Jay on the Web: A Teacher on Teaching to the Test
Writing on the web site When Falls the Coliseum, Jason Sterlace, a teacher, has an interesting take on an old Jay Mathews' column looking at the debate among educators over whether to teach a few subjects in-depth or cover a range of topics.
One of the (probably) unintended side effects to standardized testing is that teachers get together to parse the numbers and figure out what they can afford to skip over in our subjects. Standardized tests become predictable to some degree, enough that teachers can figure out which chapters are valued and which ones are not. In fact, that’s the whole point—make sure that every teacher knows what chapters are considered the most important. Make sure they know to cover those topics well.
I don’t think the people who create the standards expected teachers to completely skip those topics that aren’t emphasized on the test, but that’s what happens. The fact is that if you can get your students to score well on the couple of topics that are most heavily assessed, then they’ll pass the standardized test–especially when the tests are graded on a sliding scale. Whether they meant to do it or not, they’re generating an atmosphere that promotes depth over breadth.
As Matthews notes in his article, the College Board’s Advanced Placement program is looking to embrace greater course depth at the expense of breadth. It may be more of a trend in high schools, and as a high school teacher I am cautiously optimistic. (I think it is arguably less appropriate for younger and younger students.) We must realize that it is precisely in these deeper waters that we run into the sink-or-swim situation. It benefits and stimulates our best students, but our worst students need another option… or else, we will need to accept that some students simply will fail.
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