Friday, July 8, 2011

Teaching to the Test: Why Do Teachers Defend It in Some Contexts and Denigrate It in Others?

AP test scores came out this week. This should relieve AP teachers who have been fraught with anxiety awaiting their students' results. 

I just texted my niece, who will be a senior at Broken Arrow High School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma next fall, and asked: "What did you get on your AP tests?" She took the AP Spanish and AP Language and Composition exams. I imagine her teachers taught to the AP tests, which the College Board encourages with test-prep materials and which is a practice observed by AP teachers across the country. 

I know the AP teachers in my school teach to the test because I hear them talk about this and know many frequently give students practice tests, both multiple-choice and essay tests, which they evaluate using actual past exam questions and prompts. 

Perhaps I'm a bit uninformed, but I've noticed little criticism and much endorsement of teaching to the AP test. 

In contrast, teachers frequently criticize the notion of teaching to state tests mandated under NCLB. In fact, the reductive practice of teaching to the standardized tests constitutes a major rallying point for abolishing NCLB. 

Why is teaching to one standardized test--the AP exam--okay in the minds of teachers while teaching to NCLB standardized tests not okay to teachers' thinking? 

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor (2008), teacher Walt Gardner defends teaching to the test and distinguishes between teaching skills that will be tested and teaching from the test: 

There is a distinct difference between teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that a test represents (good), and teaching to the exact items that will appear on the standardized test (indefensible and illegal). Teaching students how to answer a particular set of items that appears on a test shortchanges them ethically and educationally. The confusing part arises when we fail to make that distinction.

Sports psychologists consult their clients in ways to visualize their performances. Isn't giving students practice taking tests similar to those they will experience in actual test-taking situations a way for them to visualize the event? Arguably, yes.

Yet practice tests, which I encourage students to write for themselves and which I have often used, are a slippery slope; the inherent risk is that instruction will evolve into only test prep. That's what the psuedo-reformers now defend as sound pedagogy. There's a huge market for test-prep materials, too. That's because writing good test questions and essay prompts takes time and effort and expertise. 

As an undergrad I was required to take a class called "Tests and Measurements." It focused on ways to write all sorts of tests and mathematical formulas for assessing grades. It gave me the skills to write tests that I have used for thirty years. 

Unfortunately, state mandated test-prep programs and products don't exist in a vacumm. There's a huge market for these materials for AP classes, too. A simple Google search gathered thousands of hits. 

One possible reason for the increased demand for canned AP curriculum is the College Board's decision to change its standards for AP teachers. Until a few years ago, the college board required AP teachers to have a MA degree, preferably in the subject being taught, and/or National Board Certification. 

Now potential AP teachers are advised to attend an AP workshop during the summer as preparation to teach the course. Consequently, inexperienced teachers--often those with no more than one year teaching experience--receive the AP teaching assignment. I frequently see posts online requesting help with the class from these newbies. 

Even though these changes in AP trouble me, there's a huge difference in the AP curriculum and the Common Core Standards, which will increasingly drive state standards and curriculum: The breadth and depth of material.

Last fall Kelley Gallager explained the problem in Education Week

The state tests being used to evaluate student progress—and, in turn, the effectiveness of teachers—virtually ensure mediocrity.

The standards are so broad that teachers don't have time to sufficiently teach the curriculum in an in-depth way: Gallagher calls this a "sprint-and-cover approach" to teaching. 

AP teachers, in contrast, know the texts most often referenced on the AP exam. More importantly, they know students will be questioned about shifting narrative point of view, for example, so they know that students need to read at least one work that exposes them to such narration. Students can then synthesize their prior learning and apply it when they take the AP exam.

One of my biggest fears is that as the generation of teachers who taught before the standards movement began in 1983, who taught before the teaching profession began the long slide down the slippery slope to today's version of test prep, and who taught prior to the era of reliance on canned curriculum retires, their collective memory of a time before the craziness will be gone, too. 

