Teaching to the Test

The indispensable Iowahawk made a 2003 entry in a "Why am I a Democrat" contest, including this succinct explanation of the welfare state: "I am a Democrat because I believe in helping those in need. All of us, you and I, have an obligation to those less fortunate. You go first, okay? I'm a little short this week."

But he really caught my attention with this quip about a subject that's been worrying me lately: "I am a Democrat because I recognize that education is important. Very, very, extremely very important. We must increase spending on education and enact important education reforms, such as eliminating standardized tests. Because we can never hope to measure this beautiful, elusive, important thing we call education."

He refers, of course, to the problem of "teaching to the test." It's been years since I engaged in a discussion about the public schools here in Texas without hearing at least one person lament the problem of "teaching to the test." I used to ask what it meant, then gave up. It came up again last week, when I was hanging out with the Fiber Women, several of whom home-school. (One does it because her strong religious principles. Our hostess has this in common with her, but has often remarked to me how incomprehensible she finds her friend's religious convictions on the subject of birth control. It seems so obvious to her that a truly moral person would not burden the planet with four children. She literally cannot fathom how her friend views procreation; her friend, of course, is only too familiar with the opposite point of view, but chooses to go her own way and not argue about it. They have other attitudes in common to sustain their friendship.)

But back to schools. Here's what mystifies me: what's wrong with teaching to a test? Why is it so difficult to devise a means to determine whether the kids are learning what we want the schools to impart to them, and to determine whether one school does a better job than another at this task? Do I imagine that a child's entire worth can be summed up in a standardized test? No, of course not. Am I blind to the fact that kids from disadvantaged homes will find many aspects of eduction unusually challenging? Obviously not. But have we really come to the point of arguing that most under-performing students are lost causes as a result of their families or neighborhoods? I don't blame a doctor who can't cure a dead body, but I also don't offer to pay him an annual salary for trying. Similarly, if a condition is impossible to diagnose, then I neither blame the doctor for missing it nor pay him for the effort. The "I'm not to blame for failure" argument is great for answering undeserved withering scorn, but it's not a good reason to keep signing paychecks -- it's a good reason to encourage educators to find a more productive line or work. The task of education isn't hopeless, or we wouldn't keep at it. If it's not hopeless, and we have any idea at all what we're aiming to accomplish, then why is it a bad idea to find a means for judging the results of our efforts?

Once you can accept the idea that it's theoretically possible to devise a test for determining whether each student has benefited from the year he just spent in class, then the question becomes whether the school was doing something to impart that benefit, or if the kid merely soaked it up by osmosis as a result of the inexorable march of the calendar. Presumably if anything about the comfort of the lives of the people employed by the school are going to depend on the results of the test, they will be motivated to see the kids do well on it. This leads to the dread "teaching to the test." But what is the problem with that? To put it another way, if teachers are drilling the kids in something stupid and irrelevant in order to increase their chances of testing well, then isn't the test stupid? And if so, why can't we craft a better one?

This week I decided to read articles objecting to "teaching to the test" until I encountered a sensible idea somewhere, but I gave up. Teaching to the test is bad because it focuses on narrow facts instead of the thrill of learning or "critical thinking skills." The kids are only learningtesting strategies. Education is too complex to be judged by a checklist. The kids spend all their time on reading, writing, and ciphering instead of social studies and "enrichments." The test only measures the socio-economic status of the kids' families. High-stakes tests encouragecheating and undermine self-esteem. Schools should teach cooperative learning skills instead of knowledge. Fine, but can they read, write, and cipher? If not, what are we paying the school for? If the school doesn't know how to judge whether the kids are learning this stuff, how about letting the parents decide, and vote with their feet? Yes, I know that professional educators worry that parents aren't up to the job, but after all, the educators just confessed that they're incapable of making the judgment, too, and someone has to. Otherwise, the teachers devolve into monopolistic baby-sitters with public pensions.

What I'm starting to see now are articles about the shiny new field of "curriculum alignment," which apparently means devising a test that has something to do with what we were hoping the kids would learn. This concept differs from existing tests in a way that continues to mystify me. Whose bright idea was it in the first place to give the kids tests that weren't aligned with the curriculum we wanted them to master?

