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Teaching With the Test

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In a recent online chat and Education Week Commentary, teachers Amy H. Greene and Glennon Doyle Melton discussed the test-preparation approach they used at their Virginia elementary school.

The two educators wove test-taking strategies and skills—such as specific test vocabulary—into their regular reading lessons, rather than creating a separate "test-prep program." As a result, they say, students were more engaged in the material and more confident on test day.

"When it comes to teaching test-taking, many of us abandon everything we know about children as learners and ask students to sit silently at their desks while they read passage after passage and answer question after question," they write.

What do you think? Can test-taking skills be enhanced as a part of regular coursework?

15 Comments

I work at a science center. As a parent, a formal educator and now an informal educator, I feel the only way we can deliver the content necessary, engage our children and help them with the tests is to integrate as Greene and Melton have done. Over the past year, we have been working hard to create science outreach experiences that do that same thing. Students are learning science and math content, are engaged in hands-on inquiry science and are practicing test questions and vocabulary that are woven right into the experience, in our most recent endeavors - our Science Festivals.

Duh-uh! The purpose of testing is to see how well material has been learned. Testing is therefore a kind of regurgitation of the taught material. Teachers teach what they test, in the same language that they use on the tests. The only change of late is that someone else is making the tests and calling them standardized. The question is not how the test taking skills should be taught, but who should be making the tests.

Testing strategies should be intervoven throughout the literacy block in schools. In most schools if test-prep is done seperately there is another aspeect of instruction that is not taught, usually social studies and science. The skills and strategies that teachers drill into their students for test-prep are the same ones they need to become efficient readers and life-long learner. If teachers are providing quality literacy instruction, there is no need for a seperate test-prep period.

Don't confuse ethics with legality. As a university professor, I learned that a colleague repeatedly took a test at the student testing service. Over time, she memorized the test questions and taught them to her pre-service teachers. When I told the department head that I thought this was unethical, he said, "Anyone can take that test, and they can take it as often as they like. There is nothing illegal in what she is doing. And keep in mind, state funding and the university's reputation depend on students' test scores."
My point: If we value ethics, then it seems we must change the rules that govern standardized testing, and we must soften the importance of test results.

The "do-over" thing has quite easily moved into the standardized tseting arena. Even the once revered SAT's can be taken again and again. The Praxis exams that are used in many states for pre-service teachers are repeatable until a "passing score" is reached. One of my own children had trouble making the proficient scoring level on our state's exam, despite being amulti-year honor student. He was eventually given an alternative test that was scored by the advising office at his high school and he was declared "proficient".
I am happy that he "passed" and graduated from the same school on time, but question the high value placed on standardized tests. The sad part is that so much depends on these test results, such as funding and even teacher's jobs and pay. There is something wrong with the priority being placed as it is.

Having taught Advanced Placement Physics and Chemistry for many years, it has been my opinion that teaching to (with) the test is not necessarily a bad thing. I agree with Amy Greene and Glennon Melton that one can integrate the problem solving skills asked for on the test into the curriculum. The better the test, the better the curriculum. Ideally, the test should be written in such a way as to not only ask for rote information, but also for the application of the information to unfamiliar situations; critical thinking and problem solving questions. I have always enjoyed "teaching to the AP tests" because in doing so the students were getting the necessary education to be considered college level.

Teaching test literacy is a good thing when it can be woven into the regular curricullum. Test strategy is a bit more of a challenge, but also necessary. Students who know how to recognize which questions they can answr easily and which are beyond them are able to make more educated quesses on the difficult ones. It is helpful to know that in multiple choice questions, the "correct" answer is there as well as at least one distractor answer that contains some element of the "correct" response. Tests are really a lot like puzzles and should be treated as such.

The more pertinent question that we should be asking ourselves about testing, in my opinion, is why are we doing it with such a heavy handed approach as if the testing is the most important part of the learning. Who benefits from the results of this and why?
Is it to educate, or to eliminate current systems? Understanding what students know is necessary for every teacher to continue to teach them, but accountability for no reason other than to prove we have pressured students to get it or else, truly has nothing to do with the value of learning. There is so much more to education than testing. Why are educators not talking about how they inspire students to use their curiosity to investigate ideas and thoughts and solve problems? Why are we willing to allow the dialogue about education to become so limited? Educators need to change the subject and refuse to accept test obsession as what must be done to educate students in our schools. Somebody just came up with this test scheme as an answer and we're all trying to make that work. It's too much pressure, and anxiety is the result in all our schools. Pressure is not the answer to learning.

