Federal Opinion

March Madness Begins in Our Schools: It’s Test Prep Time

By Anthony Cody — March 04, 2012 11 min read
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In our nation’s public schools, March Madness has taken on a whole new meaning. It is test prep time in America.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is fond of saying that we should not teach the test. At the same time, there are huge consequences for schools, teachers and principals that do not raise test scores. The NCLB waivers allow states to eliminate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the majority of schools, but huge pressure will still be applied to the bottom tier of schools, those with high poverty and large numbers of English learners. And new policies mandated by the NCLB waivers require the inclusion of test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.

As the month of March begins, across the country schools are in the midst of the most pressure-packed time of the year. We have just a few short weeks before the tests will be given that determine the fate of our students, our schools, our principals and ourselves. It is test-prep time.

But over at the Department of Education, there is another world, where the magic of “multiple measures” make all these pressures melt like lemon drops.

I asked teacher friends recently if, in fact, they were being asked to teach to the test in their schools. Here is what I heard from around the nation. Some asked that their names be removed out of fear for their jobs.

From southern California, a teacher at a Program Improvement school writes:

My principal wants us to give the students a mock test to prepare for the CST. It’s supposed to show us which standards students are struggling with. The tests are the released test questions. The 6th Grade Language Arts mock test has 114 questions and is 26 pages, front to back. The 6th grade math mock test has 96 questions and is 12 pages, front to back. The 3rd grade tests each have 96 questions with 13 reading passages on the Language Arts test. I was literally speechless when I saw the tests, though choice words quickly followed. If I found out that my own children were forced to take a mock test like this, I would be furious.

From upstate New York
, where state law now mandates that 40% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on test scores:

We had a whole day inservice on Data Driven Instruction in which we were told the great benefits of using data to frame our instruction. This training was provided by our BOCES Center (a cooperative group that each school pays money to in order to get services a lower rate) and the presenter said “The TEST is where you start. When you know what’s on the test, then you can frame your instruction based on the test.” So, in NY - we should apparently be using the 3 - 8 ELA and Math tests to frame our instruction. Here’s the problem - the test ‘data’ isn’t in a teacher’s hands until the beginning of the following school year. So, first how do you use data on last year’s students to frame the instruction for the new batch of students?

The answer of course is to create or BUY testing programs that will be used 3 -4 times/ year as interim or benchmark tests. Then, given that data, you could frame your instruction around that.

FRAMING instruction is code for “teach to the test” as I’m sure you know!

The other problem is that the end of year tests in grades 3 - 8 are NOT transparent. Each year, teachers have no idea what will be on the test. And, as NY aligns tests to the Common Core, the tests change.

As a first grade teacher, my ‘task’ is to look at the common core standards, plan my instruction, plan testing, create benchmark tests, and then use the data to frame or re-frame instruction because there is no State Test (yet) for first graders. Right now, we give the IOWA Test of Basic Skills at the end of first grade to identify for Title 1 services in 2nd grade - but that test, while it is on NY’s list of “approved vendors” - is not necessarily aligned to the Common Core State Standards. So, as primary grade teachers, we have been told that we will need to write “Student Learning Objectives” based on the Common Core.

Now, here’s the biggest rub for me - since we are a small rural district - I am the ONLY first grade teacher. We have one section of each grade - so either they are putting a lot of trust in me, or they are setting me up to fail. AND, since I have 25 years experience, wouldn’t it be convenient if someone at the top of the pay scale failed and had to be rated “ineffective” and let go? So, have I been told in so many words to “teach to the test” - nope! Do I get the message - indeed I do!

From Central California, Sarah Puglisi writes:

My district requires us to give our students practice tests lasting a week to a week-and-a-half three times a year. These tests are made from the test release questions. They then tell us this will “focus” our instruction. My principal, adding -- this way “you can know what to teach.” As it happens this format accounts for over a MONTH of the children’s instructional time, not to mention the time on Dibel’s and other required tests. After forcing my 3rd graders through it last week I realized that MOST of my colleagues ONLY teach to this. And that all of the pieces mandated are supposedly affecting this. The trouble is, the tests are very strange, poor ways to manage learning. We’ve got an administrator who thinks teaching is the same thing going on the same way in every room.

I wish you could hear my colleagues telling me “they don’t mind this” as it gets kids “ready” or solves them having to plan actual learning. They’ve been so de-skilled they don’t even feel the connection to instructional leadership. To them the school is a rote drill factory.

The teaching profession has been redefined. A teacher is now the manager of a workbook drill. No projects, no model making, no literature, no research, no discovery. The planning you do is taking prefab programs and administering them. Sort of as if you were giving a test like the state test ALL the TIME. Room empty, pencils out, bubble. All things arranged around test prep. No themes, no critical thinking. Really! Not to get Biblical but it really fits - they know not what they do. Because they don’t, we are talking about folks that are responding to what their perception is - they perceive this to be what’s required.

Most of my students don’t get what the test is asking them -- in part because they lack the cultural knowledge, in part the experiences money might have provided that allow them to filter the test questions. In part just lacking the actual teaching embedded in meaningful instruction. So I spend a great deal of time trying to help them understand what they are being asked.

A friend from Texas joined the conversation:

God, Sarah. So awful to hear you speak the truth. Here in Texas, teachers have been implementing “data-driven instruction” for so long that they don’t even know what good teaching looks like. Most inservices/workshops focus on raising test scores; not Reader’s Writer’s Workshop, experiential learning or thematic units.

