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Extra Credit: Is High-Stakes Testing Really the Answer?


Dear Extra Credit:

You said that introducing high-stakes testing in kindergarten "appears to have produced significant gains in reading and math achievement for students in this age group." ["The Pressure Is On, and the Kids Suffer in Kindergarten," March 19].
As a 33-year veteran of an urban school district, I think it is necessary to point out that high-stakes testing, translated into real-world practice, has completely taken over the instructional methods used by public schools. Passing a quantitative test requires that facts be given precedence over reflection, analysis and creativity, because facts are easier to measure.
Teachers and schools have become so test-driven that even though we know what type of teaching methods foster creative skills, we have no time to strengthen these practices because we are racing through a state curriculum guide that dictates the content that will be on the test.
Many of today's students are not interested in knowing what is not on the test. Teachers who have been in this business a while know what can go wrong with this notion of using high-stakes tests to determine success. Virginia has had the Standard of Learning tests since 1998, and so we have seen the long-term effects of a "good idea" that focuses on only part of the story in a child's overall education.
Tests have always existed, and they are valid and necessary, but many of our children are not able to read, write or compute. We need more than just high-stakes testing. We also need time -- time to collaborate with other teachers who are role models and who can share their successful real-world practices; time to develop instruction that encourages and demands more than just choosing a, b, c or d and helps strengthen curiosity, reflection and flexibility; and, of course, the time to develop relationships with our students, communities and parents or guardians.
Patricia J. Lewis,
Alexandria


Jay Mathews:

You are so right that our students need more time. But your other points to me seem divorced from the reality I see in classrooms. The instructional methods I observe are much better than the way I was taught as a child -- more varied, more imaginative, with more writing and more talking by students. If you or any reader can describe something that they have actually seen in a classroom that shows testing has, as you say, "completely taken over" instructional methods, I will publish your letter.

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 extracredit@washpost.com.

By Washington Post Editors  | May 7, 2009; 10:26 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  high school testing  
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Comments

Dear Jay,
If I can find a number of colleagues who can attest to the fact that they feel "test-driven", and that many of their more creative and holistic methods had to fall by the wayside because of SOL's and NCLB, will you publish my letter, too?

Of course teaching is better than it was when you and I went to school. That was a very long time ago.

In the meantime, I have witnessed, first hand, how my colleagues had to
sacrifice depth for breadth and give up many creative and experiential methods in their own practice because of test-driven "pacing guides".

You also didn't read my letter very carefully because you misunderstood the type of "time" I was referring to. I meant that teachers need more time to build exemplary and collegial practices, rather than enabling students to have more or more flexible time (which, of course, I agree with, but it is a separate issue). Hmmmmmm, maybe we need to test your reading skills? :)

Patty

Posted by: pjlsan | May 7, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

When I was at TJ we never took more than a day to study for the Virginia Statewide tests. The teachers just mentioned off hand on a Monday that we had to take a random test on a Wednesday and that was that. Why does their have to be so much effort applied to these tests? They were very basic and simple.

Posted by: Dremit97 | May 7, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I would love for pjlsan or anyone else who had seen what I am talking about inside the classroom to send me their observations, but they have to be more specific than what she has provided here so readers can judge the situation. What exactly were you teaching, and how, before testing ruined things, and exactly what are the differences in the way you are teaching now. What project do you no longer have time for? What are you doing with that time instead? Some creative and experiential methods made sense. Others don't. I want readers, and me, to have a chance to judge based on our own experiences as students and in some cases as teachers.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 8, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Ask any English teacher about teaching writing today, and you will see the difference. Currently students (anyone in school in VA since 1998) seem to view all writing to consist of 5 paragraphs, and only 5..never more never less. In addition each of those paragraphs are apparently comprised of 5-7 sentences.

From third grade on, due to the SOL writing assessment, students are taught this.

I have yet to meet a student who doesn't seem to think the only definition of a paragraph is its length. No one seems to realize this is incorrect. No one seems to be teaching what truly constitutes a paragraph. No one seems to be teaching that writing can involve more than a prompt given by a teacher (for practice) or by the state (for assessment).

This is now further driven home since the SAT was revamped to include a writing prompt; Colleges at least recognize this doesn't truly reflect a student's writing ability. Oh, wait..perhaps it does since that is all that is taught..how to respond to a prompt you have no personal connection to.

Posted by: researcher2 | May 8, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I plan on offering you specifics, Jay. But, since this is a very busy time of year (between AP and SOL tests) and my colleagues' first priority is to prepare their students for the tests, they are currently racing through their respective curricula and have no time to talk with me at any length. I am taking on the role of a reporter, however, and am starting to conduct interviews with my colleagues. I hope you will accept and published the specific examples I collect as you promised. But, I want to make it clear that my expertise is in the classroom and in urban education. I would never be so presumptuous as to try and shape journalistic policy.

Posted by: pjlsan | May 9, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Jay: Why are you so dismissive of Patty Lewis's 33 years of experience? You say she seems "divorced from the reality I see in classrooms." What makes you think what you see is reality? You see what students and teachers choose to show you. That may be very different from reality.

As for the high stakes testing: If I give my students a Pogo-Stick Jumping Test, I suspect that they will do poorly. So I spend considerable time teaching them to Pogo-Stick jump and retest them and- guess what- they do much better! Hurrah! I am a great teacher, the school gets a blue ribbon, heck, we may even enroll kids to Advanced Placement Pogo-Stick Jumping and Jay Matthews will write about us. But are the kids better off with this new ability? High-stakes testing teaches kids to take high stakes tests. Is that what we want them to learn?
I agree with Patty that we are not necessarily teaching or measuring what we should.

Posted by: smoore3 | May 11, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

I just re-sent an email to you Jay, minus attachments that were with the original. I hope it gets through to you. I have received no acknowledgment of receipt and I'm hoping it was because of the attachments on the original email. I feel like you're working really hard to avoid commenting on this problem. I sent you a clear example of the Cliff's Note worksheet journal my daughter is using in 4th grade Social Studies instead of the textbook. My sons, now aged 14 and 16, both used the textbook when they were in 4th grade. The emphasis on testing and teaching to the tests is very clear for anyone who has had kids in ffx co schools for a decade or so.

Posted by: angua1 | May 13, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

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