It's not that I don't value an education system that leaves all its participants with a lifelong thirst for self-instruction, not to mention good citizenship and other sterling qualities, but these are kids, not graduate students. They have to start with the basic knowledge, or all the thirst in the world isn't going to help society much. All those nifty cooperative learning and critical thinking skills are great if they actually produced some learning. There has to be some good reason for these ad valorem taxes, beyond providing a place to park the kids while we're at work, and a secure retirement for the products of teaching colleges.


Grim said...

Speaking as the son of a mother who spent her life in education, I can give something of an answer.

Of the important things we want students to master, only some of them can be easily tested in a standardized way. Math skills, for example, are both important and easily testable; history, to some degree (mastery of facts, yes -- analytical ability, no); language skills in a very limited way (knowing the parts of speech, yes; using them in effective composition, no).

This has three negative consequences:

1) It tends to result in time and attention being disproportionately spent on the skill sets easy to test, without regard to whether these are the skill sets the children will most need. Thus, lots of time on math practice; less time on composition.

2) Related but distinct: in those disciplines less-easy to test, what tends to be testable is not usually the most important skill. In history, for example, it's easy to test to see if someone has memorized exact dates: it's hard to test to see if they can analyze concepts and determine which of two competing arguments is stronger. Yet anyone can look up a date in a book, outside the test; it's the critical and analytic skills that are really important.

3) Of particular importance to my mother, such a focus tends to result in a relative dismissal of things not important to the test (sometimes because not easy to measure), but which may be the place where the student is most engaged: art, music, social studies, literature.

Russ said...

Grim, if your mother is correct, how do you measure teacher performance?

Without some way to measure results, we can can waste entire years for kids stuck with a bad teacher.

Grim said...

I think in her mind there's no mystery about that; people know a good teacher from the fact that her students show tremendous progress. If parents are paying attention and talking with their kids, they'll know when their kids have become engaged and really developed skill and understanding.

She would say that the problem is that we're trying to get the Federal government to stand in where the parents ought to be.

Texan99 said...

Show progress how? And how is that different from a test?

bthun said...

"She would say that the problem is that we're trying to get the Federal government to stand in where the parents ought to be."

Ah yup.

Since WB teaches at a private school, I try not to rag too much on public schools, and there are so many facets of wrong with the public school system, I could be a while if I were to cut loose.

Instead, I try to limit my comments to general palaver like, whadda crazy?! Home school or send your kid to a private or parochial school. And while you're at it, pester your elected gub'ment reprehensibles for school voucher legislation. Competition improves the product.

An observation: The preponderance of parents who send their kids to the private school, are very, very, very active and engaged in their young'uns education.

Before anyone says yeah but they can afford a private school. Many of these parents are not wealthy, but they are willing to do without a lot in order to send their children to a school where the teachers either perform or are replaced.

Hmmm... Parents, faculty, teachers, and children are all holding each other to an expectation of high performance. Strange notion that.

"Show progress how?

Through day to day interactions with the kids, and ongoing evaluations like, ah, er, mmmm, tests... =8^}

Russ said...

"people know a good teacher from the fact that her students show tremendous progress."

After the fact. By then, your child has lost a whole year.

If I buy a new car, I research the heck out of it in order to give myself the best chance possible of getting a good car. I do not buy a car and drive it for a year in order to see if it is good.

Without something measurable, I have no way to judge a teacher.

Grim said...

Oh, you shouldn't need a year to tell. Say for example you make a habit of checking over your child's homework every night, showing them where they've made errors, and then talking them through the correct process. Or -- if you're busy -- say you only do spot checks, or only on difficult subjects for your child, or only one weekends.

If you do this regularly, you'll know whether the child is learning the subject or not. Once you've identified problems, there are regular parent-teacher conferences at which you can talk them through and sort out whether you think the problem is with your child or with the teacher.

Russ said...

I agree with the homework check. I would prefer an informed judgement before the experience with the teacher.

Tom said...

