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

Go Trailblazers!

It was a great season to be a member of Inwood Academy’s Trailblazers.

The new school year brought about exciting changes to our programming along with bringing together many familiar faces while welcoming new ones. As we completed the first season our third year of athletic programming at IAL, we couldn’t be more pleased with the accomplishments of our scholar athletes and coaches.

Our Middle School (JHS) flag football, volleyball, and track teams returned this season, and we added a few new teams to the Trailblazers roster, JHS wrestling, girls High School (JV) basketball, and boys JV basketball. Combined, these teams are represented by eighty-one student athletes who all actively participate in team training and games and thirteen phenomenal coaches, four of which are our treasured volunteers.

The new Middle School building’s gym is the Trailblazers new gem. It’s allowed us to increase our practices times and our level of play. Our JHS volleyball team went undefeated in the regular season winning the Manhattan Regular Season Championship and came in second place in the Tournament Championship. Our first year JHS wrestling team produced an All-City Champion in the 210 pound weight class and is working hard to add more championships in the winter season. Both the girls and boys JV basketball teams had winning seasons, too.

As the Athletic Director, one of my proudest moments of this past fall was seeing how supportive the parents were in their child’s interest in sports. They happily came to our first athletics parent meeting, met with their child’s coaches, and made commitments to help their teams out by volunteering their time. I was also very proud to see the student athletes on our JHS and JV teams volunteering their time during IAL’s Season of Service, including their help with running a food drive in November, which distributed more than 10,000 pounds of food to families in Northern Manhattan. And the field trip the JV girls basketball team took early in the season, attending the Our Future, Our Rights – Youth Rising #UpForSchool rally, which was a United Nations event held at New York University. Our girls joined 300 other young activists demanding that world leaders keep to their promise that all children would be in school by the end of 2015.

My goal as Athletic Director isn’t simply to produce championships for our school, it’s to produce mature young people who can serve and lead others well.

By Kenneth Tejeda, kenneth.tejeda@inwoodacademy.org

Ending 2014 Strong, and Starting 2015 Right

During Inwood Academy for Leadership’s first two months of Season of Service, students, families, and staff helped many of its neighbors most in need. This new IAL program also helps us reinforce a simple message to our students: that we all can be leaders by making a difference.

In November, we partnered with over twenty organizations to launch #UptownGoGreen to feed thousands of Go Green Volunteer 1families in northern Manhattan. Our middle school served as the distribution hub for over 10,000 pounds of food, 500 pounds of which were collected at our two buildings. Forty IAL students, parents, and staff joined dozens of other volunteers to prepare bags that were distributed at eight locations.

In December we held a holiday toy drive. Phase one saw over 130 new and gently used toys collected and distributed to homeless children and families during the Love Kitchen Holiday Banquet. We have another 100+ toys collected Toy Drivefor phase two: a Three Kings Toy Distribution for gravely sick children at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Another event was a comic book fundraiser held by
our IAL Middle School Students, who raised money for the purchase of warm accessories and toiletries, which were distributed to HIV patients at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

With every school-wide season of service event we are setting the example that our service is the best holiday gift we can share.  Season of Service will continue until Saturday, January 18, after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

Thank you to all who have contributed to the Season of Service. To get involved, please contact angelo.ortiz@inwoodacademy.org.

Click here to see pictures of one of the distribution sites.

How I’m Using Technology In My Classroom

Good teachers understand that interactive technology, the kind that lets kids explore and create, significantly improves students’ academic performance, and helps to close the achievement gap, especially for students most at risk of low achievement. It prepares students for the types of jobs they’ll have in a complex technological, knowledge based economy. These good teachers further understand that using technology can make things much easier for them, significantly reducing their workload with things such as planning and grading.

But, let’s assume you know and appreciate all those things, and you’re looking for concrete, actionable ways to incorporate technology in your teaching. Lucky for you, I’ve been experimenting with ways to integrate technology in a K–12 classroom for the past 8 years, and I’ve come up with some pretty good strategies.

Here’s a way I’ve been using technology in my sixth grade Social Studies classroom at Inwood Academy for Leadership: Google Forms and Flubaroo.

Google Forms are basically an online survey tool that aggregate results into a Google spreadsheet making it ridiculously easy for teachers to collect and share information. There’s many creative ways for teachers, administrators, and students to use these in an educational setting. I use them for basic quizzes, do-now’s, exit tickets, or class assessments. Instead of handing out a worksheet with three multiple choice questions and one short response question, I’ll put this worksheet into a Google Form so that students can enter their answers right on the computer (or phone, tablet, etc.).

Flubaroo is a Google Sheets add-on; a tool that works with Google Forms. It grades students’ responses on multiple choice questions and creates a spreadsheet with students’ grades on that assignment. It creates reports, emails students their grades, and can do it all in under one minute. One minute! How long do you spend grading worksheets, quizzes, and handouts?

It can be intimidating to use technology in your classroom if you’ve never done it before, but it offers a lot of valuable rewards. Let me know in the comments section of the blog if you have questions about implementing Google Forms and Flubaroo in your classroom.

At Inwood Academy for Leadership, we’re using technology with our students in many important ways. Follow this blog for my future posts. I’ll share more ways I’m using technology in my classroom.

By Jeffrey Maxim, @jeffthemaximum | http://www.jeffreymaxim.com/

What are TED talks?

