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

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.

Uncommon Feelings about the Common Core


Common (adjective) – occurring, found, or done often; prevalent.

Core (noun) – the central or most important part of something.

It is hard to think of two more basic words than common and core. As a young student in Ms. Lozinski’s English class I would have been asked to be more creative and imaginative in my language usage to avoid boring the reader in my writing. Yet, when placed together, no two words are more emotional in recent education conversation.

Since its inception, the Common Core has been criticized from all fronts. Teachers say the goals are unrealistic and unreasonable. Parents preach that schools are removing the fun and making learning environments too results-driven. Politicians are suggesting changes and government action against the list of standards. Most recently, a report stated that colleges need to start making changes in preparation for students educated in this “new era.”

I am going to share an uncommon view: the common core is not all that different from what great teachers have done for decades.

Common is exactly what the expectations in the Common Core are; common in classroom across this country and others. It is common in the classrooms of rural and urban communities where students are instructed to not just do, but think : in elementary school classrooms where children bake to learn what math actually is instead of memorizing facts, in middle school classrooms where students explain reasoning to understand how to learn and not what to learn, and in the high school classrooms where deep research is required to make an argument. These skills and lessons were taught long before the Common Core was in the news and will continue to be taught long after it disappears.  Classrooms that encourage students to think differently and deeply will always be the most successful.

As parents, educators, and politicians argue about the Common Core and debate about its effectiveness, I encourage my teachers to continue doing what they got into this profession to do: teach students in the best way possible. Sure, the language around the standards has changed and students are now expected to learn different concepts in younger grades, but weren’t they always learning that in the best class?  Didn’t great teachers always try to teach more than what was expected? I know that the great teachers who made me the man I am did.

The best part of the Common Core is that it assumes that every student in America can succeed. Whether you live in the suburbs of Chicago, the rural areas in the South, or on Dyckman Street, a fifth grade student prepared for success should be able to do the same thing. At Inwood Middle School, we aren’t scared or angry about the Common Core. It is the confirmation that good teaching encourages all students to read thoughtfully, write convincingly, think critically, speak up and speak well.  At Inwood we will continue to make following the standards common, so that our children won’t be.

By Ryan McCabe, ryan.mccabe@inwoodacademy.org


3 Ways To Help Your Child Avoid The “Summer Slump”

For me, the summer of 1994 had to be one of the most exciting summers on record. Between Jim Carrey’s The Mask coming to theaters, the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup, and Weezer releasing their first album, I had an awful lot of things to distract me. But the fact is, all those distractions took their toll on what I’d learned in school.

You see, at the end of August, my sister and I were having a friendly competition to see who had neater penmanship when writing in cursive. By my memory, I was winning, until I tried to spell the word “question.” It’s not that I’d forgotten how to spell the word. I’d simply fallen victim to the “summer slump” and forgotten how to write a lowercase q in just two months.

I am by no means alone in this experience. All evidence suggests that the “summer slump” is a very real thing. Research has suggested that students lose two months of grade equivalent reading level during the summer months. We can compare the brain to an unexercised muscle that loses strength in the absence of use. But surely there are tips and tricks that every parent and student can use to avoid backsliding before September.

Here are a few suggestions to keeping our students’ brains sharp during July and August.

Renovated Washington Heights Library - NYTimes http://tinyurl.com/pe7v8fe

Renovated Washington Heights Library – NYTimes http://tinyurl.com/pe7v8fe

1. Visit the local library regularly. Having previously worked in the children’s section of a library for five years, I cannot say enough how useful it is to bring students to the library over the summer. New York State sponsors a summer reading program where children can earn prizes for completing books over the summer. Libraries often have special programs during the summer months specifically targeted to keep students thinking, engaging, and imagining. Visit your local librarian or library branch website for more information. And hey, it also helps that many libraries are air conditioned during those unbearable New York City heat waves! Nothing will stave off the summer slump better than regular reading habits.


Bronx Zoo - Events Calendar http://tinyurl.com/lwtgqsq

Bronx Zoo – Events Calendar http://tinyurl.com/lwtgqsq

2. Bring your child on experiences to keep them engaged. We live in the most vibrant and culturally important city in the world. Our kids have so much at their very fingertips that it’s almost our duty to take advantage of everything New York has to offer. Bring them to the Cloisters Museum right here in the neighborhood (admission is only a suggested donation) and see the look on their faces when you tell them that each one of the cloisters was meticulously moved from a church in Europe. Check out the American Museum of Natural History (again, a suggested donation) or the Hayden Planetarium. On Wednesday take a trip to the Bronx Zoo (they offer “pay what you want” Wednesdays) and see what the polar bear is up to in the summer. The New York Philharmonic hosts a free concert in Van Cortlandt Park on July 15. There’s so much more than I’ve mentioned. See for yourself just by Googling “free summer nyc.”

3. Help your child find a hobby. But first, let’s be clear on what a hobby is. Yes, going outside and playing ball or socializing with friends are fun activities–a great part of summer and certainly essential to adolescent development. But do not confuse these activities with hobbies. A good hobby piques a child’s interest and makes them hungry for more information. They’ll read about their hobby and talk about their hobby to friends. A hobby keeps the mind active and challenges the child to excel at it. Building and launching model rockets is great fun and educational (kits are available at Target). Learning a new craft builds creativity and encourages reading. My wife informs me that there are countless craft projects available on Pinterest. And while you’re at your local library, you can always check out a cookbook (reading skills AND math skills!) for family-friendly recipes.

By William Olsen-Hoek, William.Olsen-Hoek@inwoodacademy.org