Saturday, April 4, 2009

Teaching to the Test

This topic was started in March but comments are just now being entered.

Teaching to the test
Letter to the editor in today's PG: "Teaching to the test isn't education":

Posted by Questioner at 10:40 PM

Anonymous said...
Hooray! Those who KNOW that teaching to a test is bad educational policy know the true value of education. Teach the kids everything and they will succeed in life, teach them to fill in bubbles and give poorly thought out, oversimplified answers and you have given them the tools of failure! We can't make everyone the same. Homoginization is for milk not for people.
April 4, 2009 10:32 AM

Kathy Fine said...
At the last EFA (Excellence for All) meeting, Mr. Roosevelt stated (in response to a PURE Reform question) that the superintendents that come from the Broad foundation (he is one of them) out perform their peers after 2 years on the job because "they do not teach to the test.I do not have any children that are still taking the PSSAs, but that is counter to what I have heard from parents of elementary age students. One parent told me that her 3rd grader had homework and classwork that was literally sample questions form the PSSA test.It would be helpful (and a major point of this blog) if parents would blog with specific examples of "teaching to the test" that was going on in the PPS so that we can bring it to the attention of the distirct.
April 4, 2009 11:20 AM


Brass said...

Ms.Fine, with all due respect, Mr.Roosevelt and his Broad Foundation are Ivory Tower types who are quite adept at public relations. Nothing could be further from the truth.
11th grade reading teachers could tell tales in this regard. Three-and-a-half weeks before the PSSA Reading and Math tests were scheduled to begin, each English 3 teacher was told to stop all mandated work with the curriculum to instead work on PSSA daily until the beginning of the tests themselves. Apparently, the one week which had been set aside for review was not enough, especially in light of district wide Foresight scores which indicated that perhaps the canned curriculum that emanates from the Pittsburgh Institute simply wasn't preparing kids well enough, despite claims that it would.
Forgive me for chuckling about Mr.Roosevelt's commentary. HIS administration is all about statistics and data. Our students are simply over-tested. Ask any teacher and they will tell you as much. Ask any high school student and it will become clear that part of the problem is that kids have a difficult time understanding which tests are extremely important and which can only be described as being frivolous, made only to provide MORE data to Dr.Poncelet, one of Roosevelt's lieutenants whose job description IS data analysis.
This district IS data driven to the degree that it is an obsession that precludes gaining a well rounded education.
Someone recently said that these are the darkest days for PPS students. I can only agree. What would you expect from top administrators who have no background in education???

Questioner said...

Some comments were added to the March post:

Questioner said...
No one admits to teaching to the test, but most say that others are doing so.
April 4, 2009 11:38 AM

She said...
The current elementary curriculum is all about teaching to the test. There are weekly units (5 or 6 days long, depending on the school) which culminate in a test of multiple choice questions, with one written answer. These tests are made to be preparation for state tests. There are even kindergarten versions of these tests -- and in K kids have as hard a time flipping the pages and staying with the rest of the class as they do answering the questions.

There are only 10-16 questions on these tests (at least in the lower grades), so each question takes on far more importance. Then again, one lucky guess can mean the difference between looking like you know the material or don't. Many of the questions are easily misconstrued by children. That is, adults can read the question and understand what is being asked but very concrete first graders may have an entirely different reading of it.

Then again, with the 50% grading (or its equivalent new program) scores end up in a pretty narrow band. Any decent teacher could spend the same amount of time as the testing takes and give a more accurate and nuanced picture of each child's levels of achievement.

Paper and pencil multiple choice test scores also don't tell you which children agonized for an hur over the test and ended up with 90% due to some lucky guesses and which child whizzed through it in a few minutes and had a 90% because of a silly mistake. A teacher can tell you that -- a score on the page cannot.
April 4, 2009 12:04 PM

PPSparent said...
The changes I've seen in the district are that now "fun" projects are less educational. For instance, in the past when a teacher did a unit, there could be two or three chances for hands-on learning, or projects that required the child to create a unique product, whether that was written, an art project, something told to the class, etc.

Now, if there's a spare moment, it's spent with more rigid projects -- crafts, basically. NOT that that's bad (it's better than nothing), but coloring and cutting from worksheet illustrations and making the same exact thing as every other student is not the same as learning and creating something of your own, based on a theme the class has studied.

My older children were introduced to artists and art in elementary school via a classroom teacher. They learned not only about the artist, his/her times and work, but also learned enriched vocabulary, comparison and analysis skills, etc. They wrote about the artists, they drew in the style of the artist, they thought and created. They noticed art when they were out of school. They learned.

There's no time for an ongoing program like that now. At best, students might hear about one artist and fill in a worksheet, if their teacher is motivated enough to rearrange things to fit it in.

