Teach to the Test

The New York Times (free registration, or BugMeNot) reports that even when teachers are enthusiastic about new teaching methods and would prefer to implement them, they feel too much pressure to teach to the test — in this case, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP.

Becky Karnes, a 16-year veteran high school English teacher explained,

“MEAP is not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about. And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they’ll pass that test. There’s a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values.”

Well, it’s good to have our priorities straight — helping the district look good and increasing real estate values. No criticism meant toward Ms. Karnes, as I’m sure she’s feeling considerable pressure to teach to the test.

The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country. For their part, the makers of these tests emphasize that they don’t mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.

I wish, wish, wish I could say more about the SAT writing sample, but there is a good reason I can’t.

Kristen Covelle encountered the specter of teaching to the test during job interviews for English teaching:

The interview will be going great, and then MEAP will come up. They want to know will I teach to the test, that’s what they’re looking for. They asked how I feel about using “I” in writing. Would there ever be a case when “I” is appropriate in an essay. I knew the answer they want – you’re not supposed to use it. But I couldn’t say that. I said there could be times, you just can’t close the door. They didn’t say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview.

I feel very fortunate to be outside the burden of tests like these, as a private school teacher. I know what it’s like. I can vividly remember the curriculum director at a low-performing school where I used to teach coming in my classroom and reviewing the five-paragraph formula with my students. It looked a lot like the one in the Times article. Her visit was part of the counselor’s pre-test workup. Karnes is right: “For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn’t otherwise.” But what is our ultimate goal as teachers? To teach students how to write more effectively or to teach them to pass a test? Karnes added, “It turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid’s potential.”

Prison is such an apt choice of words. I distinctly remember feeling constricted by testing demands on the curriculum.

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6 thoughts on “Teach to the Test

  1. You're fortunate you're not here in Texas, home of the supposed Texas miracle. THE TEST is all there is, and the Republican controlled state govt. is doing everything it can to make sure there is nothing but the test, including refusing to pay for new textbooks.

  2. California isn't any better. It's called the S.T.A.R. system. IT drives teaching methods, curriculum, textbooks, and teachers stark raving crazy.

  3. In the past I've been a grader for the free-response portion of the AP Calculus test, and it's the same thing with math teachers as what you describe here with English teachers. There's tremendous pressure to have a high number of high-scoring AP students in a lot of school districts because it gives a certain appearance to the academic quality of the schools. And students end up in these AP courses not always fully prepared for them in terms of the precalculus skills, because they've been pressured, or in some cases required, to take "more advanced courses". Whenever I graded the AP, I was always impressed by the quality and dedication of the AP high school teachers, and glad that I didn't have to answer to somebody's test requirements. Unfortunately though this mentality is creeping into higher ed these days; fully one-half of my freshman calculus students for the last year have complained on evaluations that my job is to teach them the problems that are going to be on the final exam.

  4. Well, in defense of some public schools, my first job, prior to lay-off, did not emphasize the test. In fact, my principal took great pride in telling us teachers not to worry about it and allowing us to work according to research. Of course, that school's MEAP scores were well above average despite the complete lack of "intensive test preparation." Sigh. At least one Michigan school has it right. :)

  5. In Tennessee we strictly teach to the test. Everyone in the nation knows it and see no future in changing. Every teacher hates it but what can you do????

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