Monday, April 9, 2007

Tackling the TEST (tales from a first year challenge)

Let me take you back to my first year of teaching. My school was arranged on a "block schedule", which meant I had half a year (of hour and half long classes) to teach my high school students everything they would need to learn in a full year of English. Everyone was telling me about "the test" but I had absolutely no idea what this test was all about. All I knew was that I had a hefty text book to get through and the added challenge of making the Odyssey relevant to high schoolers, and I had to get this done by winter break. To be honest, "the test" was the furthest thing from my mind.

My goal for the semester was not to have all of my students "at or above grade level" on that test. My goals were to have all of my students get along, learn to love reading, and learn to see writing as a valuable tool for expression. I taught toward those goals.

I do not recommend administering a standardized test for which you have neither seen a sample, nor investigated the topics covered. I do not recommend going blindly into an assessment that may be used to determine promotion for your students. But this is precisely what I did. Mostly, because I didn't know any better - but I like to think there was a little thoughtful rebellion in my naiveté

Testing week came. The school was all in a frenzy. The kids were stressing out. My last minute test prep consisted of bringing sausage and biscuits to my class for breakfast (I'd read protein helps the brain) and coloring in Scantron forms to make pictures with the dots (we were practicing filling them in completely).

Eventually, I had to hand out the tests. And then I walked the room and saw what was on them...oh horror! There were all sorts of things on there I knew I'd never taught. The reading passages looked too complicated. Even I wasn't sure which sentences in the grammar section used semi-colons correctly. But my class soldiered on. They worked with such focus and dedication. And when it was over, they told me the test was easy. In my mind I knew they were lying.

It took awhile to get the test scores back. By the time we did the kids had gone home for break and I was pondering a brand new semester with all new classes. You can imagine my shock at discovering my students had scored the highest in the school on those tests. The principal shifted my class assignments so that I would now be teaching only tested courses.

And here's the sad part of the story: I changed my teaching completely.

Knowing what those tests entailed, and knowing the high expectations the principal had placed on me to repeat the unplanned victory of my first semester - I panicked and I started teaching to the test. I guess the biggest surprise came at the end of my second semester when once again most of my students passed the test, but overall the scores were lower.


In the years since those first test experiences I have learned a lot about the standardized testing process, and teaching in general. I have learned that those who choose this profession generally come in with pretty good instincts - but all the NCLB stress around us tends to make us doubt those instincts much to the detriment of our students.

If you teach to the best of your ability and you involve your students actively in the process, if you find out what each student needs to learn and support him or her in learning that, if you trust your class and your class trusts you - they'll do just fine on the tests. But unfortunately, as you head into this week of last minute test insanity - there's a lot out there encouraging you to abandon these best practices.

Believe in your students and help them to believe in themselves - in my experience that is the best test prep you'll ever do.