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?