Friday, February 10, 2012

Ditch Test Prep

It’s that time of year again. The emails are already starting to roll in from the Test Prep companies offering gigantic gains on state assessments if you purchase and implement their products. Everybody wants a piece of the Race to the Top pie and they know that test scores are the cherry on top.

In his recent State of the Union Address, Barack Obama told the audience that teachers should not be teaching to the test. Then he turned and said that No Child Left Behind waivers would require teacher evaluations based on high stakes tests. Arne Duncan recently thought it would be a great idea to link teacher preparatory programs and high stakes testing, exploring how we can get teachers to really hone in on what it takes to do well on these tests.

Enter “fix it” companies to sell a product to help teachers help their students master the tests. (Not master the content or skills--just the test.) Sigh.

What if, and I know this may sound radical, but what if we just engaged in Deep Teaching?  In a previous blog post I talked about Andrew Chen’s quote,"in America, the standards are the ceiling. In most other countries around the world the standards are the floor.”

There are many lenses through which we can look at curriculum practice and curriculum design and one of the big ones is being prepared for any test at any time. In many of the curriculum mapping books or curriculum texts I’ve read, this is one of four lenses along with readiness, leverage, and endurance through which we prioritize the content and skills that we will teach. In Larry Ainsworth’s book, Rigorous Curriculum Design, he explains that the “Any Test, Any Time” lens is about, “those concepts and skills that are most heavily represented on external, high-stakes assessments.” (2011)

In terms of ditching test prep, I’d like to re-frame the “any test, any time" lens to refer to teaching at a level of complexity and depth that the kids are prepared no matter when the assessment happens or what the assessment includes.

But teachers will say that they have no time. They will say that there is too much to cover. That may be true, but it seems a large number of schools find the time to do weeks of “test prep.”  It is time to ditch these traditionally held notions of getting ready for the assessment. Teach Deeper. Uncover the curriculum.

Test prep is wasted instructional time. There is absolutely no reason in the 21st century for students to learn how to take a test. While I do believe that there are good reasons for teaching students test taking tips embedded within instruction throughout the course of the year, I do not think that it is at all good practice to stop instruction to beat information into a kids head when we could be using that time for learning.

Test prep is good for one thing: lining the pockets of the companies that are taking advantage of teachers and their students. Deeper and more rigorous instruction are what’s needed in America's classrooms. The testing situation that we have is out of control. Unfortunately for the time being, it doesn't look like our method of assessing children is going anywhere.

What is actually happening is that NCLB waviers, Teacher Evaluations as a part of the Race to the Top grants, and the newly formed opinions around teaching teachers to teach to the test are going to have unintended consequences when they are based solely or even in part on high stakes testing:

  • students will acquire basic application of content and skills to do well on the test, but not master the skills in a strategic or extended way to serve future learning, connections, and critical thinking. (We are basically patching up/fixing a house with no real foundation.)
  • we are putting a lot of pressure on kids and teachers for that test score. If that score is tied to performance pay or even keeping a job, how long before opportunities arise to manipulate the data? (...pushing good people to consider cheating in order to keep their jobs...)
  • we are valuing achievement over growth, neglecting individual learners and reinforcing 19th century curriculum constructs and applying them to 21st century kids. (For instance, if a student starts a school year at 95% proficient and ends the year scoring 95% proficient--the kid looks great on paper and his teacher is found to be highly effective. But that kid didn’t move academically over the course of the year.  Likewise, a student that comes in at 0% but at the end of a school year tests at 50% proficient looks terrible on paper and the teacher is rated Ineffective. But this kid moved, the teacher grew this kid 50% over the year. Where’s the fairness in this system?)

Our current system of assessment is borderline cruelty but at the moment there is little that can be done about it, until those in power see that they are funneling America’s children into a drone-like state of testing compliance.  I’m not saying that there aren’t good assessments out there or that assessment is bad. I’m saying that we are wasting time and resources buying test prep materials and shutting down instruction for test preparation because we are driven by that one score captured in one moment.

Those resources and time could be better spent digging deeper in instruction, concentrating on more formative assessment moments multiple times through the school year that could guide students and shape instruction well before the high stakes testing moment.

Ditch the test prep. Ditch the testing pep rallies. Ditch the focus on the high stakes test. (Don’t Ditch Assessment, though!)

Focus on deeper and more rigorous teaching. Focus on learning that is explorative, authentic, and meaningful for students. Focus on increasing complexity from one learning moment to the next--day to day, month to month, year to year. Focus on frequent assessments for the sake of individual student growth and performance, not the one size fits all summative test.

Ainsworth, L. Rigorous curriculum design, how to create curricular units of study that align standards, instruction, and assessment. Lead Learn Pr, 2011.


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