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Parents Mentally Prepare Yourselves

By Carl Glickman

Another Point of View: Let's Teach to the Test

Hi Parents,

Welcome to the new world of schools that can be summed up in a few words; test, test, test and Big Brother knows what is best! Get ready to comfort, cajole, and shake your head when that swinging school door opens. This year will bring more invalid tests, erroneous formulas to determine passing/promotion rates, harried and frazzled teachers and principals trying to measure up to impossible state and federal regulations.

Forget that what you and other parents across the country want above all else for your children is for learning to be active, challenging, and enriching. Forget that you and other parents trust your local teachers more than anyone else to make educational decisions, forget that you and your fellow local citizens trust least the very folks who have decided what should be required. Just leave your own wishes at home and let Big Brother figure out what is necessary for your child. This will be, of course, a test; a ream of paperwork; and more illogical requirements.

Be prepared to help your child weather boring classroom work filled with test preparation books and homework handouts. Forget about descriptive report cards about what your child can actually do with what he/she knows in real writing, presenting information, and completing hands on projects. No more recess, little attention to art and music or health or social studies or independent and creative learning. If it is not tested, it's not taught. Tests are falling from the sky. Even your preschool child will be tested by a standardized exam to see if he/she is ready and your third through eighth grader will dread the looming test that, most likely, will determine whether she moves to the next grade. If she fails, her chances of graduating from high school drop to 50 percent.

Your child will experience now --- unless you are lucky enough to have your child attend a school with talented, creative, and stubbornly independent teachers and school leaders who refuse to buckle under to the big test---- is a test preparation center. No more attention given to the excruciatingly obvious inequities of resources among wealthy and poor communities, no more attention given to the exacting need for high quality and thoughtful teachers, no more attention given to the real achievement and dropout gap and helping all children receive an excellent education.

This new world under the glowing words of the federal legislation entitled No Child Left Behind is an example of the highest order of double speak, non documentation, and selective spin. This legislation was ushered in with unflinching, moral righteousness by a conservative Republican administration that in the past derided federal involvement in community and state affairs and argued always and successfully for loosening rules and regulations for private businesses. This administration does the opposite when it comes to our most essential public institution, our schools, by increasingly federal involvement and creating hundreds of pages of new requirements, rules, and regulations.

Who profits by this expansion of federal government into local schools? Clearly the testing industry that monopolizes the text book and commercial education market. Clearly, the school voucher proponents who wish to rid America of that wretched institute entitled public schools whose purpose was to create an independent thinking citizenry.

Our schools have never been what they should be for all children and major overhauls to address the needs of all our children must be the center of what needs to be changed. But what Big Brother requires puts up impossible demands and invalid measures so that in time public schools become more bland, boring, and failure prone so that no one would want to send their own children there. And then, the private sector can jump in and keep American children from serving public purpose and democracy itself. Instead the corporate sector can teach us their absolute truth that education is about making a profit by developing better consumers; not about ensuring a better generation of wise and inquisitive citizens.

Welcome to the new school year. May it not last long.

Carl D. Glickman holds the Roy and Joann Cole Mitte Endowed Chair in School Improvement at Texas State University -San Marcos where he is involved in a unique, interdisciplinary PH.D. program for public spirited community and school leaders. In addition, he is President of the Institute for Schools, Education, and Democracy. Glickman is a convener of The Forum for Education and Democracy and editor of "Letters to the next president: What we can do about the real crisis in public education."

Let's Teach to the Test

By Jay Mathews, Washington Post, February 20, 2006

All signs point to 2006 being a crucial year for testing in America, with the first national results from the new SAT due, as well as significant changes underway in how states use the tests that rate schools under the No Child Left Behind law. If only, then, we could figure out a way to speak clearly to each other about what we think of the many tests our children are taking. Let's start by trying to clarify what I consider the most deceptive phrase in education today: "teaching to the test."

Teaching to the test, you may have heard, is bad, very bad. I got 59.2 million hits when I did a Google search for the phrase, and most of what I read was unfriendly. Teaching to the test made children sick, one article said. Others said it rendered test scores meaningless or had a dumbing effect on instruction. All of that confused me, since in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible and likely to produce more learning.

There are, of course, ways to teach to the test that are bad for kids and that occur now and then in schools. Principals afraid that their scores would look bad have forced teachers to go over the same questions from old tests day after day, to prepare for some state assessment. But there is no evidence that this happens often. Strong teachers usually raise a ruckus, administrators back down and everybody goes back to the traditional lesson reviews that all good teachers use.

When we say "teaching to the test," we should acknowledge that we are usually not talking about those drill fests. Rather, we often use the phrase to refer to any course that prepares students for one of the annual state assessment exams required under the No Child Left Behind Act. For reasons that escape me, we never say a teacher is "teaching to the test" if she's using a test she wrote herself. We share the teacher's view that what she is doing is helping her students learn the material, not ace the test. But if she is preparing the class for an exam written by some outsider, the thinking goes, then she must be forced to adhere to someone else's views on teaching and thus is likely to present the material too quickly, too thinly, too prescriptively, too joylessly -- add your own favorite unattractive adverb.

Yet if you asked the thousands of educators who have written the questions for the state tests that allegedly produce all these terrible classroom practices, they would tell you their objective is the same as the classroom teacher's: to help kids learn. And if you watched the best teachers at work, as I have many times, you would see them treating the state test as nothing more than another useful guide and motivator, with no significant change in the way they present their lessons.

Those who complain are not really talking about teaching to the state test. Unless teachers sneak into the counseling office and steal a copy, which can get them fired, they don't know what's on the test. They are teaching not to the test but to the state standards -- a long list of things students are supposed to learn in each subject area, as approved by the state school board.

Hardly anybody complains about teaching to a standard. Teacher-turned-author Susan Ohanian is trying to change this, and she refers to all advocates of learning standards as "Standardistos." But she has not made much headway, mostly because standards make sense to parents like me. We are not usually included in discussions of testing policy, but we tend to vote in large numbers, and everybody knows that any governor or president who came out against standards for schools and learning would soon be looking for work in the private sector.

So why do we still talk about how terrible it is to teach to the test? I think it comes from our fear of the unknown. Those of us who are not teachers don't know what is going on in our children's classrooms. And teachers don't know what harm might come to them from the test results, as interpreted by often-wrongheaded people such as principals, superintendents, politicians and, particularly, parents.

Conversations about this would go more smoothly if we didn't have such distorted views of what teaching to the test means. We might instead turn the discussion to what methods of instruction work best or how much time our children should spend studying.

In some classes, such as the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge courses that have become popular in Washington area high schools, the need to prepare for a challenging exam outside of the teacher's control has often produced a remarkable new form of teamwork. Teacher and students work together to beat an exam that requires thought and analysis, not just memorization. If that is teaching to the test, let's have more of it.


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Last modified: December 10, 2004

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