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Mind the Gap: Test Prep Mayhem

An inner-city schoolteacher bemoans the beginning of Test Prep Season.

Here in New York, it’s that time of year again. Central Park is abloom with spring flowers. Yankee Stadium is chock full of screaming fans. And schools are yet again busy sacrificing their values in the annual task of high-stakes test prep.

Make no mistake: I’m not against testing. Obviously some tests are more valid than others, but periodic assessments promote teacher accountability and measure student growth, among other benefits. I support including test scores as part of a larger package of tracking teachers’ effectiveness and compensation, as Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is so bravely trying to engineer.

What I am against is teaching to the test and overhauling entire school schedules to accommodate such testing, a practice that is rampant in my school, and an offense to which I similarly plead guilty as charged. There is a strong, sometimes overwhelming temptation to drop everything in the name of test prep. Many administrators see these tests as a barometer of teachers’ efficacy (and sometimes the sole indicator for administrators who infrequently observe classes and then rely on the end-of-year data). Teachers in low-performing schools like mine are also aware of the legitimate graduation hurdle these tests pose for many students.

Many schools sacrifice their sanity when they reach the altar of standardized testing. Consider the first two examples I received from my teacher-friends in response to my query on test preparation:

At a school that serves grades 6 through 12, the high school teachers were asked to take their students out of the building—go bowling, go to the movies, whatever—on the four days the middle school students took their state tests. My friend, a grade-level leader, pushed back on the grounds that valuable instruction time will be lost and besides, she has her own state tests to prepare for. The administration relented, only to reverse course the day before testing began. Without a trip planned, my friend’s students passed the three-hour testing period sitting in the school's gymnasium.

Another friend’s middle school is determined to do whatever it takes to raise its test scores. This year, the school extended its 25-day test prep period to 35 days—accounting for nearly 20 percent of the 183-day school year. During that time, students and teachers’ schedules were changed to allow for maximum testing practice. The school forwent all non-English and math courses so students could have extra preparation. The result? Students had four or more periods (or three or more hours) of English Language Arts each day.

I will devote about 20 school days to preparing for my students’ upcoming exam, the Global History Regents, which covers material spanning two years of coursework. Before the students take the test on June 15 (which, may I remind you, is only 29 school days away!), my kids will have taken between three to five full-length mock exams, tried their hand at hundreds of practice problems and collectively created thousands of note cards. I’m not proud of this situation, but I’m also not confident enough in my effectiveness to completely forgo such intense steps in favor of the approach I prefer—consistently promoting lateral thinking and teaching relevant skills throughout the entire school year. While I have taken some steps this year to teach more universal skills, I am not yet willing to stake their graduating on my experimentation with more holistic approaches to teaching.

That being said, I still believe that schools do not need to give up on teaching to learn and grow—rather than teaching to find the correct multiple-choice answer—in order to do well on these assessments.

Consider the actions of a friend, who was driven by his school’s clumsy approach to test prep—35 minutes of Kaplan at the end of each school day—to come up with a saner method that would be more beneficial to his students over the short and long term. For a week in February the school ceased teaching new content, instead focusing on how to think about new problems, even if a student had never encountered something like it before. His conclusion:

"The best test prep is just good teaching. If teachers require students to think critically and really understand what they are doing every day, then a school shouldn't need to implement any bells and whistles test prep program to get students ready for a standardized test.”

Amen to that.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

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