Thursday, June 19, 2008

Teaching to the Test?

One of the hot topics in education today centers around the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act - – which was signed into federal law in 2002. NCLB is designed to improve the performance of primary and secondary schools in the US. In essence, this means lots of paperwork and lots of standardized testing. If students pass certain tests in certain grade levels, the schools get federal funding. The NCLB act is supposed to hold individual schools accountable for what teachers are teaching and students are learning.

Teaching to the Test

One side effect of NCLB is that some teachers are “teaching to the test,” meaning they are only teaching students the things they need to know to pass standardized tests. Perhaps these teachers are feeling pressure from their administrators, or perhaps these teachers are putting the burden on themselves.

Whatever the reason, I believe we are doing a disservice to students by only teaching to the test. As stated in many schools’ missions, we teachers are supposed to educate the whole child so that they can function as independent, self-reliant adults. We are supposed to teach the student skills that they can apply in any situation, whether taking a standardized test or writing a report for a major corporation.

Feeling the Pressure?

I have been lucky – I have only worked in private schools where the emphasis has not been on teaching to the test. Yes, the administration has looked at PSAT, SAT, and AP scores, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the pressure was turned on if the scores dipped. I will say that the English department has been asked to work practice test questions in during class – either as warm-up exercises or devoting a whole class period to practice before an upcoming test day – so that students are familiar with the format of the test and the style of questions they will be asked.

I like this format, the weaving of a few practice standardized test questions into class. It’s an easy warm-up and hopefully your students will be less nervous on test day. Let’s face it – as students we have to take tests. In high school, it’s the CRCT, the ITBS, the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT. In college, it’s the LSAT, the GMAT, the GRE, or the MCAT. In post-grad, it’s the medical boards or the bar exam. Yes, it “sucks,” but standardized tests seem to be a fact of life these days.

Finding a Balance

As I seem to say an awful lot, you need to find a balance between teaching to the test and teaching for life. We can’t send students out ill-equipped to take standardized tests, but we also can’t send them out unable to function as an adult. The hardest part will be resisting the pressure from the administration or even parents to improve test scores. You as a teacher can only do so much – you need to be met part way by the students. That’s when you all can be successful. Resist the pressure and hang tough!

No comments: