May 2008’s Think-About: Teaching to the Test

My friend, Tony Vincent, sent me this link today- http://notonthetest.com

As an educator- and a former music educator- this really hit home with me. While I agree that schools should be accountable for ensuring that every child learns the skills necessary to be successful, I don’t agree that testing them ad nauseum is the way to prove they’re learning. The result, as most of you know, is that schools and teachers feel they need to teach to the test. Creativity is not only sapped out of the students, but from the teachers and their art of teaching as well.

A lot of classroom teachers and support staff resent the stipulations in NCLB. I guess my questions are:

1) In order to prove AYP, are we required to subject our students to a litany of tests? Are there other acceptable methods to show progress? Is this a case of misinterpreting requirements?

2) Critical thinking, creativity, learning to express oneself in an intelligent and responsible manner… aren’t these important life skills? Ah, but how does one test and prove that a student has learned these things? Too many times, we ignore content and skill that can’t be tested objectively.

3) There is research that shows students who are asked to use higher levels of thinking, not just comprehension and regurgitation of facts, perform at higher levels on standardized tests (anyone have any good examples to share?). Since this is the case, wouldn’t it make more sense to prepare students to do more than just excel on a test?

I can’t stop thinking about this today. Kids are dropping out of school at record paces- 1 in 4, according to a University of Minnesota study. 1 in 4! We need to keep them engaged and involved in school… help them learn the skills that are relevant to their world.

Pulling students out of Art, Music, PE, or worse yet, eliminating those programs in order to concentrate on the “core” subjects is unthinkable to me. For many students, the only reason they stay in school is because of a music program, or athletics, or a talent for painting. Reading, writing, math, science… they are essential. I won’t argue that; however, research about good Physical Education programs, music programs, and art programs have shown time and time again that kids perform better overall when involved in any of these programs.

Weaving Digital Literacy and 21st Century skills into the mix… it sometimes looks as if we have all these extras to teach. If we could simply learn to teach DIFFERENTLY… it could work. It does work. There are teachers right now who are successfully implementing these skills into their curriculum, and the students reap the benefits. These same students are outperforming their peers on standardized tests. In the next month, I’m going to be posting as many of these examples as I can find. If you have some you would like to share, please add to the comments!

A final thought, from Mr. Holland’s Opus:

Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.
Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t
going to have anything to read or write about. [my emphasis]

quote found at IMDB.com

If You Can’t Imagine It, You Can’t Make It Happen

I sat through a meeting the other day, listening to educators discuss the merits of not accepting zeros on missing or late assignments vs. “it’s too much work to follow up with kids, so I’m giving zeros anyway. Plus, I have to teach them to be accountable.”

Regardless of how you feel about this “hot topic” or any of Ken O’Connor’s work, I think it’s important to look more carefully at WHY kids aren’t doing their work in or out of the classroom. Personally, I feel a lot of kids aren’t just behavior problems. I think they’re bored. Bored out of their ever-living minds.

When they walk in the door of their school, they are required to “unplug.” How many classrooms still look like the straight, orderly rows that existed 10, 20, 30 years ago? Even if the classrooms aren’t orderly, how many teachers are willing to give up their role as “knowledge provider” and become the guide that assists the students in their self-directed learning? As soon as those kids walk out the door of their school and go home, they plug back in. They become creators. They become developers. And they learn in spite of what happens at school.

I’m not saying that all schools are like this… or even every classroom. But I do think there’s a huge dilemma in American education where the almighty test score reigns, and teaching to the test has become the rule. Kids who know how to play the “game of school” will perform adequately, but imagine what they could do if given a chance to move outside that game. And those kids who don’t play that game very well could wake up to a whole new world of learning. That’s really exciting!

Will Richardson just posted “Waking Up With a ‘Cognitive Surplus.'” Read it. Then go read Clay Shirky‘s book and book blog. Everything my measly little brain has tried to express in the last two years is right there.

I really think that we, as educators, are smack dab in the most exciting and phenomenal of times. Think about the possibilities! Imagine where you might be able to lead kids… or even better… where they might be able to lead you! If you’re not excited about this, I’ll be blunt. Maybe it’s time to consider another career. Our kids can’t wait for you to catch up or buy into what they are doing. They need our guidance. They need boundaries. They need to know how to be safe. But that other stuff we think we need to teach them? They can find that in about 10 seconds. Help them analyze, evaluate, synthesize it. And then allow them to grow with it. Can you imagine it???

I hope so.