I have mixed feelings about standardized tests, especially after helping to design a couple for various schools.

The primary limit of standardized tests as we know them today is time. If you can't test it in a relatively small number of minutes, you just can't test it.

In writing, you really can't test a student's ability to select a research topic, find appropriate sources, and use them to draft, edit, and complete a research essay for the simple reason that you don't have a week or two to test it in. That is not at all to say that this isn't a measurable skill; a teacher can check each step of the process and give a pretty clear measure of the student's ability.

In reading, first I want to know what you mean by 'can they read?' Do you mean, do they understand the meaning of words, sentences, and paragraphs? Or do you mean that they can analyze a diverse set of data and synthesize it into a good understanding of a topic? The first is good for standardized testing, the second not so much, again because of time limits.

Let's take a more concrete example. If you want students to be able to read and understand a novel, any novel in fact, how do you test that on a standardized test? If you design a set of questions about The Scarlet Letter, you are really just testing the students' ability to memorize facts about The Scarlet Letter. Even if you throw analysis into it, you'll have to give the testable novels in advance so students can read them, and what will almost immediately happen is they'll all memorize someone else's analysis of those books instead of reading them. This is a measurable skill, but it takes a lot more time for the teacher to measure it than we have on a standardized test.

In science, it's a lot more important to be able to properly conduct and document an experiment that tells us something about nature than it is to know Avagadro's number, but guess which one will be on the standardized test. We just don't have the time to test whether or not the student can do the first. Once again, this is measurable, but not in the time available on a standardized test.

So, it isn't that schools don't know how to judge whether students can read and write, it's that standardized tests don't. Therefore, if teachers are required to 'teach to the test,' they can't teach reading and writing.

Of course, there's no physical reason we couldn't design a month-long standardized test that really checked all these things. The problem is that people don't just want standardized tests, they want ones with highly objective results. A month-long standardized test probably couldn't meet our current demand for a high degree of objectivity.

The bigger problem is that we no longer trust our education system, and for some good reasons. That lack of trust is why we demand highly objective test results in the first place. This problem is much larger than the question of standardized tests.

susanne said...

Are we expecting standardized tests to tell us if students are excelling or if they have learned the minimum standard to be considered on track for their grade level? My impression was the tests were minimum standard verifiers, and if so, the questions about if they test the higher skills is moot. If the test is looking to do more than that, it's asking too much. As to teachers teaching to the test, I've seen some really great teachers that manage to work around it and do the essentials and tons more, and others that don't, but if you're a teacher having a hard time just getting the test stuff taught there's a problem with you or the community. Seems to me the test is still a useful tool in discerning that, even if that's all it does. Not every tool is perfect, but you learn how to use them and they can be very useful even with limitations. Besides, what's wrong with testing for the basics only? If a kid can't pass a test about grammar and basic reading skills and spelling, how can you expect that kid to do anything with a test that looks at analytical skills, composition, or logic? You've gotta walk before you can run, and too many are crawling.

That said, as the parent of kids in a horrible district (Los Angeles Unified) in a horrible state, I can say that our public elementary school is excellent, but that's mostly because it's a small school, the parents care about education and are heavily involved, and so teachers that get in here stay here if they're good enough to not have to deal with irate parents all the time. It's really the kind of public school that verifies that school choice works for those who seek quality- many in this neighborhood give things up to be able to afford to live here, and the cost of the neighborhood means you've got to want to be here (and the school is a big draw), so it's somewhat self selecting.

As for knowing about teachers and schools, you can get a great deal of information from the various user review type sites around that track schools, and by listening in on the chatter from school communities on local news blogs, education blogs and even school parent teacher organization blogs and websites.

Of course, Tom- right on the money- if the schools worked, we wouldn't need the testing...

douglas said...

oops, that was me...

Ms. Convey said...
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Ms. Convey said...
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MWPTA said...
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Grim said...

"Susanne" was you? :)

bthun said...
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bthun said...

Take 2: Now with more caffeine...

Grim: Did you not comment on standardized testing some time ago? In particular as to how it relates to driving behaviors such as the recently reported systemic cheating by Atlanta school administrators and teachers adjusting their students standardized test results?

