Making the Grade
We all remember what it was like back in school, sitting on the edge of the seat, waiting for the teacher to hand out "the test." Our palms were sweaty and our mind raced with facts and figures we studied the night before. No matter how hard we had studied or how well we knew the material, the answers we ultimately put on that piece of paper would seal our fate.
Thinking back on this, it might be easy to understand what today’s teachers go through on a daily basis. They too are graded based on the success of their students.
"The current national practice of high stakes testing has put remarkable demands on the students, teachers and principals to achieve high test scores," explains Phillip Jackson, Executive Director at Chicago Grammar School. "Principals can lose their jobs, schools can be closed and reorganized, etc. Teaching to the test is a natural response considering so much is at stake. A broad well-rounded education ends up suffering."
"Teaching to the test" is a phrase often used to refer to any course that prepares students for one of the annual state assessment exams required under the No Child Left Behind Act. In essence, our treasured teachers are teaching not to the test but to a long list of things students are supposed to learn in each subject area, as approved by the state school board. Often, the two most heavily tested subjects – reading and math – get the most attention in the classroom.
"I believe that students do not only need to be able to perform well on a test, but they need to be able to apply what they have learned in a practical project of some kind," says Rhodi Hotaling, middle school math teacher at North Park Elementary School in Chicago. "I always tell my students that when they get older and get jobs, their employer will not ask them to take a test, but will ask them to produce something. So students are not only graded on their ability to demonstrate on a test their understanding a concept, but by also producing a project that shows their understanding of the topic in a different way."
A brand new teacher at North Park, Hotaling has spent much time teaching the often-tested skills in a whole new way. For example, Hotaling’s sixth grade class built forts out of candy, which represented algebraic expressions. The seventh graders have created board games based on negative and positive numbers for movements to show their understanding of integers, and the eighth grade students built mobiles to show that they understand algebraic skills.
"So far, I have truly seen that these projects not only give students different ways to show their understanding of topics, but they enhance their understanding of the topic," says Hotaling. "They are very useful and successful ways for students to show what they have learned."
"Besides working hard on the basic skills in early elementary, we at Chicago Grammar School also work hard on thinking and problem-solving skills," adds Jackson. "We incorporate the arts because it provides so many real opportunities for working on these skills."
For example, when the first graders at CGS recently studied Homer’s "The Illiad" for literature, the kids really wanted to make a Trojan Horse. "This was a fantastic means to work on geometry goals and problem-solving within the context of their literature," explains Jackson. "Projects like this are not tested, but the thinking skills employed are beyond the test."
"The focus in our classrooms is on learning how to think," agrees Donna Lehmann, Principal of Chesterbrook Academy Elementary School in Naperville. "We do not just teach the facts and processes that standardized tests assess; our focus is on the assimilation of knowledge and skills and the transfer of that knowledge base to applied resolutions of authentic situations or problems. Through this transfer process, students become not only competent, but comfortable with identifying a challenge, selecting a correct and accurate solution, and applying their skills and knowledge to resolve the challenge effectively."
In fact, many schools claim that there really is no way for students to actually prepare for standardized tests other than a healthy breakfast and a good night sleep.
"We simply administer the test," remarks Anna Lenhardt, Academic Dean at Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove. "We expect that the test will reflect the learning that occurs in our classes on an ongoing basis. So, other than helping the younger students understand how to fill out the gridded answer sheets, we do not do any actual "test prep."
Likewise, at Lake Forest Country Day School, teachers and administrators tell parents that the best preparation for standardized tests is, "our daily academic curriculum enriched with the arts and athletics – no special test prep or practice routines," adds Michael Robinson, Lake Forest Country Day School’s Head of School.
Of course, independent private schools do have an advantage since they don’t need to follow the standard state test requirements. Yet, most still find ways to measure their individual successes.
"As an Independent School, LFCDS can select the standardized testing program that best meets our objectives, a recognition that different types of standardized tests have different purposes," explains Robinson. "The Educational Record Bureau program provides us the ability to compare our students’ work with other independent school students’ work nationally and measure the individual student’s ability to learn a particular set of skills or concepts while measuring students’ actual performance with those same skills or concepts."
And while the term "standardized testing" might conjure up some negative thoughts and memories, the results of some sort of aptitude test is still of vital importance to school administrators.
"The analysis of standardized test results is not an arbitrary measure of student performance but an individualized look at the all-important relationship between a particular child’s aptitude and achievement," says Robinson. "The insights that we gain from standardized testing help us deliver a signature feature of any great independent school, an individualized approach to a student’s learning, maximizing each child’s potential."
Parental involvement is often high at private schools. Becoming educated in the reasoning behind standardized testing can help many parents understand and support the practice.
"We educate parents about why we administer the tests and how we use the data," says Robinson. "We also make ourselves available to meet with parents individually to discuss their child’s results. "When parents understand how we use the test results for school improvement and to individualize instruction, they are great supporters."
Yet, the "teaching to the test" phrase is one often brought up by well-meaning parents concerned about their child’s daily academic life. "I would hope that the parents who trust their children to our care are not worried that we will "teach to the test"," says Tom Sedor, Principal at Infant Jesus of Prague in Flossmoor. " Teachers using new and innovative techniques and strategies are part of our daily teaching routine. The preparation of a student for a standardized test comes daily with the work given to them by the very competent teaching staff."
"Good teachers do not worry about assessment results," agree’s Chesterbrook Academy’s Lehmann. "Their focus is on strong pedagogy; the assessment results are a by-product that simply confirms a job well done. Life is not a standardized test and failure to engage a broad-base curricular framework hurts students in the long run, although standardized assessment scores may improve or remain high."
As children move from the classroom into the real world, testing will not be the means to success, so much as the ability to think critically and really understand complex situations.