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Let's Teach to Better Tests

Ryan Kinser
I don't want to teach to the test. Great educators say this all the time. I used to agree. As an idealistic young English teacher, I thought, "Amen! Let's give students real-world skills, help them become better people who can find their passions and contribute to democracy." When I looked over my state-test results after my first year, none of these ideals revealed themselves in the scores, nor did any useful data to improve my teaching.

Now I'm a little older, a smidge more veteran, and my values haven't changed. But I have a confession: Now I think we should teach to the tests. We just need to construct more useful ones—curriculum-embedded performance assessments that are valid, reliable, and accurate measures of what and how students learned. I envision these tests as both formative and summative at the same time. They show student mastery, while helping teachers tailor future instruction. I can still remember my Advanced Placement American History teacher constantly refining his pedagogy despite the daunting breadth of knowledge we seniors needed for the AP exam. He returned to what I now know were Socratic Seminars discussing the Missouri Compromise even after we protested that we could explain the event.

"Yes, but few of you can argue whether or not it was a good decision," he snapped, "if it was truly a compromise, or what alternative solutions might have existed."

In order to reflect 21st Century college- and career-readiness skills, I think we should teach to assessments that capture authentic student voice through what my colleague Barnett Berry refers to as the 3 Cs: creativity, communication, and collaboration. All three of these traits require teachers to assess relevant processes, not just products. I offer students choices not on the content but the method of many assessments. Portfolios, student reflections, conferences, and multimedia project logs help me drive achievement much more than chapter tests. I evaluate my kids on their metacognitive steps, their thinking about my teaching strategies and the students' own learning. I want to know, how did students prioritize and delegate responsibilities? What obstacles did they encounter as teams and as individuals? What further questions did they discover?

The millennium my own teachers dangled as a not-so-distant threat is here. Success in today's world demands students know so much more than content. Students must now demonstrate that they know how to learn and build upon that content to solve problems. They must develop versatile communication skills, work collaboratively and competitively, and be comfortable reinventing themselves over multiple careers. Give me tests that are flexible and transparent, and I'll teach to them.

Ryan Kinser is a 6th grade English teacher at Walker Middle Magnet School for International Studies in Tampa.

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