IIRC this instance of school admin/teacher cheating was carried out in order to maximize their take of Federal Ed Aid funding carrot-stick à la NCLB.

I seem to recall reading of similar instances in other areas, but I can't recall particulars off the top.

BTW, good points Tom.

bthun said...

""Susanne" was you? :)"

Ahhh, I really don't need to know, thanks... =8^}

Texan99 said...

I agree with Susanne (??): the tests are designed to check for basic competency, which (apparently) a very large fraction of schools can't get to yet. If they all get there, I'm more than willing to accept that basic standardized tests aren't a great way of measuring the more ineffable higher-critical-thinking skills -- though AP tests seem to do pretty well at that task.

The problem with the public schools at present isn't that kids come out unable to interpret novels, it's that they can't compose a comprehensible paragraph or read basic instructions or newspaper articles. And it's not that they can't grasp the finer points of calculus, it's that they're fuzzy on subtracting multi-digit numbers and handling fractions. Any school that's turning out kids who can interpret novels and do higher math ought to find the standardized tests a cakewalk, with no special need to "teach to" them.

bthun said...

"Any school that's turning out kids who can interpret novels and do higher math ought to find the standardized tests a cakewalk, with no special need to "teach to" them."

Yes and yet the Federal money entices those schools who do not turn out such kids to focus their efforts on teaching to the standardized tests in order to maintain the cash flow and their jobs.

If I recall correctly, the school(s)/district(s) with lower than minimum or average? benchmark measures against the standardized tests must show a percentage of improvement each test period, or the cash flow is throttled back.

None of the above justifies or excuses teaching to the test, but it is the way it is thanks in no small part to our Federal Government stepping in to help.

I'll welcome correction if my fuzzy recollections of the process structure is incorrect.

Grim said...

I think I did write about cheating in Atlanta at some point, Bthun, but I can't recall just when (or just what my point was at the time!).

bthun said...

Yee gads man!

I hope you're not catching what I've contracted over the years...

Ah, what were we talking about?

Texan99 said...

One of the links in the post is to an article about how the test guarantees a cheating scandal.

Grim said...

Well, there are scandals and then there are scandals. If students are cheating, it's appropriate to shout, "O! Tempora! O! Mores!" while soundly scolding them as to why they should not do it again.

If members of a public union are actively aiding and abetting student cheating in an organized way... well, that's a whole different ballgame.

bthun said...

"One of the links in the post is to an article about how the test guarantees a cheating scandal."

BUSTED! I cheated. I did not read the linked material. =8^{

*surrenders NCLB[1] funds, dons pointy cap, and heads to back corner of barn*

1. No Curmudgeon Left Behind

Anonymous said...

Texan, at the public school system in my home town, it has reached the point that basic literacy and numeracy (adding and multiplying) are questionable at the 11th grade level! Calculus and interpreting novels are pipe dreams for 99% of the students. Until the students can read and write well enough to understand the questions on the test, teaching towards the test won't help.

My $.02 is have tests for things like math and reading comprehension, but not for history, geography and more reasoning-based skills. Or do like some colleges, and have a "capstone course" where students pull together their different skills for a graduation project, tailored to the type of student (college bound, business-bound, vocational).


Texan99 said...

But here's what I don't understand. If the test addresses arithmetic skills, and the kids don't have arithmetic skills, what's wrong with teaching to the test?

I get it that if the test teaches boring facts like the name of Chester K. Arthur's dog, then teaching to the test won't produce kids with historical education that we value. So the test can't be a stupid one. But what's supposed to be wrong with the basic math tests? Or the basic reading comprehension ones? At least for kids who are still demonstrably struggling with these rock-bottom basics?

Texan99 said...

Grim -- the gnashing of teeth over how the tests lead to cheating is all about principals and teachers who cheat, because their salaries depend on the test results. It's hard to believe the kids are motivated enough to cheat on their own, and anyway, how hard can it be to monitor that problem? It's the corruption of the educators themselves that's worrying people. Though frankly I don't see it. What's the problem? Fire their butts. Better still, give the parents vouchers they can use at private schools, if no one can find public school teachers who won't cheat.

