Complaints about teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum are nothing new, but a smart new blog called The Ed Skeptic has an interesting analysis on how test prep leads to a “bastardization of reading” in elementary schools–especially low-income schools. Teaching and practicing test taking strategies is ”a more efficient input towards the goal of maximizing testing performance” than rigorously teaching academic subjects. And that’s a problem.
Consider the test prep ritual, surely familiar to every elementary school teacher by now, of teaching children to read the questions and answer choices first, and then read passage itself, underlining key sections and phrases that offer clues to the answers. Notes blogger Jennifer Page:
This read-questions-and-answers-then-scan-text-strategically approach isn’t natural, but it works. Thing is, you can’t introduce this strategy to students the week before The Big Test, or only a few will use it. You might be able to guess where I’m going here. To achieve high performance on standardized tests, it is perfectly sensible for teachers to have students read 500-word passages instead of chapter books all year long, and to read them in a way that will get them in the habit of strategically attacking multiple choice questions.
“This is the bastardization of reading, folks,” she concludes, ”and it’s precisely the sort of classroom practice that is galvanized when school accountability is the end-all.” Indeed, Page correctly concludes that teachers who don’t maximize time spent on testing strategies are acting as “ irrational agents.”
It’s become to common to claim that testing hasn’t narrowed the curriculum (the problem is more accurately defined as an insistence on teaching reading as a content-neutral, all-purpose skill). But Page’s argument is broader, and more troubling: the focus on testing changes and subverts how children are taught to read. She proposes making it illegal for Race to the Top Funds to be spend on commercial test prep materials to send a signal that “replacing the language arts block with multiple-choice practice is unethical.” She also suggests we no longer test reading. No, really.
I am very deliberately attacking the substitution of mind-numbing 500-word passages for novels. For reasons that I don’t have room to discuss here, I’m much more optimistic that critical thinking in math can be measured by the multiple choice format and that testing math doesn’t lend itself to test score pollution in the same way that reading does. If every school in America administered the same rigorous math assessment for grades K-12, dataphiles at state education departments would have one incredibly useful measure of how well students are doing (by classroom, school, district, state, region, etc.). Creating such an assessment system, and eliminating the standardized test in reading, would promote the goal of meaningful accountability while delimiting that harm that strategic test preparation can do.
The view of people with classroom experience is too often marginalized in policy debates or mindlessly assumed to be echoing union positions, so mark The Ed Skeptic as a blog to watch. “Dysfunctional school culture was frequently undermining my best efforts in the classroom,” Page says in an email. She is a former Teach for America corps member and elementary school teacher, now a doctoral student in political theory at Harvard. “I began to think about how policy reform at the federal/state level could make a dramatic impact on educational outcomes.”
Speaking of the voice of experience, I’ve been inexcusably remiss in not heralding the arrival in the blogosphere of Walt Gardner, a 28-year veteran Los Angeles teacher, who has in recent years gained a reputation as the Isaac Asimov of letters to the editor, penning dozens of missives in every major print publication in the country. But wait! Wasn’t it Gardner who once said of education blogs, “I have an aversion to them because they too often become venues for rants rather than for reason…they seem to attract a disproportionate number of self-styled experts with dubious credentials who just want to ventilate.”
Yes, well, plus ça change. I’m glad he’s over his aversion, and that EdWeek has given a high-profile gig to a smart, independently-minded pro.