Friday, June 1, 2007

Teaching to the Test is a Good Thing

Our Town downtown
June 4, 2007

If you want to be thought of as cool or progressive or humanistic, you say you don’t like tests. When it comes to schools, you say, don’t teach to the tests. You say No Child Left Behind is misguided, because it makes teachers do just that, teach to the tests.
If you’re one of those, you’re like me. And, like me, you probably thought, or just intuited, that the whole-language approach was better than phonics for teaching kids to read. But we were way off on that, according to almost all the studies. Maybe we’re way off on the tests too. I hope we are, because it was just announced last week that the city schools are going to test the kids in grades 3 through 8 five times a year now in both math and reading. Even the high school big kids are going to be tested in all their subjects four times a year.
I surprise myself; I’m all for it. I changed my mind. Can I change yours? The tests can only help the schools here where all kind of help is needed. You can’t avoid tests, shouldn’t avoid them.
If you go to the gym, there’s a scale. Fat guys—and thin guys—weigh themselves routinely with their little towels around them. They want to see how they’re doing. They want to know that what they’ve been doing is working. They want to know if it’s not working, so they can do more, or do something different. If they run, they use a good watch to time the whole thing. Same with swimmers. You might see either of them checking their pulse in the neck or at their wrist. If they use the treadmill, they monitor the monitor. Golfers want to know how far their drives go at the driving range. It’s only natural to want to know how you’re doing. Coaches also want to know how you’re doing.
Teachers do (did, at least) too. Remember in grade school how you’d have a spelling quiz every single week. There would be math quizzes all the time. You’d have to do questions at the end of every chapter in history. You have to do the same in science. It isn’t like we sat outside under an apple tree listening to a teacher who changed his costume every class to look like Louis Pasteur one period and then Ben Franklin the next and then Rosa Parks. Mostly it was read the stuff and you’ll be tested on it. Wasn’t that sort of teaching to the test? Weren’t we studying for the test? What’s the big deal about tests?
These new tests are only like 45 minutes long. It isn’t like they’re anxiety-inducing, all-day deals. They’ll probably be about 30 minutes when you factor in classroom management and forgotten pencils. What’s the big deal? Do teachers avoid tests now because the whole system is so bad, they’d rather not know how the class is doing? Or is part of their reluctance to embrace the new testing program a result of teachers not wanting to have to grade a big stack of tests five times a year? But now the kids can take the test on computers, and they can be graded easily that way.
There are all sorts of things that should be tried in an effort to improve the school experience in the city’s public schools. These tests will certainly not be the whole answer, but they can help by showing what’s working and what’s not working. Coaches at half time get handed a clipboard by one of the assistants and on it are stats like the number of offensive rebounds the team got in the first half. The numbers tell who on the other team is killing them, who’s in foul trouble. Once these numbers are looked at, adjustments can be made to do better in the second half, in order to win the game. That’s the goal. It’s the goal of school too. You want the kids to do well. If some numbers on these new tests will give the teacher and the principal some guidance in going forward, how can anyone resist them? It isn’t like these kids are studying the sonnets of Shakespeare with such intensity that one period five times a year devoted to a test will knock them off their game.
Good for the Mayor and Chancellor Klein.
—Bill Gunlocke

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