The issue is poorly framed in the article in question. Whether we should teach to a test or teach with a test is not the issue. This is like arguing about whether you want to be smothered with a pillow or a plastic bag. The stifling emphasis on testing is the issue.

What are we doing to students when we focus relentlessly on a narrow agenda? When we reduce the learning experience to studying anticipated test questions?

A fascinating body of knowledge about everything under the sun and everything beyond it is glittering all around us! This presents limitless learning opportunities…..but not for children who vegetate in test driven classrooms.

It seems to me that the purpose of a test is to measure what students have learned. A good test, then, is aligned to the skills/content deemed essential for students who are going to take that test -- right? If so, we identify what we want students to learn, and figure out how we will know whether they learned it (in this case, we design a test) and then we teach. A test is merely a check-in point - where are the students now? What changes need to be made (if any) in instruction to help more students be 'proficient' in targeted skills? Test taking skills can be enhanced through regular coursework, sure. If we are testing ability to explain thinking clearly in writing (as with constructed response items), then we are doing so because we deem it an essential skill. Students will practice explaining their thinking in writing during instructional time, not because it's going to be tested, but because it's an valuable skill to have, and because practice makes progess. When tested, 'outsiders' can see a picture of how much progress has been made. That's accountability - Is what we are doing with students working to get students to where they need to be? Shouldn't we all be interested in knowing the answer to that question?

For those of us who have students right now that we care about and want to succeed, railing on about the evils of testing is not part of the solution. Tests are a fact of life, and it is our responsibility as educators to give our children the tools to meet each testing situation with confidence. It is not arguing whether you want to be smothered with a pillow or a plastic bag. It is - let's take this pillow and analyze it critically and not let it get the best of us.

None of us are fans of standardized testing. But until our society changes and they are abolished (when pigs fly), we have thousands of children who are suffering.

If you read Greene and Melton's book, you will see how they are devoted to best practice and especially to students. It is that devotion that drove them to find a solution that empowered their students.

Finally a sensible and sensitive article about NCLB. Greene and Melton provide some positive input for teachers, parents, and business leaders to consider when discussing NCLB. Negativity to change will never solve the problem students like Sindi are expressing. Excitement at school should be the goal for everyone.

I find it very difficult to believe that educators are willing to accept the narrowing that a test focused environment does to a classroom of students, and criticize those of us who believe that teachers must stand up and be leaders in education and not just accept games for students. Education is not games. We cannot not have a nation of citizens who grow up playing games and think that they will be able to function in a democracy. They must learn to think and question and problem solve. Whoever controls the information on the test controls the society. My daughter's son is in a school with high test scores. They were among the highest in the state. This year in third grade, they are so test focused that you would not believe what is being asked of them. I offer you this. It is not education. It is child abuse, but they are so driven to succeed beyond the previous year. This system is flawed and we need to speak against it.

MTTOP offers a unique product that uses computer technology and multi-media to provide students with a strategy for remembering what the teacher has taught. MountainTop Mnemonics use rhyme, rhythm, and motion to help visual, auditory, and kenesthetic learners remember basic spelling, language, and math concepts. The MountainTop Mnemonic method is being used by schools in states as diverse as Maryland, Texas, and New York. The product was created by a team of experienced teachers and I am sure it will be beneficial to the students of New Orleans. For more information our website is mttop.net.

India Williams
President
MTTOP,Inc.

I think in order for students to learn test-taking strategies and skills and to be successful at using them, the skills need to be integrated into regular coursework. When test-taking skills, as well as other concepts and methods, are part of the regular curriculum, they become more effective for students. I think it is important for students to see and understand test-taking skills, but they need to comprehend its applicability and know how to correctly use it to achieve high scores. Having students sit and drill test-prep practices into their heads will not only bore them, but lose their interest as well. It is all in the presentation. If test-taking skills and test-prep material are incorporated into the regular school year curriculum content, students learn the skill as well as the content.

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