Making schools better. Teaching to the test.

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Making schools better. Teaching to the test.

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Jul 10, 2011, 4:06pm

In today's (Sunday's) New York Times Review, there was a flurry of letters and a response from Diane Ravich herself, to a letter initially written by Diane Ravich about school reform.

Among the many points raised was what seemed to be a consensus that teaching to the test is "a bad thing".

I have recently gotten involved (its a long story) tutoring and then teaching math in a program to prepare people for the High School equivalency or GED exam.

The students in that program, as far as I can see from personal observation, are suffering from severe educational deficits and working under great handicaps.

On the one hand, students prepared at only the level required to pass the GED math test are likely to be at a very great disadvantage and would require much more remediation to get through even the minimal math requirements at a Junior College.

But on the other hand, the GED material is a necessary precondition to any further math study, so getting the students from where they are now up to a level where they could be comfortable with the exam material seems like "a good thing" and a definite step in the right direction.

Presuming that most subscribers to this group are professional educators, and hence that they know something I don't know, perhaps they could enlighten me as to the "down side" of teaching to the test in the situation I've described.

Jul 11, 2011, 5:47pm

In your situation, I think it's a bit different. Are your students in the program forced to be there? If the students are not, their motivation to be successful and their value for education is obvious. Any extension of understanding and learning is surely beneficial.

Jul 14, 2011, 12:02am

The students are at least formally free to attend or to drop out. I don't know what all social or economic pressures are at work, except for the obvious lack of opportunities for people without a High School diploma.

The students are quite a diverse lot. Some may have come from countries where they were able to get only a few years formal education. For most of the foreign born students, English is not their first language.

For the native English speakers, there are often all sorts of deficits from simply lack of information, lack of study skills, difficulty concentrating, perhaps cognitive deficits that would take a qualified professional to diagnose.

Naturally, "understanding and learning" is where we want to go, but:
1) How does the instructor know that the student has "understood" some concept?
2.) How does the student himself know that he or she has understood?

In both instances, ability to solve problems and to perform standard arithmetical, logical, or algebraic manipulations, and to come up with the right answer, is the "gold standard" of objective criteria.

Does the student understand to concept of "quantity"; does he or she "know" that five is bigger than two, and that five is less than fourteen ? In some sense, you cant't teach that. The student has that ability or not. What you _can_ do is give them practice sorting numbers, putting numbers on a number line,
arranging things by size and so on.

If they can do the sorting correctllu pretty much every time, then maybe they understand the underlying concept. If they can't do the sort, they for sure do not understand the concepts.

Jul 14, 2011, 5:07pm

Completing a sorting activity independently indicates some understanding of a greater than and less than concept. If you were teaching specific procedures (for example, long division), students may not understand the concept. When I assess my student's understanding of concepts, I ask them to verbally explain what they're doing, write their understanding, and apply these skills to other problems and real world activities.

Jul 14, 2011, 6:16pm

Subjectively, one feels that "when the light goes on" that there is something real about the notion of understanding.

But observing from the outside, all we can tell is that the students can or can not solve problems.

From that point of view the "light" that goes on is something of a mystical proposition. We can't observe it. But we can observe the demonstration (or lack ) of the skill.

Jul 16, 2011, 6:12pm

Often students learn a skill and it isn't a "light goes on" moment. But sometimes when a skill is taught - often repeatedly - there comes a time when you see, and sometimes hear, "Oh, I get it". That is a true time when the light comes on. And sometimes, unfortunately, the light goes back off before the next learning time.
As far as teaching to the test goes, most teachers feel it is 'bad' but since more and more reviews and evaluations are based on tests results, the 'bad' is not as bad as losing your job or getting a poor evaluation. I don't know what was written in the NYTR, but teachers I know would much rather be teaching what children really need to know. This includes items that would be on the test but also things you can't test: developing creativity, music and art appreciation, how to work alone and in group settings, how to think independently, and many more. Many districts have shortened or completely eliminated music, art, PE, and/or recess times. This affects the learning of students in ways I'm not sure anyone even remotely understands.
I don't think there is an easy answer. There are many people on both sides of the fence, shaking thier fist, screaming at each other, and pulling at the fence to drag it one way or the other. Meanwhile, students are being carried along in our education system not getting what they need to succeed in life.