What is “teaching to the test” and is it bad?

Years ago in a professional setting, a respected educator asked a group of teachers a simple question: “What do you teach?”  The group of skeptical middle school educators answered with different responses that varied from subjects to grades.  At the end of the process, the facilitator reminded us that none of the things we mentioned, science or seventh grade, were important and that everyone in the room actually taught children.  “Teaching to the test” is a statement that has many flaws, the largest being that the phrase itself de-emphasizes the most important part of education: students.

The statement “teaching to the test” is assuming that these (or any) tests are not an accurate judge of what a student knows or is able to do. Many of these statements are made by those who have not seen the tests in their entirety since the vast majority of questions from these secured materials have not been released since the implementation of the new testing system in New York State.  The tests are difficult, but in my opinion that has to do more with the length of examinations and less with the content.  The tests are an excellent judge of critical thinking skills and the only objection I would have is the idea that this type of thinking has a time limit.  With minor changes to the timing of exams, I find it hard to argue that the tests are not an accurate assessment of where our students should be.

As a parent, I want my child to be able to engage with Dahl, Alcott, London, and Verne during their years in school and the tests have asked them to do so.  Early in my career, students were reading an incredible amount of poorly written “test stories.,”  These stories, mass-produced along with several questions, were similar to seeing a script for a movie with twelve writers.  The style and craft that we emphasize was gone and often contained questions that could be answered correctly without comprehending the gist of each text.  It would be hard to argue, as a parent, that the need for excerpts from established authors is a bad thing for students.

The biggest misconception in my mind is that teaching to the test is a new phenomenon.  Since the inception of the high-stakes assessment, schools have been trying to prepare students for the exam.  One of my first experiences as a young teacher was sitting in a staff meeting discussing the different test preparation strategies to use from September  onward so that students would be prepared.  Teaching is a difficult job and creating lesson plans is the most difficult part.  Beginning your unit with the idea of what an assessment looks like is considered distinguished planning on each of the many accepted teacher evaluation rubrics.  Inside the education community, and more specifically at Inwood Academy, teachers are celebrated when they have planned backwards from any assessment, including those created collaboratively or adapted from the state.  The assumption that preparing for the test is limiting creativity is fiction; the problem is the new testing is harder to prepare for and the techniques developed to beat the old testing system are no longer applicable.

One of the reasons for celebrating the charter movement is the decision to provide freedom to educators and school administration to plan within the testing system of state exams.  At IAL, the state testing questions are often the floor and not the ceiling for our planning.  Teachers consistently deliver lessons that challenge students to think, understand, justify, and struggle.  Data from larger assessments are used as a teaching tool and not a punishment.  Oftentimes, teachers desire the comfort of knowing how their students are being assessed before planning a rigorous lesson.  The demands of the Common Core and the New York State Tests do not limit creativity, they increase accountability.  Accountability and creativity are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, the most creative teachers thrive in the world of accountability because they have a clear structure.

We live in an age where information is shared faster than ever before.  As a principal, I speak with students everyday about sharing their every feeling on Facebook, Instagram, or any other internet-based outlet.  My caution to them is that oftentimes one comment can incite the actions and opinions of others by providing limited or incomplete information.  I wish adults would be mindful of the same issues caused with their use of social media.

My wife shares posts with me on a daily basis about my profession and it saddens me.  As educators, we are letting the conversation of lesson craft become public without properly informing those partaking in the discussion.  Teaching is the hardest job in the world.  To plan, deliver, and assess a lesson to a group of children at any level is extremely difficult and the amount of effort, skill, compassion, and grit it takes to do it well once is extraordinary, let alone the four or five times my teachers are asked to do it each day.  My fear is that we lose sight of the students in this process.

Whether the end goal is the tests, Common Core standards, older state standards, or the table of contents in an old textbook, I wish the conversation would migrate from how impossible it is to teach to something more productive, like the stories of successful teachers within the system.  Many people are generating interest, building critical thinking skills, and preparing for the test every single day in New York State. Let’s share their successes as often as the failures of systems to adapt.  That way we can reassure those working within the systems of accountability that it can be done well.

This is not simply something I believe in theory. This is something I watch in practice everyday at Inwood Academy.

