Teaching the Test

One of my primary concerns about my future as teacher of English in the High School Public context is High Stakes testing. My concern is two fold: political and professional, altough these two concerns tie into each other.

The political concern is this: Testing is often a mandatory part of a curriculum, since the school is judged by its test results. The students themselves are likewise judged. Their odds of getting into college are lower if they are placed in “remedial” classrooms far away from the kind of rich reading and writing that would prepare them for such an experience. So, it is necessary for me to help them navigate the testing they will undergo. How can I do this and remain true to the kind of teaching I want to teach? What am I teaching them if I “teach to the test?” What vision of society, literacy, and their place in life am I enacting?

The second, professional concern, is quite simply, this, if I don’t have my students get “good test scores”, what professional effect will this have on me? Is the kind of classsroom practice I want to enact actually conducive to “good” test scores? 

In many ways, Pencils Down: Rethinking high-stakes testing and accountability in public schools (PDF), seeks to answer both of these concerns.

In the free chapter of this book that Rethinking Schools had made available online, Linda Christensen describes a pedagogical approach towards high stakes tests that attempts to address this issues which an be summarized thus: teach the test. Not “to the test”, but rather the test itself as an artifact, the way you would any other “text” by asking questions and problem posing: where did this test come from? Who made it? What assumptions did they have when they made this test? What are they measuring? Is that what they are supposed to measure?

Throughout, she lays out what a critical pedagogy approach to high stakes testing might look like and how it can be enacted, and how it might serve as an effectiveness means to achieve the desired test results while also teaching the social and political problems in the test in such a way that the students do not internalize the language and values of the test.

This, as with all other aspects of how to enact critical pedagogy under the constraints of the “real” world (by which I mean the world of education as defined and limited by policy makers) shows the final and most important lesson from the article. Whatever one is attempting to do as regards enacting a critical educational standpoint, one should not attempt to do so alone, but rather in solidarity with one’s fellow educators.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Teaching the Test

  1. I have similar concerns; we’re kind of in a double bind. On one hand, these tests require students to know certain things, but teaching them to the point of passing with a decent score means other topics lose out in the classroom. At the very least, there will be less time to focus on the “fun” or enjoyable parts of an English course. I find that really frustrating because I hated spending time on the mechanics of grammar and punctuation. If I had been taught the way teachers seem to be required to teach now, I never would have majored in English or gotten a graduate degree in English. Generally, I find that having students read a wide variety of texts tends to instruct students passively. Largely, if they are not reading experimental/creative writing, they will absorb the material. There are numerous ways to teach the “rules” of writing in English. For example, as I am writing this, I am receiving a “grammar lesson” in that Microsoft Word is pointing out potential errors as I write. Some students may find that to be helpful in learning grammar/punctuation, but others may find it frustrating. Right now, with this idea of teaching to the test, I’m leaning toward having students write as much as possible so that mistakes/errors can be addressed in a more individualized fashion. Yet, I’m not sure how well that would go over with parents and school administrators.

  2. It is impossible not to consider the affect that standardized testing will have on your teaching career. In the public school system teacher’s and student’s successes are, unfortunately,measured by standardized test. This is a reality that will not be changing anytime soon and has been in affect for years. The pedagogy that you mentioned about “teaching the test” is very interesting and something I never thought of. It is such an ingenious idea to help student to overcome some of the feelings that may come along with the ideas of test if they learn about the test itself. I really think that the idea may work really well in a lot of school and will give students a different perspective. Out of the box thinking like that is great in education and I would be very interested in seeing that strategy used in a real classroom. Thank You for sharing this article it has inspired me to look more into this idea and others like it.

  3. huyhoa87

    I think these tests are especially stressful for English teachers. Unlike other subjects, there seems to be a pretty straightforward curriculum. As in math, you learn addition, then subtraction, then multiplication, etc. Even history and science is pretty linear. The Math, Science, and History are pretty confined subjects and there is not much room to go outside the box. But what we teach is English Language ART. Our subject is a kind of art. We teach them fundamentals, we show them other “art”, we have then identify different kinds of art, and even have them create art themselves. I find it extremely hard to have high stakes tests of “Art.” Sure you can test them on the fundamentals, but that is only a part of our art. Do we focus on the fundamentals and rid them of appreciation and enjoyment of the art? Isn’t that the point of art? To be appreciated, understood, and enjoyed?

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