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The Farce of Test Prep

March 30, 2015

It’s testing season again at my school. In a few weeks my 10th graders will wrap their unit on Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir about the Holocaust, and turn their attention to explaining to students how they should answer a short-answer question based on the book Rats. Some of my students will be pulled out of class for “MCAS support” which involves reading and answering questions about short passages devoid of any authentic purpose.

Before the PARCC and other Common Core related “initiatives” signaled the intensified attempts of corporate takeover of education in our country, I did see some benefits of standardized tests in my students’ lives. As an urban English teacher I saw how the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) led a few educators to teach more reading and writing when their students started being required to meet a level of testing proficiency. Additionally, as one measure of student skills, a standardized test provides useful information about students’ skills. However, this type of standardized testing has quickly become the only assessment that educators talk about when we say “data-driven instruction” and the primary assessment we use to distribute school resources. Now that multiple choice and short answer test are the primary measure of students’ literacy skills, we have a problem. The scant resources schools receive go on to feed the testing beast as schools spend money and time on materials that purport to prepare students, not for real-world reading, but for more standardized tests.

I’ve taught English in low-income urban schools for 10 years, and I’ve studied adolescent literacy. What we know about teaching reading, especially to adolescents who are on the path to being fluent readers of higher-level academic texts, is that they benefit most from . . . you guessed it.  More reading (especially purposeful reading), coupled with explicit reading strategy and vocabulary instruction. They learn vocabulary from reading a wide variety of books. They develop increased reading stamina and comprehension from reading a wide variety of books. They learn about themselves and the world around them from reading a wide variety of books.

So why do we persist in saying that reading test preparation means reading short, un-engaging texts and answering multiple-choice questions?

I’m starting to think the reason we engage in this practice of test triage that runs counter to what we know about reading development is because we are in an education world where the odds are stacked against us. I meet my students at the beginning of their 10th grade year, the year they will take their MCAS, the test they must pass to get a high school diploma. They take it extremely seriously, because they know how much it counts for them. My vocabulary and explicit teaching of reading strategies might help a student move from a high “needs improvement” score to a low “proficient” score, but my teaching at this point is unlikely to take a struggling reader who reads at a 4th or 5th grade level from failing to proficient; not on the reading portion of this test. Yet we feel the need to do SOMETHING that looks like we are making a difference for them. Enter the last minute test-prep, where student’s are pulled out of regular classes to work on a practice MCAS packets and learn about the different types of answer choices on the test, or do some additional vocabulary flashcards and maybe answer a long composition prompt or two.

And herein lies one of the major problems with these high-stakes tests. Instead of these tests being one measure amid others, the test is the measure that matters most, especially to outsiders. People don’t want to know how many books our students read for intellectual enrichment this year; they only want to know our Reading and Open Response scores. People don’t want to know what students said in their speeches about the most effective strategies of the civil rights movement. Instead they want to know how many students summarized too much (and therefore got a 0) on the long composition. If these assessments were all seen as pieces in a larger picture of student achievement, we would do pull-out interventions for students to develop their debate responses for a huge history debate, or add after-school book clubs to support readers who are struggling to finish their independent reading books. But instead, the interventions we to focus our resources on are the ones that simply make it look like we are preparing kids for a standardized reading test.

I would love to teach in a system that had a standardized, multiple choice reading test as one component of our data-driven instruction. In fact my reflections on this type of data has lead to important improvements in my vocabulary and writing instruction. But I also want our local, state and federal educations system to do more when we focus on “data.” I want to read student annotations of complex texts to see how they are using a variety of reading strategies to grasp the complexity of the author’s nuanced arguments. I want to look at the ways students explain their thinking behind solving complex multi-step math equations. I want to watch video of students debating who was a more effective leader: W.E.B. Debois or Booker T. Washington. I want the system that Susan Engal describes in this fantastic article “7 Things Every Kid Should Master.”

I want authentic reading, inquiry, the ability to collaborate and leadership all to be valued as much as those multiple-choice scores. But as long as our testing months are dominated with last minute test-prep, we won’t have time to study, let alone teach such lofty skills, at least not without a bit of defiance in the face of testing demands.

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