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Is Test Preparation Educational Malpractice?


In my blog last week, focusing on the chance that the Dept. of Education may promote some form of merit pay based on standardized test scores, I got a bit more hyperbolic than usual, and wrote the following:

But if those rewards are based on the same standardized tests that candidate Obama decried, what behavior will they promote? More emphasis on test preparation, and less time for art, science, music and history. Test preparation is educational malpractice -- it is bad for our students. We must not reward malpractice.

I see a lot of test preparation occurring in low-scoring schools. It looks like this:

Blueprint Mapping
: This means we get a copy of the “test blueprint,” the list of concepts that will be tested, and map out our daily instruction to cover these concepts. This narrows the range of what is taught to the predetermined list of concepts chosen by whatever group designed the tests. I find this alienating for teacher and student alike, because it means the entire curriculum revolves around guessing what will be on the test, rather than that which excites the interests and imagination of the students.

Scripted Curriculum: Discretion is further removed from teachers who are given daily scripts to ensure they cover the material to be tested according to the schedule, and using the prescribed strategies developed by the publisher. See my objection to blueprint mapping above.

Narrow Curriculum: In many elementary schools there is little or no time for non-tested subjects such as art, music, even science and history. What we have seen in many urban areas (and many rural ones as well) is an impoverishment of the curriculum for students in low-scoring schools. They get extra math, extra reading instruction, and other subjects that are equally essential to a well-rounded, happy student are stripped away.

Manipulations: Mary Tedrow describes a strategy in her blog whereby students who are behind in math in the fall are shunted into a class where they repeat the first semester. Then they do not take the test for their grade in the spring, and voila, the school's score improves. This is similar to the observed bulge at the 9th grade caused by the many students retained at that grade to avert their downward pull on the school's scores. This bulge has expanded greatly with increased pressure to boost scores. These retentions result in higher dropout rates.

In my opinion, so long as we have tests that can be prepared for in these ways, and we continue to attach heavy consequences (punishments or rewards) to these tests, we are promoting malpractice.

I think teachers and schools SHOULD examine the test scores of our students, and we should seek to improve our instruction to respond to the weaknesses our scores may reveal. So I do not think we should simply ignore test scores. But I think the heavy consequences attached to test scores have us going way overboard in the ways I describe, with negative consequences for our students.

What do you think? Is test preparation malpractice?


Accepting for the moment the negative consequences you cite, what data report positive results from such test prep, and how do students benefit from these positives?

That is a really great question.

Let's posit that test preparation is at least marginally effective at increasing test scores. Then one might expect that students with higher test scores would have expanded opportunities in the courses they could take in high school, and assuming they continue that trajectory, they would have an easier time qualifying for and succeeding at college.

However, there is a lot of data that indicates that test preparation succeeds in boosting scores in the elementary grades, but that these gains diminish in middle school, and disappear by high school. And the fundamental purpose of education has been debased, turned into a score chase rather than a quest for relevant and useful skills and knowledge. I think there is a strong connection between this and the climbing dropout rates in many of our urban schools.


You are so wonderfully clear and precise and succinct!

This all hits home very deeply this weekend as we are trying to make a decision about where to send our son to kindergarten next year. We've spent years considering the options including the public schools in Oakland and surrounding areas. But in the end, we are leaning towards sending our son to a private school. Although this will be extremely difficult financially, I keep imagining the "better" Oakland elementary schools that I've taught at and visited in the last few years. In so many of these schools that have implemented a scripted language arts curriculum and have very little time for science, history, art, etc, what I notice more than anything is the BOREDOM. The kids (especially the boys) are bored. The teachers are bored. Some kids respond by checking out. Those are the boys with the glazed eyes, the ones who day dream and doodle. There are others who respond by acting out. We know what happens with them.

I quit teaching elementary school when Open Court rolled through our district. I felt deeply insulted as a reading teacher, and as a reader and lover of literature. It may have taught kids phonics, but now I work with middle school kids who were nursed on the scripted curriculum and who have no passion for reading and very low comprehension skills.

