? Can I join the group? Please please pleaaase?" This speaks to how important it is to have smaller class sizes, or a teaching assistant. It speaks to how my kids were thirsty for some individual attention, and weren't afraid to ask for it. It killed me to turn down the child who wanted to join Mrs. Chalkduster's group. But remember, the funds are going to.....the test. Not to the things that COMMON SENSE would tell us how to improve education.

Afterwards, I assess my students' understanding by asking the entire class to write an opinion piece based on the text, using an evaluative question. I expect my students to support their opinions with text evidence and their life experiences if it relates to the topic. This also allows me to assess their writing skills (ie grammar, spelling, punctuation, clarity.) I also ask some to illustrate. Sometimes I throw them the option of writing a poem, especially if the text is political or humanitarian in nature. 

So does this tie into accountability? You bet your sweet a$$ it does! 

I do not need to teach to a stupid, superficial standardized test to be held accountable. The level of understanding my students reach while reading and responding to a text is MY RESPONSIBILITY. Therefore, if I taught to the test as policy makers are demanding, i would not be fulfilling my responsibility towards my kids. Guess what? I actually ENJOY TEACHING!!! Amazing, huh? Not surprising to me, considering that when I was five I played "school" with my Cabbage Patch Kids. 

Unfortunately for Ed Deformers, Chalk Duster's way of teaching is not EASILY measurable, because you can't run the results through a machine. It's expensive and time-consuming because competent, EXPERIENCED administrators need to be hired. I was wondering...would Bill Gates be willing to fund this with his billions, instead of standardized testing companies? Of course not, because no one except THE STUDENTS are profiting from it! 

This student-centered, whole-child, in-depth style of teaching can only be observed through.....wait for it.....the eyes of an ADMINISTRATOR (and peer teachers, of course)! Principals need to be held accountable for the manner in which THEY evaluate THEIR staff. They did the hiring, after all.  It is their responsibility to observe their staff carefully, give suggestions, and, to use "deformer" language, "weed out the baaaaad ones". I have a sneaking suspicion that if there was more emphasis placed on this much more sensible method of assessing teachers, and there was no emphasis whatsoever on boring, superficial tests, not too many "bad teachers" would be found. We would be free to educate our students how we see fit, because we are the ones who know them best (in school) and spend the most time with them. This level of autonomy would cause us to excel even further. We would feel trusted, and our confidence would be contagious to our students. Wow...trust. What a concept.

Many educators, especially those who work in low-income areas are forced to teach to a test all year. Even the units that are not labeled as "test prep", are still test prep. 

I have no problem accepting accountability for results that I have complete control over. Unfortunately, High-Stakes Test Scores to do not reflect numbers that truly represent the level of dedication a teacher has towards her students.  They do not reflect the refinement of her philosophy or her craft, they do not reflect the level of understanding she has of each individual student, the relationship she has with her class, her ability to effectively differentiate, her work ethic, or her creativity.  Test scores do not reflect her students' ability to think on a high level, form an opinion about at text, and back their claim up with real-life examples.

If you want to hold me "accountable", then hold me accountable for the things that really matter, do it fairly, and please, stop blaming me for our country's troubles. I have enough on my plate. I came here because I love, love, love teaching, as most of us did.


  1. When a teacher has to choose between losing their job or feeding their family, therefor that means teaching to the test and/or cheating, which do you think will win out? We have seen the tip of the iceberg with cheating scandals.

  2. Yes! This is exactly what I have been thinking about today. The test taking strategies that I was required to teach were mind-numbing. After going through all those strategies, if you were to ask any of the students to tell you what he/she just read, usually you get "Ummm...I don't remember." They become trained to just find the "right" answer. This is not reading. These tests don't test their ability to read and understand or make connections to the text. Kids become so focused on following those test strategies that everything good about reading gets lost.

    I've been going nuts trying to think of how to effectively explain the realities of urban teaching. I know these reformers and politicians don't have a clue what the daily struggles are. They just don't get how unbelievably tough it can be. I'm trying hard to convince myself to stay in education.

  3. I agree completeley. I also think it goes much deeper: I truly believe that the reformers want us to shape our students into complacent, non questioning slaves of the rich, which is the number one reason why I hate the test so much. In good conscience I just want no part in it any more.

  4. Test preparation is really important. However, lately the students have been noticing that they are not getting any new knowledge and aren’t learning anything. Instead they just learn the techniques of passing the test. No matter how unimportant it may seem now, students do need to start cooperating with the NYC Resume Services now, because they need to have good writing skills.