I am always in search of inspirational stories and videos to share with my kids because they are inquisitive, full of creative ideas, and interested in new technology. If you’re in a similar situation, TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a great source for inspirational videos with some of the most fascinating people in the world who are challenging others to think about an aspect of your life in a different way.

There are more than 1,000 TED Talk videos, but don’t despair the Talks from Inspiring Teachers and 9 Talks by Impressive Kids series are a great introduction to what you will find on the TED.com website. The videos average approximately 10 minutes and are usually less than 20 minutes long. Take a few minutes to explore the website. I’m confident you will find a topic that will peak your interest and hopefully your children, too.

By Noemi Macias, Inwood Academy Parent

The Gem of Schools in Manhattan: A Parent Testimony

Excerpt from the charter renewal hearing on September 30, 2014

My name is Bryan Davis and my son Austin attended Inwood Academy for Leadership for the past 4 years.

For five years I served as the Vice President of Community Education Council District 6 (CEC6).  I can say that during my time on the CEC I saw the need the district had for a great middle school to serve the needs of our English language learners (ELL) and high needs students. In fact, if I remember correctly the council voted unanimously in favor of the school (Inwood Academy).

When I voted for the school I had no idea that my son would end up attending the school.  After a search of schools we determined Inwood Academy was the best fit for our son. We are very pleased with the education Austin received. We are confident it was the excellent teachers and staff who prepared him. He is now a freshman at High School for Math Science and Engineering (one of the nine specialized high schools in New York City).

We are especially pleased with the quality of the special education services he received. The school always went above and beyond to ensure the Individualized Education Plan was being met and that we were satisfied with the services he received.

In addition, we were pleased with the quality of the art and music programs the school offered. Our son’s love for art blossomed during his years at Inwood Academy. He also received an offer from La Guardia High School for art. We credit that to the great art teachers he had.

We believe the vertically and horizontally aligned curriculum, the dedication and excellence of the teaching staff, the strong parent support, and the schools passionate and dedicated leadership, are the reasons why our son received a great education during his four years at Inwood Academy.

I can tell you from my many years serving on the CEC6 and observing the quality of the district’s schools, Inwood Academy is the best middle school in the district, and is the GEM of schools in Manhattan.  No other school in the district does a better job of taking kids from all different levels and moving them so that they are prepared for high school and eventually college.  I strongly recommend that the Department of Education renew the schools charter and work with the school to ensure it has the space it needs to serve the students of district 6.

Bryan G. Davis, Parent

Executive Director

Parents Making a Difference



Inwood Middle: Before, During and After

Inwood Middle


Inwood Academy for Leadership’s Middle School building has experienced some serious change from July to now.  Below are some links to pictures that will take you through the journey of its renovation.

Inwood Middle Transformation Pictures:
July – https://flic.kr/s/aHsk34ZTyB
August – https://flic.kr/s/aHsk3RYUzn
September- https://flic.kr/s/aHsk3SggHy

Pictures taken by Elizabeth Castro


The 4th “R” of Education

Reading, writing, and arithmetic. The 3 R’s of education are rooted in the very fabric of all schools everywhere. It’s just what we do.

There’s a 4th R and it’s so important that without it, all else crumbles. But we can’t measure it on a state test. It won’t be on many report cards. There’s no real curriculum to handle its complexity. And some schools don’t even teach it or recognize its central value to educating young people.

The 4th R is for “relationships” and if you don’t think it’s important, just think about why everything else in the student’s learning falls apart.

Let me illustrate how complex and critical relationships are by listing the essential ones that influence even a single day of a student’s existence in a school. Some of these relationships are direct, but most happen apart from the student and yet still have a tremendous impact on how a child navigates education and growing up. Take a look:

 Student to family

Student to teacher

Student to student

Student to self

Student to community

Teacher to teacher

Teacher to administrator

Teacher to profession

Administrator to administrator

Administration to “the state”

School to the community

School to the “the state”

Honestly, that’s just a SHORT list! Think about how many more relationships can impact a student’s academic success, peace of mind, health, and capacity to learn. It’s staggering. Look through the list above, make any one or two of those relationships toxic and think of the impact that can have on a child. The reality is that the traditional 3 R’s balance on the needle’s point of the 4th R.

While I believe that all schools are cognizant of this in some regard, I know some schools work harder at the 4th R than others. There are (tragically) some schools who marginalize it with comments such as, “We know it’s important but we just don’t have time” or “We’d like to work on it more, but with state testing, we need to stay focused.”

Intellectually, I suppose those comments aren’t entirely incorrect. But the reality is that NO school can afford to marginalize this work. ALL students need the 4th R. ALL schools need to have their own 4th R houses in order. The risks of foregoing intentional efforts to build, sustain, and protect relationship capacities are just too great.

At IAL, we try every day to honor the role of the 4th R. This year we’re trying to increase one fantastically important relationship: that between the school and families. Families – we need you as much as you need us. Your children need us to be working well together because when we are, they benefit. They benefit to a degree that almost surpasses anything else we do.

We’re not sure it would make much of a bumper sticker or t-shirt, but we believe that “Inwood Academy: A Place that Honors the 4th R” would reflect a pillar of why we open our doors every morning. It’s messy, hard work. But we’re raising these kids together and there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.

By Nathan Eklund, nathan.eklund@inwoodacademy.org | @nateek