So many teachers now have given up on their special projects that used to be what motivated children to enjoy learning. No one's any happier and no one's learning more due to this loss. There are still pockets of this going on out there, but it's so much harder to keep it going under all the "data" demands.
April 4, 2009 12:14 PM

Anonymous said...
It's going to be difficult for the Pittsburgh Promise to make all of this palatable.
April 4, 2009 12:18 PM

Questioner said...

Brass are Foresight scores available for review? Are you able to obtain a copy of them? And, do you know how much time is spent on Foresight testing?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a huge fan of the Roosevelt administration and to some degree, I would concur that his is a more corporate approach, but NCLB and its proving ground, the PSSA tests are beyond his control. As an 11th grade teacher, I find it disconcerting that my kids and my school are judged by a standardized test, and I find it disheartening that there is the threat of the state taking over my school--or any school--if scores don't improve, but I cannot blame my own administration for this. Simply put, some bit of "teaching to the test" needs to be undertaken when the stakes are so high.
I am sure that it has been pointed out that the PSSA's are not part of a grand design of tests that one can find in any state. That is, there is not one entity writing tests for every state. Bobby may score at basic or below basic in Pennsylvania and were he to cross state lines, he may be above basic in Ohio. As you may imagine, this is also quite distressing.

Questioner, you ask about 4 Sight testing and you should understand that the tests act as a predictor of PSSA fortunes, good or bad. They aren't foolproof, of course, but there is benefit to the student in that he gets a feel for what the PSSA's will encompass, and for the district in that it can quite possibly gauge how a student will perform.

As for the curriculum, I guess that I have to say that with so much riding on the scores, reviewing and practicing were only prudent ideas.

Again, I am not a huge fan of what I am seeing these days, but I can't say that we are our own worst enemy. On the contrary, politicians who wish to demonize teachers and schools need to spend some time in those schools and in those communities before making a judgment as to what is successful and what is not.

Questioner said...

These are good points about why teaching to the test may to some extent be necessary. But if administrators refuse to acknowledge the extent to which programs are influenced by the needs of these often flawed tests, it is less likely that problems with tests (particular tests and tests in general) will be corrected.

Also there is the issue of students who could walk in on the first day of ninth grade and pass the 12th grade PSSA tests- but still must waste time over 4 years preparing for and taking these tests! There should be a way for these students to "test out" and spend their time on something more enriching.

Kathy Fine said...

Anon 6:26 makes a very valid point that we are where we are regarding the testing of our children because of mandates beyond the superintendent's control. The point of my post was that our superintendent says that we do not teach to the test in the PPS and I wanted to use this forum to see if parents/teachers real experience supports or contradicts this statement.

PPSparent said...

I'd point out that while the PPS administration has no say in NCLB or directly in the PSSAs, it's clear to me that their "data-driven" stance means the PSSAs. They could advocate for better testing, different testing, a different kind of reform. But they don't, because they support the system as is.

Also, Roosevelt supports the PA graduation tests being talked about, which would add an additional layer of even more extensive testing ON TOP of the current testing. He supports them so much that he offered up our kids as guinea pigs for them.

The 4 sight testing is how often? Is it every quarter? It's ridiculous to take these tests in reading and math, 2-4 tests a year, just to get an idea of how kids will do on a test that eats up nearly 2 weeks of instructional time to administer, plus all the prep specific to gaming the tests.

If we were providing the rigorous, "high expectations," education we hear so much about kids wouldn't need to take those tests to find out how they'd do. Those tests are just more food for the data mill. It's certainly not time they're spending learning.

If they were particularly successful at teaching the kids to game the tests, we'd likely be seeing gains on the SAT scores, too and I don't believe we are. So, they're not even succeeding at good teaching to the test!

Anonymous said...

If superintendents were evaluated by how well students did on the SAT's then we would see teaching to that test. And at least there would be a benefit- better chances of college admission and merit scholarships- to the students.

Anonymous said...

Our kids are already guinea pigs for ALA's, 6-12's, theme schools- so trying graduation tests out on them would just be more of the same. If parents got to choose most would probably prefer a different balance between tried and true approaches and experiments.

Anonymous said...

What "teaching to the test" looks like: 1)classwork and homework that physically looks like the PSSA; 2)time spent taking 'predictor' tests several times a year; 3)time spent preparing to take those same tests; 4)no time to learn anything that does not fit into the tightly orchestrated curriculm; 5)time spent repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating..... a concept but not allowing time to help an individual who needs help; 6) all else stops when it is PSSA time.

Anonymous said...

Here is a review of two books about standardized testing and test-driven instruction.