Grim said...

I agree with both suggestions, Tex. I've been offering my argumentum ad maternum just because I figure her perspective ought to be represented. She and I rarely agree on anything; but I find that she's usually worth listening to, even if you rarely do what she says.

bthun said...

"If the test addresses arithmetic skills, and the kids don't have arithmetic skills, what's wrong with teaching to the test?"

As a means to teach basic arithmetic skills, nothing.

As a means to drill the kids on the questions/answers that will appear on the test with the end result being the kids pass the test, the educators get their funding dollars, but the kids still can't make change at a burger joint?

Involved parents should be able to determine if the motivation of the teacher is the former or the latter along with whether or not their child is making progress, and then act on that assessment.

IMHO, the public perception of the teaching to the test phrase is now firmly associated with the latter.

My 2½¢. I'll hush now.

Texan99 said...

My parents were both teachers, too -- private in my father's case and public in my mother's. There never seemed to be that much of an issue about whether it was possible to administer a test that gave a useful measure of whether the students had mastered the curriculum. My father's students were mad that he didn't grade on a curve, but they at least agreed that the test results accurately reflected whether they'd learned the material. Was my father a good teacher? Some kinds of students thought so. One of his students went on to win a Nobel prize in the same subject. My father would have been a bad choice for students with average ability and average interest in his subject. When he tried to teach freshman Chem, even to kids at a competitive university, it usually wasn't pretty. He was popular with the Chemistry nuts who wanted to take upper-level seminars. He knew exactly how to find out whether they were absorbing the subject: give them problems to work and see if they could get the answers.

My mother's kids were almost shockingly illiterate, barely able to spell or compose a sentence. I don't know whether she was a good teacher or not. She taught eighth grade history to kids in disastrous schools who hadn't much interest in education. I think it's likely she had no particular gift for reaching disadvantaged students. She just carried on in the traditional way she'd been raised with. I used to grade some of her test papers. Some of the kids were taking in some of the very basic factual information, while others were not. Few, apparently, were in danger of being bitten by the history bug.

Parents who are interested in this kind of thing can tell very well whether their kids are learning, by going over their homework with them and generally being involved. One solution, of course, therefore, is to leave the evaluation of the education process entirely in the hands of the parents, via vouchers. But if the judgment is not to be left to the parents, and since the teachers' supervisors don't have time to conduct personalized, in-depth, daily interviews with each child, they're going to have to use some more standardized variety of test. Otherwise, we'll just keep arguing over which new flavor of educational theory is best, without ever checking it against concrete results. And we won't have any more sensible method of setting teachers' salaries than seniority or unionized lobbying.

Miss Ladybug said...

I graduated with my M.Ed. in December 2006. I worked as a substitute for several years while attempting to land that first teaching job. When the 2010-2011 school year started and I still couldn't get a teaching job, I made the decision to abandon my pursuit of a teaching job in favor of finding employment that offered benefits. My teaching certificate will expire at the end of July. I've left the field without ever truly being in it. I think I would have been an excellent teacher given the chance...

Having said this, I have ancedotal observations to make: I was assigned to a school with the highest percentage of low socioeconomic status of any elementary school in the district for my student teaching assignment. The class consisted of black and Hispanic students (there were very few white students at all in the school). When I started my assignment early in that fall semester, the students in my 3rd grade class (the first year in which the NCLB testing is required) were given a practices TAKS test (the standardized tested used by the State of Texas at the time) in reading every Friday morning, starting with one reading passage and the related questions. Wednesday mornings, all 3rd graders were given a group coaching session on testing strategies. By the time I left the student teaching assignment, the entire day each Friday, plus the testing strategies session on Wednesdays, were given over to preparing students to take the TAKS test. I only ever saw one parent volunteering. There were some wonderful, conscientious students in that class. There were also 5 or 6 real troublemakers. Classroom management was the real challenge in that environment. It's hard to teach when you spend a lot of time just trying to maintain order in the classroom. It's also sad when you look at kids that are 8-9 years old and wonder if they will even live to see their 18th birthday (yeah, gang membership was likely a future for a lot of these kids, sadly).

