Education Opinion

Smoke and Mirrors

By Donalyn Miller — April 27, 2008 3 min read
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Click, click. My classroom is silent except for the scratching of pencils and that horrid noise. Click, click. My students are half way through a practice test for the state reading assessment. Click, click. One boy in the corner is methodically pushing the lid on and off a highlighter while he works. Click, click. This incessant hearbeat beneath the floorboards of my classroom is driving me mad. Click, click. I silently approach my tormentor, and look at his test. Click, click. A sea of neon alien blood flows across his paper; it appears that he is marking every other line in a code that only he can decipher. Click, cl… I thrust my open hand in front of him, and he places the offending marker into it. The clicking stops and I retain my sanity for another day.

When my students finish, we gather to discuss the passages and the questions. I want to know what test-taking skills my 6th grade students use after three years of taking the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). Beginning a list on the board, I ask,

“What reading strategies did you use to take the practice test today?”

Hands shoot up around the room, and I jot down their responses,

“I read the questions first before I read the passage.” (I wonder if he even reads the passages, or just hunts for the answers to the questions.)

“I write a summary of every paragraph.”(EVERY paragraph?)

“When I answer the questions, I write down the paragraph number that proves my answer.” (What about the answers that are not stated outright in the text?)

“I highlight all of the names, dates, titles, and underlined words.” (Ah, that was what he was doing…)

“I read every passage three times.”(Not two, not four, exactly three. Having read a lot of folktales this year, my students can tell you about the significance of the number three.)

It goes on and on, as my students share all of the test-taking secrets they have learned over the years. One boy offers to teach the class his method for choosing which test answer is the best summary, the mystical “B-M-E” which stands for beginning, middle, and end,

“Whichever answer choice has something from the beginning of the story, the middle of the story, and the end of the story is the best summary.”

I have to ask, “How do you decide where the middle is?”

“Oh, that’s easy, I count how many paragraphs are in the story, and then I divide it by two.”(What a great way to integrate math into my reading class.)

I can’t take it anymore. I cry out, “Why? Why do you do all of these things? How do these tricks help you read the test?”

There are less raised hands this time, but I call on one brave volunteer,

“My teacher in fourth grade told me to highlight everything that was important. If we didn’t do this during practice tests, she would take points off our grades.”

Nods and murmurs around the room tell me that this was a common occurrence. Instead of a toolbox of reading strategies that students can use across a variety of reading situations, they carry a cracked valise full of garlic and holy water—ancient talismans passed down from teachers to survive the test. The kids don’t even know why they are using most of these tricks; they just know they are supposed to. Dragging these strategies out into the sunlight reveals their true purpose: get students to slow down, take their time, and focus on their reading. Why don’t we just tell students that?

I agree that we should show students how to read a multiple choice test. The format of these tests is unique, and students must employ specific strategies to read one. But test reading is only one genre that students must master. Drilling test-practice at the expense of teaching authentic reading is a Sisyphean task teachers repeat, year after year, never getting students to the top of the reading hill.

Spending weeks, or horrifyingly in some classrooms, months, on test-taking lore denies students a lot of time that would be better spent reading and discussing real books—a practice that is shown again and again to positively impact students’ reading achievement.

I have never seen a student who could read and comprehend a wide range of texts fail these tests, but I have seen a few students, carrying only a handful of test-taking beans, who did.

Myths, legends, and scary stories are genres, just like reading tests are, but they are not methods for teaching reading. We are teachers in classrooms, not shamans around campfires. The only trickery that should be found in reading class is in fairytales.

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