In the end, I can't imagine sending my musically-inclined little boy into that system. He's probably the kind of kid who'd disengage and complain of boredom by 2nd grade. When I think about what this educational environment so driven by test scores would do to his very being, his essence, it feels like more than malpractice. It feels like a destructive, violent attack on creativity, joy, inquiry, community, and autonomy.

All kids deserve to be in an environment where their being is honored and nurtured, not just my son. All kids deserve to learn to read, and to find their love of literature. And teachers deserve to teach in a way that allows kids to perform well on standardized test AND to pursue their passions.

Sometimes I wonder about our stance as progressive educators always in reactive mode. NCLB should be altered in fundamental ways. But what would it take for "us" to put forth something that would insist that all children have X number of inviolate minutes per week of music or science? That all students must paint a mural once in elementary school? And to have a measure of accountability for this? I know that there is some movement towards being proactive. Sometimes I wonder if we can go deeper. Perhaps the bottom line needs to be something like: Schools will be places of Joy. Oh, but how to do you measure that!?

Anyway, yes-malpractice. I'll continue working in our public schools but sometimes wonder what I can do to subvert this crazy energy that is dominating our system. So maybe you can write about that -- who is doing what to change this testing obsessed system? What else could be done? How do we get back some of the joy and magic and passionate learning and teaching that have existed at times in our schools?

Anthony: Yes, test preparation is malpractice, and the damage is especially severe for the youngest students. High-stakes testing and test prep have invaded and corrupted early childhood education. See "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School" at www.allianceforchildhood.org, and please keep writing about this.

As Sam Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, says, "High-stakes tests bring out the worst in everyone."

This is very interesting. Could you tell us what your sources are for the following statements?

1. "there is a lot of data that indicates that test preparation succeeds in boosting scores in the elementary grades, but that these gains diminish in middle school, and disappear by high school."

2. "the climbing dropout rates in many of our urban schools."

Thanks for the question, Jasper.

According to this report: Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2009,
forty percent of US Fourth graders scored at the high benchmark level, but by the 8th grade only 6% hit that mark. The report does not reach into high school, but the dropout rates and the trouble I see districts having with Algebra and other higher math courses suggests there is a further falloff there.

In terms of the drop-out rate, this has been a topic of a lot of concern in my district and others. I did a bit of searching for hard numbers, and found some indicators that indeed the dropout rate is climbing (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/03/26/258136iiowadropoutrate_ap.html) However the way dropout rates are calculated seems to vary, so it is hard to make a definitive statement as to whether they are rising. Perhaps it would suffice to say they are unacceptably high, especially for African American and Latino students.

Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of Say Yes to Education, suggests in a recent interview that excessive focus on incremental gains in test scores as the sole measure of progress can actually distract schools and communities from more ambitious goals: high school and college graduation.

Say Yes mobilizes comprehensive supports--including health care, academic support and college scholarships--to put disadvantaged children on a path to college graduation. They've managed to come very close to closing the high school and college graduation gaps between inner city students and their suburban peers.

While she sees test scores as a legitimate indicator of progress, she urges a broader approach--and larger goals. Our interview with Schmitt-Carey is available here: http://www.publicschoolinsights.org/node/2366

I'm not sure that I would go so far as to call test prep educational malpractice, but the question our school finance professor posed last weekend in class was this: when we look at our purposes of schooling, what are we willing to be held accountable for?

The comment above about doing well on standardized tests AND pursuing their passions seems to miss the point-- the schools that have the most test prep and least amount of "enrichment" aren't those schools who are doing well on standardized tests-- when schools do well on standardized tests, they get generally left alone and teachers are free to "pursue their passion." Don't get me wrong-- I think standardized tests are not helping our students at all right now, but what ARE we willing to be held accountable for and what do we want to use as the measurement for that?

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