Testing 1, 2, 3…
June 12, 2013
By Sari Levy
The first time I realized No Child Left Behind was controversial was when, a year out of college, I found myself at a Democratic fundraiser in a hip Denver loft. The keynote speaker was the late Ann Richards, and she was rallying the crowd with slogans like, “all No Child Left Behind does is make sure no child’s behind is left.” I had no idea what she was getting at.
Proponents of testing say that tests are diagnostic tools which, for the first time, have allowed us to measure schools across towns and states. They don’t fix schools, say proponents, but they can tell us if schools are or are not working, help to pinpoint and replicate the best, and encourage interventions for the worst. Proponents point out that for the first time in recent history, due in part to standardized testing, minority kids are starting to catch up to their white peers. Despite its usefulness, testing is the one issue that many complain about. There are two primary reasons that some teachers, parents, and students take issue with standardized tests: (1) (alleged) narrowing of curriculum associated with testing; and, (2) (alleged) poor use of time spent preparing for and taking the tests. Here I propose that the first–narrowing of curriculum due to testing–is less prevalent than some believe, and the second can be addressed without scrapping testing altogether.
As a 90 year-old acquaintance recently told me, “testing is the problem with public education today because all kids are learning is how to answer test questions.” Never mind that he hasn’t been in a classroom since the 1930s or had kids in school since the 60s. The argument is that tests limit content knowledge because teachers spend most of their time “teaching to the test.” This can mean either a general narrowing of curriculum (focus on math and literacy at the expense of non-tested subjects) or “item teaching” where teachers try to game the system by drilling the specific items to be tested instead of teaching the concepts behind the items. Spend a bit of time surfing the web, and you’ll walk away with the impression that curriculum narrowing and item teaching have become the new normal. Surely, this happens in some classrooms. Then again, poor teaching has always existed in some classrooms. Fortunately, research refutes the assumption that teaching to the test has become the new normal. Here is a summary of the research, also found here.
The “Curriculum Narrowing” trend is minuscule. A 2007 study by the Institute for Education Sciences found that as a percentage of total hours in the student school week, English instruction in grades 1-4 was only slightly different–not statistically significant–in 2003-04 than in 1987-88 (35.5% versus 35%). From 1999-2000 to 2003-04 the amount of time spent on math instruction in grades 1-4 actually declined slightly (from 17.4% to 16.5% of total student hours in the school week). A nonscientific, self-reporting survey of educators conducted by the Center for Education Policy (CEP) found that since 2002, 56% of all districts had not reduced time spent on social studies, science, arts and music, lunch or recess to fit in more time for reading and math; 44% reported some narrowing. (Note that when students can’t read, write or do math at grade level, a focus on those subjects for at least a period of time may be justified, given that these skills are prerequisites for success in all other subjects.) This is what the CEP study found, though even here curricula narrowing occurred in only a little less than half of districts.
Specifically, the study found that in districts where at least one school’s students were identified as not making adequate yearly progress on reading and math, 51% decreased time spent on social studies; conversely, only 31% in districts where all schools made adequate yearly progress in math and reading did so. The most drastic kind of curriculum narrowing, item teaching, is probably happening in some classrooms, though there is no evidence suggesting it’s commonplace.
First of all, I’m operating under the assumption that most teachers are honest and teach because they love to impart knowledge, not just score well on tests. Second, item teaching probably isn’t used more because it doesn’t seem to work very well. In a seminal study in Chicago, researchers found that in classrooms in which teachers employed “authentic instruction’–i.e., a focus on the full body of skills needed to master a subject–scored gains on the Illinois Test of Basic Skills that exceeded the national average by 20%. Conversely, in classes in which students were given few authentic assignments–i.e., in which there was a narrow, drill and kill approach–gains were much lower than the national average. Moreover, the hype of instruction offered was found to be a function of “teacher disposition and choices” rather than the particular characteristics or achievement levels of the students being taught. In a comprehensive review of the “teaching to the test” issue, Craig Jerald concludes: ‘Accountability and standardized tests need not be in conflict with good instruction. Teaching to the test by dumbing down instruction offers only a kind of fool’s gold, promising a payoff that does not deliver. The choice between good instruction and good test scores is a false one.”
Whether the curriculum being taught is, in fact, too narrow is a discussion that has been ongoing since the turn of the century when Carnegie units were introduced. However, there just isn’t enough evidence to charge testing with causing a dramatic change in curriculum over the past 15 years. Getting rid of testing is unlikely to change classrooms much at all. However, whether or not we could test smarter is another question altogether.
More on the second concern tomorrow: that testing is a poor use of time.
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