A recent study reports that reading may be the best way to reduce stress. With as little as six minutes of reading, your heart rate slows and you relax, losing your everyday cares between the pages. But if reading reduces stress, you wouldn’t know it these days looking in classrooms across America. It is spring, and testing season is upon us. For students and their teachers, reading for test performance induces, rather than reduces stress. In a few days, Texas' students will take TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and the massive preparations for this test convey that reading is serious, reading is challenging, reading is an obstacle course of traps and pitfalls, but it is certainly not relaxing.
Even at my school, where teachers dedicate substantial time reinforcing to students that reading is pleasurable and engaging, test prep mania is in full swing. The copiers churn out endless reams of TAKS practice materials, our assistant principals direct state mandated training of test administration regulations, and students graph their individual mastery of test objectives onto charts. Spending most of the year using best practices methodology to improve learning, it seems we must dismantle every vestige of it to prove our methods succeed.
The halls are stripped of student work and teachers stand on chairs to cover every instructional aide on their classroom walls. My students helped me cover our walls this week, and complained about how dark and sad our room looks now. I took down my anchor charts, and covered our literary element posters and “Books We’ve Shared” chart with butcher paper. We even have to cover the clock and calendars so students cannot use them as number lines on the math test! To guarantee students across the state test under similar conditions, we must create a Gulag—a barren wasteland where no rescue is forthcoming.
I support accountability. Teachers and students should show evidence that learning takes place in the classroom. But I have to wonder what type of learning high-stakes testing really shows. Certainly, students who perform poorly on standardized reading tests are not strong readers, but is producing strong readers even the goal anymore? Countless hours spent drilling and practicing test-taking may increase students’ ability to take tests, but it doesn’t make them better readers of anything but tests. I have a responsibility to prepare my students for state testing, but I refuse to spend months and months of time my students could be reading marching through test practice.
I teach test reading as a genre like experts Stephanie Harvey and Lucy Calkins advise. Standardized tests contain specific text features, structure, and academic vocabulary just like poetry, expository text, or fiction does. We spend a few weeks before the test studying authentic passages released by the state, foregoing workbooks and test prep materials in favor of the real deal. Every day, I remind students that the hours and hours they spend reading each week does more to prepare them for state testing than any drill, and I continue to set aside the majority of my class time for reading, responding, and conferring, not test prep. Writer and philosopher, Albert Camus once said, “You cannot acquire experience by making experiments. You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” The only path to reading improvement requires students to experience real reading—lots of it.
On test day, my students will prove to the outside world that they are great readers—proof I don’t need and neither do they. As each child finishes, I will collect their test booklets and forms and give them their independent books from the mountain stacked for safe-keeping behind my desk. My students will then prove all over again that they are readers, by opening their books. I only hope that it takes just six minutes of stress-free reading for them to fall in love with it again.