Once I graduated and got on substiute teaching, I was lucky to get regular assignments at an elementary school in one of the more affluent schools in the district. Even as a sub, classroom management was never a problem. Students were only prepped for the TAKS test maybe a month out from the actual exam dates. I saw lots of parents (mostly moms) at the school all the time.

The difference, in my opinion? At the one school, parents are uninvolved (for a multitude of reasons - one girl came to the parent-teacher conference in order to translate for her mother; she was a good student, but her non-English speaking parents were not uncommon at that school) in the education of their children and do not instill in their children the importance of learning and respect for adults. At the other, parents expect their children to apply themselves to their school work and to behave appropriately towards others (classmates & staff alike).

There is no one single answer to fixing the problem. You could be the best teacher in the world, but without the "buy-in from parents and students", you won't be able to reach all your charges. Conversely, I also think you could be a bad teacher, and if you have involved parents and motivated students, they will succeed in spite of poor instruction. If I am lucky enough to have children when I am married (yes, Miss Ladybug is engaged to be married!), I have told my fiancé I will seriously consider homeschooling...

bthun said...

Tex, your last paragraph is spot on IMHO...

Miss L.B. Nice to see ya.

Your post points out the reality of attempting to apply a one size fits all education to the masses.

If the local culture including mom and dad? does not place any value in or priority on a formal education, neither the schools nor the Gub'ment can fix the problem.

Now I really will hush on this one. I just returned from the Post Office. I sent my final reckoning to Uncle Sam and the State, and mailed the tax preparer his fee. I go to sulk... with beer.=8^}

Cheers to all about The Hall.

Texan99 said...

Miss LB, what great news!

I hear and agree on the many problems that can make education very, very difficult for some children and their teachers. But what's the lesson we should draw from that? As I noted in my analogy in the original post, the futility of a task is a good reason not to hold failure against the worker -- but that doesn't make it a good reason to keep funneling money into the effort. If teaching can make a difference at all, then some are going to do it better than others, and we should find out which ones those are.

For me the crux of the problem is, what are the kids doing on those "test drill" days? Are they being drilled in how to add 26 to 58? Because if the kids are weak on addition, and that drill takes time away from cooperative-learning-process exercises or all-day sessions in the auditorium chanting self-esteem slogans (I'm not making that one up), so much the better. If, on the other hand, they're being taught the best technique for filling little ovals with black pencil, or how the answer "C" is statistically most likely to be right, then I see the problem.

In other words, what in the world do people mean, exactly, by "teaching to the test" in its perjorative sense? If it's a sensible test containing questions about the obvious subject matter for that year, why not teach to it?

Russ said...

Miss Ladybug, you said
"There is no one single answer to fixing the problem. You could be the best teacher in the world, but without the "buy-in from parents and students", you won't be able to reach all your charges."

If you could eliminate the discipline problems, would a teacher not be able to reach her charges even without parental buy-in?

Grim said...


My congratulations to your finance on his very good fortune, as well as his manifest sense.

bthun said...

You can take the old Neanderthal out of the cave, but...

Miss L.B.,

Being so preoccupied and addled by my trip to the Post Office, I neglected to offer my congratulations and best wishes to you and your betrothed.

Please accept this old Neanderthals congrats and best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Miss L.B.! That's great news!

I feel your pain, Bthun. I sent my first guess off to the accountant last week and am bracing for the bad news.


Tom said...

Congratulations, Miss Ladybug!

I'm also interested in what you think about Russ's question. How much do you think parental buy-in, and parental help, matter to students' success?

I think Miss Ladybug's anecdotes are at the crux of the matter.

In essence, I would say the pejorative sense of 'teaching to the test' comes from a belief that you cannot have a sensible standardized test that covers all students of a certain grade level. They reject your premise of 'if we had a sensible test'. This is in part because of the limits I noted before; plenty of things that can be measured in other ways cannot be measured by a multiple choice test.

