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Why can't we be Creative and Raise Test Scores Too?

This week I received a provocative question from someone who cares about schools. In response to the often heard complaints about No Child Left Behind, he asked "why can't teachers be creative and still raise test scores? Why do tests have to get in the way?"

A great teacher in Sacramento named Larry Ferlazzo just posted a piece next door entitled "Giving Classrooms a Purpose," in which he argues that it is essential that we have develop a sense of our mission with each class that we teach.

I agree with this 100%. When I was teaching the question that sometimes stopped me cold was "why are we learning this?" or even colder - "Why do we HAVE to learn this?" So I developed an answer that I would discuss early on in the year. I was teaching them to understand the natural world. I was teaching them to answer their own questions - to be investigators of the world around them. We were learning about things they were curious about - and I made sure of that by frequently asking them what they wanted to study, and giving them as much choice as possible in the assignments I gave.

However with the drive towards test-centered accountability we have created a different mission. The answer many teachers would give, explicitly or implicitly, is "we are learning this because it is on the test." There are a number of problems with this.

First of all, there is a great temptation to only seek to learn the subset of knowledge that is actually on the test. So we see teachers giving students "release items" from the test bank, so they know the sorts of things they are likely to be asked. A test is supposed to represent a sample of what has been learned. The more we zero in and teach precisely what is on the test, the less accurate it is as a representation of the body of knowledge students have learned. This is one reason why many state test scores rise even though actual student learning has not increased, as is revealed when we conduct an outside test like the NAEP that has not been prepared for. So the tests become less accurate the more pressure you place on them.

Second, and getting back to the idea of the mission we are on, the idea that we are learning in order to pass a test is an intellectual dead end. I have certainly studied for tests before, and understand that it is reasonable to occasionally be expected to show up and demonstrate what we have learned. But these tests should be occasional and incidental to the learning process. They should not be the goal. The goal should be for us to understand and be able to apply what we are learning about. If my answer to the question "why are we learning this?" is "Because it is on the test," then I have missed the point. Because why do we need to pass the test? So we can pass the grade and move on, and then move on to more tests, and more classes. It becomes circular. We pass the test so we can take the next test. And we are learning not so we can be powerful shapers of the world around us, not so we can understand the mysteries of the natural world, but because we need to please whatever entity is imbued with the power to bestow that all important grade or certificate upon us.

And when you have a student who is already alienated, as many of our students of color are, and you hit him with "you have got to learn this so you can pass the test," you will find that it is likely he will become even more alienated.

We need to be able to meet our students where they are. If they are alienated and bored, we need to look to kindle the spark of imagination and motivation from within. The whole approach of "you need to learn this to pass the test" is ultimately coercive. It is based on a series of implied threats. If you do not learn this, you will not pass the test. Fail the test, you will fail the class. Fail the class and you will fail high school. Fail high school and you will be condemned to a life of poverty. Fail to graduate from a four year college, and likewise, you will be poor.

But in order for this to work, students have to believe in the converse: Pass the tests and you will pass the class, you will graduate from high school, you will graduate from college, and you will get your ticket to the middle class. But students are well aware of the reality we are seeing unfold around us. The middle class is crumbling. Access to college is going out of reach of poor and working class students as fees climb and tax revenues fall. They do not see role models from their neighborhoods succeeding, so why should they believe that this ticket we are offering will actually work?

But of course that does not mean we give up and say "tough luck, you're screwed." It means we actively interface with their reality, rather than deny it. It means we seek to help them learn things that are of real importance, and show them how that knowledge can empower them to interact with the world around them. This might mean doing projects where they learn about the impact of lead poisoning in their neighborhood. When they learn about the chemistry of lead, it is part of understanding and changing their community.

None of this is easy. And it is much easier to give everyone the same fifty questions about valence electrons and ionic bonding to determine what they learned about chemistry. And the students SHOULD learn about these things, even if it is in a context of understanding how heavy metals impact our community. But when you put all the pressure on test scores, there is a way that this becomes the mission for everyone, and I think that fundamentally, that is a dead end.

What do you think? Do the high stakes attached to tests get in the way of creativity in the classroom, or can we raise scores and still be true to our mission?

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