By Ryan McCabe, Middle School Principal

Opting Out: The Conversation about State Exams and the Effect on Students

Often I approach the vital decisions that come with being a principal from a few different perspectives.  The roles of principal, teacher, dad, and anxiety sufferer often overwhelm my mind when a decision is to be made.  When discussing homework I think about what research says, what it was like to assign and grade as a teacher, how hard it is to get my kids to do it, and the feeling I used to get when I knew my dad was coming home and my homework was incorrect.  The conversation of the moment in education is the right that parents have to “opt-out.”  The recent media frenzy circles around the highly debated Common Core standards and the accompanying testing changes.  Commercials, newspapers, and all forms of social media have exploded with opinions from everyone on the importance of opting out.  For the first time in a while, my many diverse perspectives are completely aligned.

Opting children out of state mandates is not a foreign concept.  Parents have been resisting exams, health mandates, and the 187 day schedule for decades in public education.  Recently, districts in New York State have seen an incredible rise in the number of families choosing to refrain from taking the exams.  In nearby Westchester County, the percentage of students opting out seems to be ranging between 15 and 55 percent.  Instead of engaging in the debate about whether or not schools should advise or counsel parents, I’d rather pivot the conversation to what should be the central focus—our students.

Rarely mentioned in the commercials with parent support groups or at the rallies held are the long term effects on the students.  Research has emphasized two important factors in the success of individuals.  The first being a belief that intelligence and/or talent is not something that is directly linked to genetics and instead something built over time with deliberate practice.  The second factor is the idea that successful people persevere through challenges at a higher rate than their peers.  At Inwood Academy, we spent a lot of time discussing these concepts.  In my opinion, you cannot serve all students if you do not believe these statements to be true.  Believing that a student’s ability is fixed or linked directly to genetics hinders my ability to help a student grow as a learner.  Learning is continuous and different for every person so the staff at IAL operates under the principle that practice with difficult concepts helps to build better learners.  Allowing students to opt out of state assessments is giving a different message.

Life is full of difficult challenges.  I want to graduate students who aren’t afraid to fail a class.  I want those students to fail and immediately sign up again the next semester.  I want to know that when faced with college rejection letters, the losing of a job, or difficult financial times, my students will persevere.  When I decided to become an educator it wasn’t because I loved teaching content, it was about helping children become better people.  The comfort that my students will look at challenges as a learning opportunities gets me excited each and every day.

The issue with the current testing system is that we transfer the accountability measures to the students, and take away this tremendous opportunity to teach grit.  When students believe (or are directly told) that their future, the future of their teacher, or the future of their school relies on their ability to reach proficiency, that learning opportunity is lost.  While extremely important for the school, the students should not view this exam as anything other than another opportunity to show progress towards a goal.  At Inwood Academy we don’t hide from the importance of the exam, but students are not judged solely on their performance for six days in April.  They understand that the portfolios in the back of each classroom contain the evidence of their performance and that the test is one more data point.  If they feel any sense of responsibility for the school’s performance it is due to previous schools or public perception.  Before students started the 2015 exam I reminded them of two important things: this is just another test, and, if you do your best, I will be proud of you.  I don’t need the official scores to understand how my student “did on the test.”  The conversations I had with students gave me the evidence that I needed.  I was told…

“I worked the entire time and finished with one minute left…”

“I didn’t finish but I know that I can finish tomorrow”

“I didn’t get to the end but I killed the first one”

These are the messages that tell me my students are ready for challenges.  They definitely didn’t get every question correct and many scored below the proficient level and frankly that is why my teachers come to work each day prepared with differentiated, data-driven lessons.  I am most proud that today at Inwood Academy, 478 students sat for an extended period of time and decided that difficult and impossible are not synonymous.

Anxiety is something that I personally struggle with.  There have been times in my life when college, or the search for a job, or money have been too much for me.  In those times I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to fail at difficult tasks and taught to learn from mistakes.  The high-stakes associated with these tests should be reserved for schools, and students should be given the reassurance that what they do on a class project or a unit exam matters just as much as the formal exam.  Part of growing into adulthood is the development of an understanding that persistence in difficult situations is an indicator for success.  Instead of conversations focusing on our current education system, I wish the energy went into reassuring students that failure is natural and that their character is so much more important than their proficiency level.  In the end, it’s only a test.

By Ryan McCabe, Middle School Principal