ML's two schools also show this: Can we sensibly hold the 3rd graders of both of those schools to the same standards? Many teachers, I think, would say no. If you set a standard that the poorer school can accomplish, it will be ridiculously easy for the richer school (and defeat your purpose of showing they learned something that year), and if you set it for the richer school, it will be impossible for the poorer.

'Teaching to the test' means you don't have to know anything about the students you teach; you just teach the material, regardless of the students' abilities, parental support, nutrition level, etc. If your particular set of students are lost, too bad. Just keep going. This seems outright counterproductive to many teachers. For them, sensible standardized testing requires standardized students, which at this point in time is impossible.

Anyway, I've been arguing the devil's advocate position. While there are, I believe, big limitations and problems with standardized testing, I do agree that in theory it could work on a statewide basis and that, if it could be demonstrated to work over a period of years in a diverse set of test schools, it would be a good idea to implement.

Bthun points out another issue, however; this is all distorted by federal bribery: 'Play our game or you don't get the cash.' I'm not really impressed by the federal government's ability to solve complex social issues and wish it would stick to its constitutional roles (or, at least, its constitutional roles under a more originalist interpretation). I think the federal mandate is why you have curriculum alignment issues; NCLB didn't provide enough time to create and test a set of mutually consistent tests and curricula.

Tom said...

A couple of odds and ends more, and then it's off to enjoy this lovely Saturday.

I completely support school choice & vouchers. I am concerned that the implementation leaves out the poorest students who need the most help, but maybe if all the better students leave, the public schools can be retooled to address the needs of the weakest students.

One logical problem I think T99's original position had was that we wouldn't keep trying if it were hopeless. Lots of people and lots of cultures DO keep trying to do hopeless things, for decades on end. Maybe we are, too. I don't know.

Miss Ladybug said...

Re: standardized tests, you also get people who will argue they are biased against minorities in the way they are written...

Yes, it would be much easier to reach students when there is buy-in and help from the parents. A elementary teacher in this district has about 20 students in the class. There is just not enough time during the school day to give each child the one-on-one support they may need. They need to practice at home. If parents can't or won't make sure their child is getting that additional practice (no matter the subject), the child will have difficulty succeeding if they are having trouble.

Not all kids need the one-on-one support, which is great. But, that leads to another problem. If they aren't challenged, they get bored and can get themselves into trouble.

Eliminating discipline problems would go a long way, but in a classroom like the one in which I did my student teaching, even eliminating the discipline issues, there wouldn't have been enough time to give all the students who needed more focused support all the support they required.

To that end, I think one thing that could help is "tracking" students by ability. Some say this is bad, because it will bring attention to the fact that little Johnny isn't a good student. Hey, kids know without "tracking" which are the "smart" kids and which are the "dumb" ones... If schools would allow tracking, advanced students could go faster than the norm, average students could go with the norm and below average students would be able to go at a pace at which they would be able to absorb the material and not have the teacher proceed to the next topic until they had mastered the current one. Some kids are better with language arts, some are better at math or science. Track them by subject area, even.

One thing, though: the key to everything is being able to read with comprehension. If a child can't read, they can't read the math book instructions or the science chapter or the history/social studies chapter...

Miss Ladybug said...

Oh, and thanks, everyone, for the congratulations! We're very excited! We have a date we want, we just need to make sure it will work with the church. It's not until later next summer, so I don't anticipate any conflict at this point.

Gringo said...

Miss Ladybug has said much of what I was going to say about “teaching to the test” in a “bad” school. I have worked as both a substitute and regular teacher, in both high achieving and low achieving schools.

Unfortunately, the incessant “practice tests” are just as she describes them in many low-performing schools. It’s a waste of time, but that’s what they do. A low-performing school where I had both subbed and later taught improved on the situation- at least in math- after I left. The teachers got together and broke down the objectives. The math teachers installed mini-tests of 5-10 minutes’ duration, to check on achievement of objectives, and re-taught as needed.

This approach is much more useful than the incessant “practice tests.” It could not have been done without the teachers as a team working out what to do. It is much too much for an individual teacher. Bear in mind the textbook was useless for the students, so the teachers had to start from scratch. However, it is a LOT of work.

