Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Can test prep also be meaningful learning?

When we spoke at the Conference on English Leadership, after the NCTE Convention in St. Louis this November, we ran into an important and serious concern: does a focus on test preparation, at least to some degree, diminish our commitment to our students’ real and meaningful learning somehow?

Our presentation, “Supporting Teachers in Rigorous Literacy: A Matter of Access, Equity, and Opportunity,” focused on our cross-disciplinary, collaborative lessons: on male aggression in fruit flies and Lord of the Flies; on chromium contamination and gentrification near the schools where we teach; and on the microfibers in our clothes and in our oceans. Each of these lessons was centered around high-quality, challenging pieces of nonfiction; each asked students to read and think with rigor about important, relevant issues in our shared world.

Our presentation offered strategies to support all teachers in creating and developing these sorts of cross-disciplinary and challenging lessons so that all learners can succeed. We feel strongly that rigorous literacy means that all students, regardless of their learning challenges and reading levels, need to be reading high-quality texts about real issues (like male aggression, chromium contamination, and global pollution).

And yes, as we always do, we talked about using multiple-choice, PARCC-style questions (we are in a PARCC state) to prep students about vocabulary and check their understanding of the reading. We stressed how these activities should be practiced in groups, in a low-stakes environment, where the students can problem-solve answering multiple-choice style questions while developing their understanding of the reading.

It was striking, however, that one person in our audience worried out loud during our question-and-answer period (in a productive and supportive way, to be clear) about whether our work was somehow unduly shaped by concerns about test preparation. We were a bit taken aback initially: our overarching motivation for incorporating challenging informational texts into our instruction is to motivate students by tapping into relevant, engaging issues that resonate with our students’ interests and everyday lives in order to empower them to think critically about their present and future realities. We believe doing so enables us to do our best teaching and for our students to experience meaningful learning, and so we offered this explanation to our interlocutor.

But yes, these kinds of science and social studies texts are the kinds of reading we see appearing on a variety of standardized tests.

During the Q & A for our session, we also reiterated our strong belief that these kinds of high-quality, cross-disciplinary units are opportunities for the best kind of test preparation: work that can be done without taking us away from the important texts and topics we need to teach. Given that standardized tests are an unavoidable part of our students’ academic reality, and that they present a disproportionate challenge to disadvantaged students, we think this belief is very much aligned with the CEL conference theme of access and opportunity. Indeed, we feel strongly that disadvantaged student populations need explicit test preparation in schools because their more advantaged peers are getting this practice, at a high cost, in after-school programs and tutoring.

It was interesting, then, to come across a piece in The Hechinger Report suggesting that “instructional quality declined with the rise of high stakes testing, especially in the weeks before the exam.” Particularly striking was the fact that “the quality gap between a teacher’s regular lessons and her test-prep lessons was largest in a school district where the teaching quality was the highest …. instructional quality sank a lot when these excellent teachers were delivering test-prep lessons.” Research did find some high-quality test prep lessons, but the overall quality of these sorts of lessons varied widely, leading the researchers to conclude that teaching to the test “can be done well, but it’s not easy.” In other words, much test prep is done poorly, even by high quality teachers who normally deliver excellent instruction. Innovative and substantive test prep, however, is possible, but teachers needs to think hard about how to make it work well.

To us, this study underscores both our sense of urgency around meaningful test prep and the concern our audience member expressed about the deleterious impact of test prep on instruction. Whether we like it or not, American students inhabit a universe of high-stakes testing – in K-12 and well beyond. Test prep, in nearly every school, is a reality. But even our best teachers, according to this research, are probably not doing a great job at test prep. Unless we embrace the challenge of delivering high-quality test prep, we are shortchanging all our students.

We think the answer is to build high-quality instruction around some explicit and regular practice for standardized tests. That seems to be a better solution than abandoning our normally strong instruction to spend days or weeks drilling on pre-made test-prep materials or leaving all test prep in the hands of paid after-school providers who serve only those students with resources. This explicit and regular practice for standardized tests means, however, that all teachers need to take some ownership over preparing our students for this unavoidable and deeply inequitable aspect of their educational lives. Especially in districts that serve some disadvantaged students (which probably means every district today), it shouldn’t be someone else’s job to teach students how to tackle standardized tests.

Most importantly, from our perspective, doing this test prep work does not mean turning away from rigorous literacy and high-quality learning. Just as it’s part of our job to make this explicit practice a regular part of our instruction, so too is it part of our job to do so in the most meaningful way possible.

That’s why each of our informational text units includes opportunities for students to both learn about and take ownership of the issues that shape their realities and to practice answering the kinds of questions they’ll see on standardized tests. Check out our website for sample units and resources for developing your own lessons and units that can help you maximize your instructional time no matter how soon the next standardized test is.

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