Teaching to the test is not a bad thing

Teaching to the test is not a bad thing

James Samuelson, a teacher at the Queens Vocational and Technical High School, had an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal today in which he articulately and persuasively came to the defense of standardized testing and “teaching to the test:”

Test-taking skills are often dismissed as superficial, inferior competencies. Yet what students do need, according to critics of testing, is something more nebulous. In a recent issue of NEA Today, the house organ of the National Education Association, a high-school teacher complained that tests “punish” students, and that elite private schools don’t use tests anymore because they want “real learning for kids.” It is anybody’s guess as to what “real learning” entails; the article didn’t say. Another buzzword in education circles, “deeper learning,” is equally vague.

Many proponents of test-taking respond that complaints about testing are smokescreens to mask the fear of performance-based evaluations that are now tied to testing. That may be so. But there may be other reasons.

Although he goes on to talk about some of those other reasons — curricula that are not uniform from school to school, for example — it does seem to this reader that the biggest fear the test-haters have is the judgment such tests might pass on teachers and schools.

Because of No Child Left Behind, those judgments are public and have consequences, penalties. More about those in a moment.

Before NCLB, many schools  used of their own volition one of the four norm-referenced tests available on the market to keep tabs on how their students were faring. The tests were: TerraNova, The Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Test, and the California Achievement Test. These tests measured students against each other, providing a sort of ranking of kids against an “average student.” Chances are that most baby boomers took one of those tests during their school years.

The tests could be useful. I remember attending a public middle school meeting in the 1990s just as NCLB was coming into effect, when my children’s school still used one of them — I believe it was TerraNova. The principal and other administrators gave quite an impressive presentation on TerraNova scores for the school, how they’d identified some issues with their reading program because of the test, did some tweaking to how they taught reading, and improved their scores a year later.

This school used the tests the way they should be used: as a physical, not an autopsy. They were used to make improvements after identifying problem areas.

The tests that NCLB mandated should be no different, identifying problem areas. But what is different is this: instead of giving low-scoring schools a pass year after year, NCLB mandates penalties for schools that consistently show up in the low-scoring categories.

The penalties? Horrors! — poor students might get to choose another school. Or–get the smelling salts!–they might be able to access private tutoring!

So, while their school wears the scarlet letter of failure, the students who have been failed by it actually get a chance at other learning opportunities.

Before conservatives get their knickers into a twist about this federal intrusion into the local issue of community schools, let me point this out: NCLB only applies to states that take Title I money. The feds giveth. The feds wanteth accountability. If you don’t want the tests, don’t taketh the moolah.

Why does NCLB-mandated state testing even fall into the category of what is known as “high stakes testing?” That descriptor used to be used for things like a test to determine whether a student could graduate, get a diploma. Now, “high stakes testing” is being used to describe tests that merely alert taxpayers, citizens, parents, to whether or not, say, the majority of a school’s third graders can read.

Shouldn’t we want to know that? Shouldn’t that be the bare minimum we’d want to know about a school, its teachers, its administration?

But therein lies the problem. The teachers unions and their allies have a problem with this kind of accountability. Even though nothing in NCLB’s testing would demand the firing of an incompetent teacher, the teachers unions still resist tests that might show the world–or at least, the voting public–whether their schools are teaching kids basic, gateway skills.

As a parent, I never had a problem with teachers “teaching to the test.” In some cases, I was quite happy to know that an underperforming teacher had to face a national test, such as an Advanced Placement one, for his students at the end of the year that would tell at least part of the tale of how well or poorly he was doing. It meant that part of the day had to be spent on the lessons, rather than ramblings about mid-life crises or old girlfriends.

Teaching to the test might not be fun. But it only represents a small part of what great teachers do. And it saves poor students from dysfunctional poor teachers. At least those kids will learn something if a test is hanging over the teacher and school’s head. At least those kids will get access eventually to tutors or another school, while failing school administrators get to make excuses to the public about why they can’t teach children how to read.

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.


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