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Extra Credit: Teach to the Test or Not?

Dear Extra Credit:

The home-schooling parents who criticize public schools' teaching to the test have a point. Because of federal and state mandates, schools do teach to the test, and I believe that approach tends to stunt conceptual learning and, in some cases, any learning at all.

There was one year when our daughter's classroom teacher, a very fine educator, taught only the subjects that were going to be in the spring Standards of Learning tests. Because there was to be no SOL in science, the kids were not taught science that year until after the SOLs were given, even though science was supposed to be part of the year-long curriculum. Most of the in-class time, and homework time at our house, consisted of memorizing names and dates in preparation for a history SOL. As a result, the science teacher the following year had to cram two years of science into one to prepare the class for a science SOL.

And yet, I don't think the standardized tests should be tossed out the window. They provide a measure of certainty that the kids are learning something. I just think the emphasis for a whole year on history, to the complete detriment of science, was absolutely the wrong emphasis. I try to make sure my daughter understands the concepts behind the test questions and the different ways to analyze problems. When we decided to send our daughter to public school, we accepted that her education would be my responsibility, not just the responsibility of the public school system.

Kristen Umstattd


I hope you were exaggerating for emphasis your story of the year with no science. I am puzzled that you would consider a teacher stuffing your child full of names and dates to be "a very fine educator." If your story is true, the teacher should have been fired, not only for avoiding science, but for thinking the history SOL test requires tons of memorization. It doesn't. Go on the Virginia Department of Education Web site and read some of the sample questions, which test conceptual understanding more than factual recall.

I admire your parental support for such teaching. If you don't see it in the classroom, you should complain.

--Jay Mathews

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail

By Washington Post Editors  | April 15, 2009; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Home school  
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