In general, the ‘better’ I teach, the better my students do on my bi-weekly exams. A big part of teaching is trying to accurately monitor assessment during the lessons and trying to ensure that by the time that the teacher-made test is administered, the students will do well. There are exceptions. I’ve taught units with a lot of higher order thinking skills, but on the test were what I considered ‘easier’ mechanical skills which I thought they’d have no problem with since I had done all that work getting them to really think about the concepts — but then they bomb the ‘easy’ stuff. That’s what it’s like to be a teacher sometimes.
The crux of my classroom management philosophy that helped me get two books published was that students will behave better for a teacher who they have ‘learned’ from (as measured by their scores on the first quiz) than someone who they got a poor grade on the first quiz. Good grades make the students feel confidence in themselves and in their teacher.
But there is a big difference between a teacher-made test about a few weeks of material that students were specifically taught for and a big end-of-the-year multiple choice state test that God-knows-who wrote. That’s why I don’t have much confidence in the use of high-stakes tests in decisions to shut down schools, fire teachers, praise other schools, and make their CEOs very wealthy.
When I hear about how this charter school got such great results (100% passed! What does that even mean? What if they all just passed by a little?), I have to chuckle, knowingly, since I know how little it means. I can say this with confidence since, when necessary, I can add value with the best of them.
My first experience of ‘teaching to the test’ was in my fourth year of teaching in Houston. At that time, the state test was called the TAAS. Though it wasn’t a test that was going to get our school shut down (this was in 1994-1995) or teachers fired, the test was important to my students. If they didn’t pass it, they would not get a true diploma when they finished 12th grade, but merely a ‘certificate of attendance.’
Students first took the TAAS in the fall of 10th grade and had to pass the three tests, math, reading, and writing. If they passed one, they didn’t have to take that one again. They got a second chance to take the test in the spring of tenth grade, then a third chance in the fall of 11th grade, a fourth chance in the spring of 11th grade, a fifth chance in the fall of 12th grade, and a final sixth chance in the spring of 12th grade.
Our school had 300 freshmen, 150 sophomores, and about 100 juniors and 100 seniors. After the fall TAAS math test I found that 60 of the 100 seniors had failed again. The principal suggested that we run two math TAAS review classes of thirty students each. I took one class and the other class was taught by the best teacher in our school, Sheila Whitford. Sheila, though, was not a math teacher. She wanted to teach this math class, however, because she felt that the test was more of a reading test than a math test. The kids just didn’t understand what the questions were asking.
Sheila studied up on how to teach math and ran a very creative class where students did art projects illustrating the concepts to get a deep learning experience.
I created a pure test-prep curriculum which I ran like a drill sergeant.
As the test neared, our school geared up for the test. I actually created an ad campaign with the slogan ‘Kick some TAAS.’ There were posters on the walls and I even made buttons for kids to wear. As people loved the slogan so much, I made a follow up which probably should have gotten me fired, ‘Don’t be a TAAShole,’ and if that wasn’t enough, ‘Don’t be a flunking TAAShole.’ I wish I were making this up, but this is true.
The students in my TAAS review class were not dumb. In fact, I had taught almost all of them throughout the previous years in Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II. Those courses were much more difficult than these low-level TAAS questions, but for some reason, they just struggled with them.
My test-prep paid off. Twenty-eight out of thirty in my class finally passed the TAAS on their sixth try. Sheila Whitford didn’t have as much luck. I believe half of her students passed.
I’ve added value more recently, back in 2002 when my friend, who was a middle school assistant principal in the Bronx, at the time, asked if I’d be willing to teach a summer school course to help some of their best students take the New York Specialized High School test to get into a school like Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, or Stuyvesant High School (where I now teach). No student from this middle school had gotten into one of those schools in a long long time. I now know that many of the students who get into these schools begin test-prep for the one test that determines admission, five years before taking the test. With four weeks of training, these Bronx middle schoolers were going to have trouble catching up.
Though I didn’t perform a miracle, one of the fifteen students did get into Brooklyn Tech, where she went and graduated. I am sure the others came much closer to making the cutoff than they would without my coaching.
Even now, I supplement my income as a private math tutor for students (mostly from private schools) who want to improve their SAT scores. Last year I helped a student from Dalton improve from a 470 on the math section on the PSAT to getting a 720 on his math SAT. This took forty weeks of test prep.
As an expert value-adder, I will be the first to say that it means nothing. I am not a magician. I am an illusionist. These test are just too simplistic and predictable. The students didn’t really ‘learn’ anything meaningful that would enhance their lives or help them succeed in college.
Schools today, particularly the ‘high performing’ ones in high poverty areas, I believe, are little more than test-prep factories. For some schools, the test scores vary inversely to the amount of actual value the teachers add to their student’s lives.