Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tested: Teaching Teachers to Teach Students to Take Tests

Today I read a book called Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, by Linda Perlstein.

I read it because of my continuing fascination with all things "educational theory;" I am a person who, after all, reads the Chronicle of Higher Education first thing every morning, even before glancing at the NYT.

It's about a Title I school in Maryland (Title I referring to the act which granted public schools extra funding if over 40% of their students came from low-income households), and its struggle to pass the standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind. Actually, the trouble isn't that the school couldn't pass. It's that NCLB requires successively higher scores every year. (NCLB's plan is that every student in every classroom will achieve "proficient" scores -- the highest possible rating -- by the year 2014. I am not making this up.)

The school, then, spends its entire year trying to cram test-taking skills into its elementary students' heads; skills for tests so subjective that a kindergartener asked "which picture starts with a B?" and points to the picture of a bear will be scored as answering wrong, because the bear picture is actually a "cub" and is reserved for the question about the "C" sound.

Anyway. What struck me about this article was how familiar many of the teaching methods were. I don't think I went to a Title I school when I was growing up, and the standardized testing movement was just beginning to get its feet off the ground in the early 1990s, but I recognized all too well the techniques these teachers were using.

(Interestingly, Perlstein notes that these techniques are not developed by the teachers themselves, but instead sold to the school by a corporation in the name of teaching teachers how to teach kids to take tests. The teachers, in turn, are required by administration to follow the techniques to the letter, even to the point of being given scripts to memorize before the school day begins.)

Let's take, for example, the "how to write a complete sentence" technique. On a standardized writing exam, answers must be in complete sentences to receive full points. Instead of teaching fifth and sixth graders about subjects and verbs and direct objects, the corporate technique is to require a student to rewrite the entire question and then add his/her answer at the end.

As Perlstein notes: If the question is Brer Rabbit is a tricky fellow. Give examples from the play that prove this., then a student must begin his/her answer with "Brer Rabbit is a tricky fellow because...." A student who begins her answer with "Brer Rabbit tricked," even though this too will lead to a complete sentence, is told to rewrite.

That was my sixth grade year. I figured out pretty quickly what was going on, and adjusted my sentences accordingly, but it drove me crazy.

As did the "objectives," another corporate technique, which suggests that teachers write out objectives, business-style, on the chalkboards every morning and the students copy them down into notebooks (copying being a memorization tool, after all). But the objectives can't be any old "to-do list." Perlman cites examples of objective lists which include The student will use the comprehension strategies of monitoring and clarifying, making connections, and visualizing during the first read. This was on the chalkboard in a fifth-grade classroom.

Truth be told, the real reason I hated the objectives was because they took so long to copy down; time that I could have spent free reading at my desk (I think I viewed most of school as an obstacle that kept me from reading). Likewise, I found "the comprehension strategies of monitoring and clarifying" repugnant. I preferred Roald Dahl's advice to let long passages of books "wash over you, like music." There was, after all, always the dictionary, if you really didn't know what was going on.

The last chapter of the book notes that during the final month of classes, after the standardized tests are over and the teachers given permission to teach outside of the corporate box, the students not only seem to learn more, but also stop fighting with one another.

Anyway. Part of the reason I posted this is because I was chatting with a friend about our respective educational experiences, and my friend could not believe the stories I was telling about my underfunded rural school. (For example: in high school "calculus," the math teacher -- who was also the girls' basketball coach -- told us that every time the girls won a game, we wouldn't have to have homework or a lesson that day. We could sit in class and play cards and listen to the radio, which we did nearly every day that semester, since our girls were the strongest team in the district.)

So now I'm curious. Is it just Title I schools and Rural Route schools who use the corporate method of education? Or did we all have objectives on the blackboard every morning, and learning that forming a complete sentence required copying down the question?


DirectorLife said...

My childhood schooling wasn't tailored to the tests, as far as I could tell. However, once I started my graduate program in Secondary Education, I quickly realized that NCLB has shifted the focus of the classroom from teaching lessons to teaching tests.

One of the things that blew my mind when I first started teaching was the AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) that we had to meet each year. According to NCLB, we had to improve by 2-3% rates of our graduation exam pass-rates each year. In other words, if we had 91% of our students pass the English portion of the graduation exam, we'd have to have 93% pass next year.

And the year after that 95%.

And the year after that 97%.

And the year after that 99%.

And the year after that...

Well, you see where I'm going with this. It's quite impossible and unrealistic, I think. I don't think you can feasibly, possibly get anywhere close to 100% passing rates for graduation exams in a public school system. Not without cheating, anyhow.

NCLB has some really good ideas, but... the implementation leaves something to be desired. Reminds me of a play I read recently -- great ideas, not-so-great writing.

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Blue said...

Directorlife -- LOVE your blog!

Really love the post about auditioning and knowing how to compete against your own "type."

Thambi, I'll respond to you in a moment.