A relative of mine was involved in educational testing. He considered it unfortunate that the way the game was structured, teachers often considered educational testing to be their enemy. He wanted educational testing to be used to assist teachers, to not only show them where students had learning deficits, but also to assist teachers in reducing or eliminating those learning deficits. His vision was somewhat similar to what the above school did to improve things.

If you are going to teach to the test, you need to make sure the curriculum is aligned with the test, not just do the practice test once or twice a week.

We would like to know that high school graduates can do 6th grade fractions and decimals.

Ditto congratulations to Miss Ladybug. The nice thing about substitute teaching is that there is nothing to take home.

Texan99 said...

"The math teachers installed mini-tests of 5-10 minutes’ duration, to check on achievement of objectives, and re-taught as needed."

Now, that's exactly what I was trying to get at. I think of a test as something that checks on achievement of objectives, allowing the teachers to re-teach as needed. Why are these mini-tests more effective than the big ones? If we could figure that out, we might figure out how to amend the big ones -- or at least figure out why it works better to split the process up more.

"If you are going to teach to the test, you need to make sure the curriculum is aligned with the test."

And that's the other thing I was trying to get at. Why in the world are we using tests that aren't aligned with the curriculum? What an incredible waste of time and money. Typical, one might almost say, of a unionized monopoly.

Tom said...

Miss Ladybug, thanks for your reply. I also think tracking can help, and I like the idea of tracking by subject.

T99: Why in the world are we using tests that aren't aligned with the curriculum? What an incredible waste of time and money. Typical, one might almost say, of a unionized monopoly.

Yes, or a federal education program.

Texan99 said...

Yes, I could have added: "A unionized monopoly in a commodity whose use is mandated by law, controlled by a distant, centralized power whose operatives are trained in the academic 'science' of pedagogics and fed on ever-increasing tax revenues." But I was afraid of specking my screen with foam.

bthun said...

Yes, I could have added: "A unionized monopoly in a commodity whose use is mandated by law, controlled by a distant, centralized power whose operatives are trained in the academic 'science' of pedagogics and fed on ever-increasing tax revenues." "But I was afraid of specking my screen with foam."


I use a product called Invisible Glass. It works well to remove foam, spittle, and the occasional particulate matter that's a natural byproduct of an impassioned rant. =;^}

Don't ask me how I know...

Tom said...

T99, that was beautiful.

I keep a bath towel by the screen for just such an occasion, though I'll have to check into Bthun's Invisible Glass.

Gringo said...

And that's the other thing I was trying to get at. Why in the world are we using tests that aren't aligned with the curriculum? What an incredible waste of time and money. Typical, one might almost say, of a unionized monopoly.

With the advent of massive testing in the early 1990s, it took low-achieving schools a number of years to realize - if they ever did- that curriculum needed to be aligned with testing objectives. It's not just a matter of practice tests.

As I saw this occur in a state with weak teachers' unions, I am not about to say this lack of alignment is typical of a unionized monopoly.

It is possible that a unionized monopoly may exacerbate the situation of curriculum not being aligned with testing. I am NOT a fan of powerful teachers' unions. Principals need the power to hire and fire.

The advent of BIG TESTING has profound implications on education.
1)Curriculum needs to be aligned with test objectives. This takes a lot of work.

2) The old model of teacher as playwright is thrown out the door. With testing objectives to meet, where it can take 5-10 hours to plan a given class hour [I have done it, so I know what I am speaking about], the teacher instead becomes the actor delivering the script. The script needs to be worked out collectively- school level, district level, or state level. It is too much for one person.

I tend to be more skeptical of standardized testing for verbal and reading skills than for math skills.

One reason was my experience with taking the GRE. I was having trouble on a reading section. I then decided to choose the answer with the most verbiage- the answer that most sounded as if a sociologist had written it.

That approach apparently worked out fine, because I scored better on the Verbal GRE than I did on the Verbal SAT.

I am VERY skeptical about standardized testing for writing. Let me repeat: VERY.