When teaching to the test, teachers should dive into the deep end of the pool and ignore the shallow warmth of the baby area. Even though both ends are part of the same pool, there's a huge difference in the water. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

ECN Summer Webstitute: Reading Classic and Young Adult Literature with Students

Over on the English Companion Ning, Gary Anderson and the other site administrators have been busy developing the third ECN webstitute, a free professional development opportunity for teachers. The webstitute is Monday and Tuesday, July 11-12, 2011. 

This summer's webstitute addresses the sometimes contentious question of whether to teach texts from the cannon or YA lit. Confession: I've never seen this as an either/or issue. I like to think there's room for lots of literary entrees on the book buffet. Here's a description of the webstitute: 

This Webstitute emerges from the passionate interest of English Language Arts folks in reading texts of all kinds. All too often, it seems the we see classic and YA lit as mutually exclusive, even going so far as to position one as being "better" than the other, educationally, culturally, and sometimes even morally. In this Webstitute, we are bringing together accomplished teachers, writers, and scholars to explore the best of each world, as well as areas where they blend to create a rich learning environment.

I'll be leading one of the sessions in the webstitute: "Twice Told Tales and Old Odd Ends: Common Ideas in Shakespeare and Young Adult Lit." Many YA texts allude to classic works. Having read the classics enriches students' reading on YA lit. Conversely, the YA lit that speaks so intimately to students about issues they face offers opportunities for introducing them to classic works from which many YA authors find inspiration. I'll also share teaching methods that bridge the classics and YA lit.

I also plan to focus on a Shakespeare play that has been particularly troubling to me and how I learned to love The Taming of the Shrew, which where I live offers unique insight into the local culture, family dynamics, and male/female relationships. Of course, expect lots of info from the Folger Shakespeare Library as well as a drawing for a copy of The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World

Please join me and the other webstitute session coordinators for what promises to be a lively and informative two days of learning and sharing. I'm humbled and honored to be among the following impressive voices:

Teresa Bunner: Ideas for engaging students in texts teachers choose.

Jo Knowles, David Macinnis Gill, Kate Messner: These YA authors will be discussing their works and genres.

Tom Liam Lynch: Reading Bytes: "Rather than 'reading' texts, Dr. Lynch argues for re-reading and non-reading as essential practices for our students to master.  Though the session focuses on online and blended learning, the questions raised and techniques shared can be applied in all English classroom settings and adapted across grade levels."

Teri Lesesne: Professor Nana, author of Reading Ladders, brings her extensive knowledge of children's and YA lit to share. 

"Bring Your Best Stuff: Titles that Work" is the culmination session where everyone is invited to share their expertise and titles. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Words With Friends: I'm Hooked on Digital Scrabble

Scrabble has long been one of my favorite games. Admittedly, I get a little nervous when I play, mainly because as the English teacher, I'm suppose to be good with words. Problem is I often find myself stymied when searching my memory for the perfect word that begins with the letter "j" and ends with "q". So when my niece, whom I recently visited in Collierville, Tennessee, insisted I load the free app Words With Friends on my phone and challenged me to a game, I couldn't resist. Now I'm hooked.

I wiled away many hours in the car last week, alternating between reading Bossypants and State of Wonder on my Kindle and playing Words With Friends on my phone. At present, I'm awaiting the players of the seven games I have going to make their next moves.

One of the most appealing aspects of Words With Friends is the option to play against a random opponent. I've played Vm704, Ericalee86, Jk_yb, ying1, among others. I'm Wordswamp!

YouTube offers video tutorials, including the following excellent strategy guide:

Players can also find the "Cheats" that seemingly crop up and on which gamers often rely for help. I have mixed feelings about these. On the one hand, I want the challenge of thinking for myself. On the other hand, the "cheats" may help players learn new words. I'm still pondering the ethical dimensions of "cheats" and am interested in readers' thoughts.

Years ago I kept Scrabble in my classroom and occasionally let students play. Now Words With Friends is a game I will invite students to play with one another and with me, too. This digital version of Scrabble gives me a reason to let students use their phones in class. They'll think they're getting by with something! Mum's the word.