Education Teacher Leaders Network

Is Test Prep Educational Malpractice?

By John Norton — April 01, 2009 9 min read
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Our TLN colleague Anthony Cody (a teacher-coach in Oakland, Calif., who blogs here at teachermagazine.org) fired up the Teacher Leaders Network daily conversation with this provocative question: Does the heavy focus on standardized test preparation in many schools and districts amount to educational malpractice? It proved to be a timely topic, evoking nearly 40 replies. Here are some excerpts from that discussion.

After noting that the U.S. Department of Education may promote some form of merit pay based on standardized test scores, Anthony wrote:

I think teachers and schools should examine the test scores of our students, and we should seek to improve our instruction to respond to the weaknesses our scores may reveal. But I think the heavy consequences attached to test scores have us going way overboard.

I see a lot of test preparation and manipulation in my district. It looks like this:

Blueprint Mapping: This means we get a copy of the “test blueprint,” the list of concepts that will be tested, and map out our daily instruction to cover these concepts. This narrows the range of what is taught to the predetermined list of concepts chosen by whatever group designed the tests. I find this alienating for teacher and student alike, because it means the entire curriculum revolves around guessing what will be on the test, rather than that which excites the interests and imagination of the students.

Scripted Curriculum: Discretion is further removed from teachers who are given daily scripts to ensure they cover the material to be tested according to the schedule, and use the prescribed strategies developed by the publisher.

Narrow Curriculum: In many elementary schools there is little or no time for non-tested subjects such as art, music, even science and history. What we have seen in many urban areas (and many rural ones as well) is an impoverishment of the curriculum for students in low-scoring schools. They get extra math and reading instruction, but other subjects that are equally essential to a well-rounded, happy student are stripped away.

Manipulations: Our TLN colleague Mary Tedrow describes a strategy in her blog where students who are behind in math at mid-year are shunted into a class where they repeat the first semester. Then they do not take the test for their grade in the spring, and voila, the school’s scores improve. This is similar to the observed bulge at the 9th grade caused by the many students retained at that grade to avert their downward pull on the school’s scores. These retentions result in higher dropout rates.

In my opinion, so long as we have tests that can be prepared for in these ways, and we continue to attach heavy consequences (punishments or rewards) to these tests, we are promoting malpractice.

What do you think? Is test prep malpractice?

Mary Tedrow, who teaches in Virginia, replied:

It’s worse than malpractice. I think it fools the public into believing that some substantive learning has occurred.

Renee Moore, a Mississippi teacher who has blogged recently about test prep, agreed:

I agree with you both. It is malpractice to call such procedures “teaching” and they do fool the public and too many educators into thinking we’ve done our job. But part of the problem there is the confusion in the public mind over what exactly our “job” is. We have to keep up the fight to redefine the public image of teachers and teaching.

Anthony, whose specialty is secondary science, replied:

One of the reasons we need to invest more in better assessments is that the cheaper and simpler the assessments are, the easier it is to prepare for them. For example, if you have a set of standards that specify 30 or 40 facts that students should know for 7th grade science, then you can construct a multiple choice test that checks their knowledge of those facts. And as a teacher, if you have that handy list of facts to teach, then your job has just been defined for you. “Make sure your students know those facts.” And should you ask: “Why do we want them to learn this?” the answer is “Because it is on the test.”

To me, that statement is a declaration of educational bankruptcy. We should be teaching things that are important in their own right, and not be trying to prepare students to regurgitate isolated facts for multiple choice tests. If an assessment is of higher quality, it will involve students’ deeper thinking and require them to apply what they are learning, make arguments, think critically, and provide evidence for their point of view. This is the way we should teach. But if our tests do not assess for this kind of learning, this kind of teaching will actually be punished, not rewarded.

David, who teaches in a university town in northern California, wrote:

The students in my high school perform well on tests. Today, I had my English classes looking at paintings all day. It’s actually excellent practice of transferable skills, looking for symbols and patterns, mood and motif. But if the pressure were on and someone were worried about our test scores, they might have issues with this lesson.

What I wish people would realize is that so-called “good” schools with high test scores don’t focus on basic skills and then suddenly reach a point where they do what Anthony suggested—develop deeper knowledge, enrich learning, engage students’ interests, etc. It’s not basics and then enrichment. The basics can be addressed more covertly, more authentically, and more effectively when those fundamental skills are developed in a meaningful and motivational context.

