Thursday, January 11, 2007

Teaching to the test

This news article from Virginia is a prime example of teaching to the test.

Schools show why Johnny couldn't add


January 10, 2007

VIRGINIA MATH SCORES -- Hampton Roads school district officials and teachers think they now have the answer to a question that they've grappled with since August: Why did so many sixth- and seventh-graders fail the state's math tests in 2006, when they had done well on fifth-grade tests only a year or two before?

The answer? Teachers prepared students for one test, but students ended up taking something very different - a test with unfamiliar vocabulary, different concepts and more multistep problems than anything they had seen to date.

"All year, we taught the kids, thinking the sixth- and seventh-grade tests would look like the eighth-grade test, but they didn't," York County school Superintendent Steven Staples said.

I can understand there being some confusion when students see unfamiliar terms. But, the test scores were dramatically different from the previous year.

The results shocked educators and state officials. According to a state analysis released this month, seven of 10 sixth-graders correctly answered 20 items on the 50-question test that they took.Results were worse on the seventh-grade test. Seven of 10 students correctly answered only eight of 50 problems.

If the students understood the math concepts and not just how to get the right answer on a particular test, changes in the test format would not dramatically lower the test result. Answering only 8 problems out of 50 correctly demonstrates that students don’t understand how to use basic math concepts.

This correlates with the findings of a resent literacy study.


Twenty percent of U.S. college students completing 4-year degrees – and 30 percent of students earning 2-year degrees – have only basic quantitative literacy skills, meaning they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gasoline to get to the next gas station or calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies, according to a new national survey by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The study was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

So, students are being taught how to fill in the right bubble on the right test, but they can’t use math concepts on a different test or in their every day life.

What is the purpose of an education? If we only measure the success or failure of a public, private or homeschool education by test results, we won't really know if the process has been successful.

I'm not against testing entirely. It is one of many ways of evaluating student progress. It is also a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Even if students score high on a specific standardized test, it doesn't mean they will being able to balance their check book.

Analysis of the Virginia test results revealed some interesting things.

Pyle said part of the problem was a change in the way that students were tested. Previously, students took a cumulative test, measuring what they had learned since sixth grade. Now students take 50-question tests at each grade.

"We're testing more deeply into the content" of each grade, he said.

With the previous cumulative style test, students could have a limited grasp on the math skills taught that year and still test well. In other words, on the previous test, very few questions were on grade level. Most of the questions checked more basic math skills taught in the previous years. On the current test, all questions are on grade level. Thus, it is a much harder test and more accurately measure the mastery of that academic year’s material.

I love this last quote from the article.

Pyle said the 2006 scores were part of "a period of adjustment" as teachers and students got used to the new tests.

Translation: Give us time to figure out how to teach to this test.

Here's an idea: Why don't they focus on teaching students math concepts instead of how to fill in the right bubble on a new test. I realize this is easier said than done. However, as long as the focus is scoring well on a particular test, than the focus is NOT on learning to master specific concepts and skills. If students master the concepts, they will score well regardless of the test format and they will be able to use math concepts in every day life.

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christinemm said...

Thank you for this post. It is amazing and scary.

Some parents I know whose kids go to school are angered at all the time spent in the classroom teaching them to take the tests and taking practice tests. It takes time away from teaching what they used to teach.

My understanding is the test is supposed to measure the learning they already learned. However it seems now they just teach how to take the test itself and also they gear what the concepts are to be taught based on the test content not whatever other, larger, broader concepts they used to teach.

Two teachers I know said goodbye to each other on December 31st and made a comment that it was nearly time to go back to work and "teach the CMT" (Connecticut mastery tests). One is a 6th grade math teacher and the other is a 7th grade math teacher.


Here in our homeschool we teach to mastery. Period. Not moving on to the next assignment, not cramming workbook pages. They work until they know it, period.

Lara said...

So many politician and administrators spend countless hours trying to come up with the next big reform that will cure the ills of public school when they and their reforms are what's wrong with the schools.

We had standardized tests when I was a public school students. No one spent any time really thinking about them or preparing for them. They were considered "the stupid test" we had to take at the end of the year. Amazingly, most of us did pretty well on them. Perhaps, the reason is because teachers taught concepts back then, not test taking skills.

And people wonder why homeschooled students often perform better on standardized tests...

Janine Cate said...

I think about how things have changed. When I was in school testing wasn't a big deal. You didn't prepare for the test, you just took it.

The K-5 was pretty simple. We didn't do half the things that are on the "standards" now, yet our test scores were much better than today.

It's sad that teacher waste so much time teaching the CMT / CAT9 etc.

Things sure are messed up.

Faerie Rebecca said...

As a Virginia homeschooler, it's things like this that really strengthen my resolve to homeschool. Here in VA we have tests called (unfortunately), the SOLs--Standards of Learning. My nephew is in the PS, and he used to come to my house after school. I would help him go through his bookbag, and there were *no textbooks* in his bag. All he had were study guides for the SOLs (consumable study guide--ka-ching for the publishing industry...). Read a 2-3 page section, answer four questions, move on. This was what he did for most of 7th and 8th grade.

Janine Cate said...

"SOL" - wow, how appropriate. Sorry, out of luck decribes the process pretty well.