What are we teaching them? A discussion on standardized testing

As a high school American Literature teacher, this is the time of year I dread — this is End of Course Test (EOCT) season.

I am not worried about my students’ test scores. I am not worried about the material we covered or what my students learned. I am, though, worried about what this season does to them — what it teaches them to value. After all, we did so much more in our classes than what is covered in this 101-page document, a document that claims ownership of our (specifically: Georgia’s) public school curriculum.

Because I believe we are in a state of crisis — in dire need of education reform — I keep up with news on Common Core State Standards, standardized testing, and educational “policy.” Today, I came across an article titled “Mandatory Common Core tests in New York just happen to be full of corporate brand names.” After a moment of speechlessness, I began this blog post by asking myself: what are we teaching them?

What are we teaching students when:

  • 20% of their class grade is based on one multiple-choice test?
  • teachers are encouraged to teach to the test?
  • these tests are given weeks before the end of the course?
  • EOCTs are written using racially-biased, gender-biased, and class-biased language?
  • EOCTs insert brand names into their questions?

There are countless questions racing through my mind, and I cannot ask any one without being accused of being “just another angry teacher who doesn’t want accountability.” I, in fact, encourage accountability and collaboration between educators; however, in my model, standardization does not accountability make. There are better ways to assess students and teachers (portfolios, observations, reflection journals, self-evaluative rubrics, etc.).

To me, the dialogue surrounding standardized education is a type of newspeak. I feel like Winston Smith, understanding the truth behind the buzzwords, but I do not know how to bring that truth to everyone. All I know is: this time of year, I lose some of my teacher soul when I have to utilize precious class time to reiterate the structure of blank verse, to discuss commonly misspelled words, or to encourage students to memorize the steps in the writing process according to our state-mandated EOCT Study Guide.

We are fast-approaching a breaking point in education. I don’t want to be there — and I especially don’t want my students to be there — when education loses its humanity altogether.

Related:

Brand names in NY standardized tests vex parents — more information on the above article

Education Evolution — an cool video calling for a change in “today’s classroom”

The Benefits of Annotation: Students Interacting with Texts

One of the hardest things I struggle with as a teacher is preparing students for standardized tests — it is both a pedagogical and a moral struggle. On one hand, I disagree with standardization; how can humans be standardized? On the other, I understand a form of accountability is needed in schools. There is an entire blog entry I could write on standardized tests, but this one is about how to help students improve their reading skills, which, in turn, will help them receive higher scores on said tests.

Based on the data I have collected from my own classes, the hardest standard for students to master involves textual analysis:

ELACC11-12RL1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

I believe this standard is so difficult because it requires abstract thought. Not only do students have to read and understand a text, they must also be able to critique it, make justifications based on its content and analyze underlying meanings. It is not enough to merely read texts and answer questions, students need to read actively and interact with texts as they read.

In order to encourage interactive reading, my collaborators and I facilitate textual annotation. Even as I read for my graduate courses, I understand the text better if I keep running notes on its content — including writing on the pages themselves. If it helps me, surely it will help my students. Of course, just telling students to annotate does nothing. When I first started doing this, I merely received texts back covered in highlighter marks. Instead, I like to begin with prompts for annotations inserted into the texts we provide.

For instance, we read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream speech. This was one of the first texts we annotated this year, so I tried to guide their annotations by providing them within the text (click to get a MS Word attachment): MLKDreamSpeech+Annotation. As you can see, the questions call students to think critically about the text as they read, as well as respond to it as they read. It is my opinion that this action allows them to understand the text on a more critical level, as well as recall significant events from the text more readily than had they read it only.

As far as what we did with the text, we used it (as well as The Declaration of Independence) as the groundwork for our social justice unit (more lessons from that unit to come). Instead of reading the text as a class, we watched it:

I found the process of listening, watching, and annotating this text helped students create a strong foundation for the unit, allowing them to grasp the difficult standard more easily on their own, once annotations were no longer provided.

…food for thought!