That type of learning environment shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the birthright of every child.

Contributing to the discussion, one TLN member offered this recent article , “Help! The Test Is Only ‘X’ Weeks from Now!” from the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Web site. It provoked this response from another TLN member:

That article is scary. In the curriculum and instruction section, the recommendations to principals were mostly non-motivational and disruptive procedures that would interfere with education, in the pursuit of test results. I’ll be charitable and allow that in certain contexts and in certain circumstances I could imagine, maybe, possibly, endorsing some of those moves, with lots of qualifying “ifs.”

Then, sadly, in the sections about personalization and collaborative leadership, there are plenty of good ideas advanced for all the wrong reasons. A school should not reach out to struggling students in order to raise their test scores. A school should reach out to struggling students because they are children who are struggling. That step requires no other justification or motivation. These children have the right to expect help from the people and institutions charged with their well-being.

In the category of leadership, the author allows that even P.E. and music teachers have some value, because they are often more successful at reaching “the less academic students.” Great. These connections can be parlayed into mentor relationships which can—wait for it—boost test scores!

Honestly, I don’t have that big a problem with secondary or ulterior motives. It’s okay to do the right thing for the right reasons, recognizing the added benefit of raising test scores. But the way this piece is framed and presented, there is simply no evidence of ethics that resonate with my understanding of the educational imperative.

Nancy added:

The NASSP is the most influential organization for secondary school principals in the U.S., so this is not just some test-prep blurb by a lightweight writer. This is “cutting-edge” thinking in educational leadership.

It really is all about how we define our goals. If our goals are raising test scores, so we can rise in international standings, then the NASSP article is right on target. If our goals are educating all kids as a means of finding their strengths, or increasing their chances of a productive life, then the article is unethical.

Marsha, a 6th grade math and science teacher in a suburban Midwestern school district, described how she is “finding peace in this insanity of testing.”

I think I’ve come to terms with all the test prep we have to do. This year I was bound and determined not to cave any more than I had to—and I do see some benefit to my students in becoming more automatic in their procedural abilities within math class.

I am in a school where we got some new technologies this year that allowed myself and my students to get immediate feedback as we worked on sample test questions. We looked as a whole class at our wrong answers and we were able to figure out which things students were struggling with. We very much felt that we were in this as a team and that we were stronger than as a bunch of individuals. Together we worked hard on math procedures.

As the craziness of test time approached, I watched my kids reach out to those who struggled, offering an insight or “tip,” which I encouraged. They were invested in helping each other get the correct answer. I know this kind of learning on their part will never be measured by the test, but it doesn’t matter. Those acts of kindness and compassion for others will be important as my students grow up.

Honestly, you can’t believe what all of us felt like when we got a 90% or 100% class average on a prep question. We got up and did a celebration dance. Gradually over time, I think everyone came to believe they were “in it to win it.” Their confidence soared and they believed they could do well.

So what are the benefits of this kind of hard work? Well of course you’re hoping for good test scores. But I’m in it for other things. I’m in it for the gratitude that the 7th and 8th grade teachers have when the kids we send them can actually do fractions, decimals and percents. Because those teachers don’t have to remediate as heavily as they used to, they are free to move on to their own curriculum indicators. They get to teach the higher level concepts that build a strong procedural knowledge of rational numbers.

I don’t want to mislead, though. Procedural knowledge is critical, but so is conceptual knowledge. It’s striking a good balance between the two that is the hardest thing to achieve. We teach a conceptually based math curriculum and much of the math year is spent doing open-ended discovery of problems and problem solving. So I see this pre-testing season and its focus on procedures as a balance for the rest of what we do.

Anthony replied to Marsha:

First of all, I agree that there are forms of test prep that are OK. For example, I have no ethical problem with teaching students to bubble properly. I also appreciate that there is a good balance to be struck between procedures and conceptual learning.

But I think there are different sorts of schools, and depending on the type of school you are in, you may have more or less latitude to strike that balance. The schools I am most concerned about are those on the bottom rungs of the performance ladder, who wind up seeking shortcuts to better scores, rushing through content, trying to teach to the test. Schools that are already on grade level have a chance to find the balance you describe, although even then it is not easy.


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