Teaching To The Test

Posted on July 25, 2011


Reading and writing and a little arithmetic.

The results are in.

I’m above average.

Or rather, my students tend to be.

This year 405,000 students took the AP English Language and Composition exam “globally”.

I had 64.  Two classes.  Average of 32 students per class.

I don’t even teach math! How do I do that?

Anyway, I was positive that my “passing rate” and average would drop this year.

#1  My class size almost tripled from the previous year

#2  The students were, on average, lacking in the same writing skills of the previous year (recall some of their stellar sentences).

So why am I mentioning the previous year?

I used the teaching and mentoring that I did for a case study and thesis paper for one of my graduate level education courses.  In that thesis, I discussed how I had to mentor a fellow teacher who was a PhD in Education.  She was assigned to me by the V.P. and Dept Head.  Both told me, “but you are so good at what you do, and she needs serious help.”

“Serious help,” I’d say.  “I’m not licensed to give that kind of help.”

However, one thing positive that did occur was that I had to be constantly on top of my teaching in order to be constantly on top of her lack of experience.  I needed to clarify goals and objectives.  I needed to lay out a plan for her that was simple to use, student-oriented, and that incorporated “best practices.”

Despite her sending me daily note pads that had stickers on top of them, or her morning coffee-interruptus that resulted in ear-slitting Q&A (her voice is just like a southern Fran Drescher), or random emails and phone calls, one good thing resulted in all of that inconvenience.

The passing rate reached 91% and was the highest in our school’s history (except for the 100% passing rate of a certain teacher that had ONE student).

In reflection, as I wrote in my thesis, having to mentor someone else made me narrow the teaching focus to only what was necessary and what I truly believed would directly result in “success.”  By doing that, the scores seemed to increase from the previous year.

By eliminating all that “liberal arts” fluff that I loved so much, and by directing the focus primarily to developing the skills that I knew would be tested (writing argument and analysis), we were able to create measurable success.

However, we were cutting a lot of stuff out of the curriculum.  I probably taught about 1/3 less of the actual literature I normally teach.  Partly because my colleague did not know some of the literature, and partly because the focus on teaching the skill of writing argument and analysis, literature had to be sacrificed.

So I was left with the feeling that I was “teaching to the test.”

So what’s wrong with that?

The goal of the AP course “is to enable students to write effectively and confidently in their college courses across the curriculum and in their professional and personal lives.” (AP Website)

I’ve thought about it before.  I do teach to the test.  Results are one reason why.

But, do my results mean that I’m a better teacher?

Perhaps.  Part of teaching is recognizing trends and what your students need.  A good teacher takes a class and moves them from where they are, to where they should be in order to succeed.

That’s what I try to do.

I hammer them from day one.  They are pushed to read sentence after sentence. Slowly and painfully close.  They must understand how it feels to pull apart a sentence.

Then, I test them.  I give them the hardest passage I can find.  I watch them struggle to try and write a 40 minute essay on the passage.  I chuckle to myself.

Then, I give them a very generous 4 or 5 out of possible 9.  That’s right.  I tell them that they’re barely average.  I hand them a “rubric” that explains a 4 or 5 indicates an “adequate, but inconsistent” response.

That’s basically like giving someone a pat on the back and saying, “Thanks for showing up.”

I do this every day.  I do this every week.

Sometimes, there are serious doubts.  But, you hope that you’re pushing them in the right direction.

There’s always that lingering doubt you have when a student finishes a test too quickly.  He might stand up and say, “I nailed this one.”  You give a quizzical look and say to yourself, “we’ll see.”

So imagine my fear when the day of the AP exam came and I had streams of students coming back to my room to tell me how easy the test was compared to the class.  “That was so easy,” they say.

You wonder if it’s true that teaching to the test is a bad thing.

You wonder for a few months.

Then, you see your results for all that pushing.

94% passing rate.  52% scoring 4 or 5.

So what’s wrong with teaching to the test?  If they’re learning to read and write, and if they’re progressing and growing, then why shouldn’t I continue doing what I am doing?

Posted in: Education, Teaching