Sarah replied,

That’s my life as well. Now the younger teachers who have NO IDEA what they are really about take over this training. You sit thinking of just how poorly educated they are.

From Detroit, Michigan:

In Detroit Public Schools every fall, 3 - 8th grade teachers are given a prepackaged curriculum I believe called “MEAP University” to prepare and refresh students for the Michigan assessments that are given in October. Although I teach a lower grade and do not have to do this, I have watched it for many years. Real instruction in tested grades doesn’t begin until AFTER the tests.

From Baltimore, Maryland, Amanda Baumann writes:

Teaching to the test in a Baltimore City elementary school:

1. We were told that our after-school tutoring program was not for the kids who needed the most help, but for medium achievers who had a chance of reaching “proficiency” (a testing designation) with some extra help.

2. District-wide math instruction is structured around a daily breadth-over-depth homework sheet which reviewed procedures needed on the test. Primacy of procedures; very little actual numeracy. We didn’t have to be told to “teach to the test” because the homework sheets were test-directed by design.

3. This is harder to describe, but a permeation of the general conversations about learning, especially in planning meetings. “Will it be on the test?” was a common phrase, not for grade-obsessed students, but for teachers in planning meetings. This was a commonly asked question and seen as quite utilitarian and useful, and the “voluntary state curriculum” actually provided “assessment limits” with each standard to help teachers answer that question for themselves.

4. District-wide reading curriculum pacing guide that jumped from week to week among what Jonathan Kozol terms “mini-chunks of amputated knowledge"-- main idea, making inferences, cause and effect-- test-friendly skills.

I wish I could isolate out more examples of what has become a whole culture, the water in the fishbowl. I was overseas working in international schools from 2000 to 2007, and the thing that shocked me upon re-entry into the public schools wasn’t so much this testing culture, but the absolute lack of questioning/resistance among the teachers and administrators. That was new.

When I had left the States in 2000, there were standardized tests, and there was a concurrent and lively debate about how much direct test preparation was good in school, and how much we lost by doing said test prep. The utter silence around this in Baltimore, and the apparent total acceptance of these questionable priorities, spoke more loudly to me than any single administrative directive.

From Palm Beach County, Florida:

I’ve just been in a meeting all morning here at work and all they’ve discussed is the “test”... Teaching to it... Reviewing for it... Getting the kids to pass it, etc. We even had someone come in and speak about, “What’s new in assessment and accountability.” All of this geared solely to the test and what expectation is for the next 2.5 months.

From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:
I teach 4th graders in a K - 8 charter school in inner city Philadelphia. My school is more progressive than most and yet, we are spending about a month before the Pennsylvania state tests doing essentially nothing but test prep. We have suspended the teaching of Social Studies and Science and Spelling. Our Reading curriculum is in part teaching how to read and respond to test passages. Our Writing curriculum is how to respond to open-ended test questions. In Math, we are racing through the curriculum to make sure that we have covered all 4th grade Math topics before the test in mid-March (Why Pennsylvania thinks that March is a good time to test a whole year’s content is ludicrous to me!).

After 16 years of teaching, this profession has become very stressful. The lack of creativity and truly teaching to the whole child is sapping my soul. My bosses don’t know it yet, but I am not only seriously thinking of leaving my job, but the profession. I have about had it. I have wanted to be a teacher all my life, but what I loved about the profession, what I am best at - being able to teach the whole child, integrate subjects, respond to teachable moments with creativity, etc. seems no longer to be in the job description.

A teacher in Boston, Massachusetts:

Regarding the test prep question you asked about, here in Boston (as well as other towns around the city as well as other states) several schools use the ANet or Achievement Network. It, of course, just tracks achievement in the only two subjects that matter (for the $$$), reading and math. It is probably similar to other systems used around the country. When my students take the ANet test, every other teacher in my school can see how each one of my students achieves or does not achieve and vice versa. There are graphs and tables to make this clear. Teachers around my school have told me they feel sick to their stomach as ANet time approaches (about every 6 weeks or so). The questions are gathered from released questions from Massachusetts, Ohio, California, and other places. They actually believe (as do many administrators) that a student can “master” a standard XYZ or whatever and that standard is “Author’s Purpose” or something so giant as that. They love to isolate these standards, as if that is what a reader naturally does while reading! ANet is a huge moneymaker for someone because schools pay thousands each year to be part of the network.

I actually have been on the committee that creates the grade 8 ELA MCAS (state test for MA) for the past 5 years (yes, they actually have teachers make the test.) People on this committee are so dismayed at how a test that was supposed to inform us about something has become the be all and end all of everything. I think it would be interesting to look at the evolution of the standardized test’s use/perception over the last several years. Honestly, there are several TFA people working at my school that I truly feel badly for because they have never known or considered the true joys of teaching (and it’s not to the test!)

Sarah Puglisi asks a very potent question:

If a very bad curriculum is mandated script style and it produces poor state test results, say in the adoption of an awful math program and then the insistence of following it lock step, why would the teacher be slammed in value-added measuring in her evaluation when in fact she's following "orders"?

This uncovers the real trouble. While it is supposed to “hold teachers accountable” for results, this system actually DESTROYS genuine accountability, by taking responsibility and agency away from teachers. This system is bound to fail, but meanwhile, our students are being robbed.

Our leaders try to pretend that they can require that test scores be used to evaluate teachers, and at the same time disavow teaching to the test. Teachers know the truth about what is happening in many of our schools. It is time to let the public know as well.

What do you think? Has March Madness test-prep begun at your school? Please post your story below - and send a copy to your local newspaper as well - anonymously if necessary.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.