Teach to the test?

This is a second follow-up to my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Thanks again to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to guest!

Twitter commentary on my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant and a couple of the comments there, made me want to follow up.

I teach at one of the poorest schools in the State of Washington.  We are a small, rural public school on an Indian reservation.  Increased state pressure and intervention has actually widened the achievement gap in our school and others like it.

Teaching to the test may work (on the short term) with predominantly White, middle-class students who are motivated by grades and the promise of college.  These type of children tend to accept education as it was delivered to their parents and grandparents.  Never mind the negative effect teaching to the test has on higher-order thinking skills and creativity.

No matter your criteria, teaching to the test does not work with poor, minority students.  Show me successes at schools like KIPP and I’ll show you serious flaws in their data.  If school does not engage them, they drop out.  Is that what we want?

If good instruction doesn’t raise test scores, then the test is flawed, not the instruction.  For those who are facing pressure to raise test scores, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Do your homework and be prepared to effectively defend your practice.  Do lots of research on effective instructional practices.  Read “How People Learn“, “Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards“, “Results Now“, everything by Alfie Kohn, and more.
  2. Become National Board Certified – this gains you a lot of credibility with administrators and your board of directors.  Nobody wants to fire a National Board Certified Teacher.  I do very open-ended inquiry-based instruction in my classroom.  I achieved National Board Certification in 1 year and found the standards of that process to be 100% aligned with my instructional methods.
  3. Base your instruction around state standards.  You are in a very defensible position if you can clearly demonstrate that you are aligning your instruction to the standards that are purportedly on the state assessment.  You are required to teach to the standards; you are not required to teach to the test.

If none of this works, maybe you should find a different school to teach at.  If my working conditions were unbearable and I was being asked to do things that I had strong moral objections to, I would go work somewhere else.

2 thoughts on “Teach to the test?

  1. I agree with most everything you’ve posted. I have one question: How did Alfie Kohn make your ‘research’ list?

    He’s an ‘opinion’ author, not either a researcher or a teacher.

    I like the rest of your research list and would add authors like Fullan, Reeves (on systems), Marzano, Bennett (on instruction), Stiggins, Davies (on Assessment), Caine, Diamond (on brain-compatible learning) and Dweck, Willingham on motivation.

    But Kohn? I don’t like NCLB either, but not liking it doesn’t make me either a researcher or an expert, even if I wrote a book. The guy taught one year, in a school not nearly as challenging as what you describe yours as, and never taught again.

    You, sir, have much more credibility than Alfie. Keep up the good fight!

  2. I get what you’re saying about Alfie Kohn. He is certainly more of a “meta-research” user. He may not use a lot of hard data in his work but I find it to be well researched and supported by his references to research. He also focuses much more on inferences that he makes from research. The fact that he’s not a “hard” researcher doesn’t make his work any less valuable to me. The list I gave was for teachers to do their research by reading widely. Shoot, they should read works that I disagree with too (E.D. Hirsch, for example).

    That being said, I am increasingly suspicious of education research that is based on “achievement data”, which usually means test scores. I put little value in test scores. Maybe that’s wishful thinking based on the struggles that my students have with such tests. However, I really believe that I’m doing good instruction in my classes and seeing little evidence of that in state test scores.

    I know a lot of people don’t like Alfie Kohn, and I fully agree with you about him not being a teacher since forever. Michael Doyle agrees with us. I find, though, that the longer I teach and the more widely I read, the more I agree with Kohn’s ideas.

    Honestly, there are precious few people writing about education who are actually educators. We need more!

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