Teaching to the Test: When is Enough Actually Enough?

On March 15, 2016, my Monroe County School Board got into a discussion regarding  whether the district was encouraging “teaching to the test” by going to extraordinary measures preparing students for Advanced Placement exams (you can listen to the discussion at 1:15:00).  Our board chair, Andy Griffiths suggested “teaching to the test shouldn’t be something that is dirty or, say, that’s wrong…” The board goes on to discuss situations where they might find this appropriate (in this case, a driver’s test or and AP test where “the point of the class is to pass the test”) and where it might be inappropriate (preparing to take a multiple choice, standardized exam).

Monroe County is not alone.  The discussion regarding whether teaching to the test is ever an acceptable practice is becoming more common place, with more and more “pro-teach to the test” opinions being voiced.  I find it difficult to imagine that any of these conversations would have occurred amongst educators 20 years ago, before NCLB and other reforms placed performance on the state assessment front and center, tying teacher and school evaluations to the scores, and public school curriculum began to be corrupted by its influence.

Even David Coleman, the architect of Common Core, has said that “it’s a statement of reality, though not a pretty one….  which is that teachers will teach to the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that.” (His comments can be seen here.)   He went on the encourage test makers to create standardized assessments “worthy of being taught to.”

We  believe that, in this current high stakes testing environment, the ugly truth is that Mr. Coleman is right, but for all the wrong reasons.  “Teaching to the Test” has become an acceptable practice because of VAM and school grades; each are tremendously dependent on the scores from high stakes test.  While we all innately understand that a score for a single test should not and cannot be a true reflection of any child’s abilities, our accountability system insists that these same scores be used to calculate teacher pay (VAM) and on school grades.  Everything trickles down from there. Teaching to the test is a direct result of Accountabaloney.

When does “teaching to the test” go too far or, in our test focused world, is ALL “teaching to the test” now considered acceptable?

This week, a parent from Manatee County shared a letter (dated February 25, 2016) she had received from Bayshore Elementary. Imagine a world where the test obsession has become so common place that a school would find this acceptable. This is Florida’s reality:

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This school has chosen to drastically change the way they grade weekly math and reading tests, knowing children’s grades will drop. They have also eliminated science and social studies classes, choosing to teach that content via reading passages and use the “extra” time for remediation (essentially more test prep). The school states they “have no choice” and they thank parents for their understanding and for “being a partner in your child’s education.”

Comments in response to the sharing of this letter suggest this is a widespread practice, not limited to this one school. They also suggests that parents might not be willing “partners” in this latest assault on their child’s education:

-“When exactly will they be doing ACTUAL science and social studies? Not just using nonfiction and science texts in reading lessons? Has it come to this? Where we just aren’t teaching science or history anymore? I’m flabbergasted.”

-“My son has science and social studies this year. They stopped science and only have done interactive lessons since January. My son doesn’t get to do social studies because of interventions. Someone suggested I should just teach him social studies myself. There should be no reason why a child’s day is so busy that they have to skip out on learning certain subjects.”

-“They have been “teaching to the test” with worksheet after worksheet of math & reading since the beginning of the year!!”

-“My son did those stupid worksheets last year. They were called Countdown to the FSA. He did fine on the regular work sheets, but once he did those he did horribly. I don’t know what path I’m taking as far as school next year. I can’t take much more of this including common core.”

My own son attends a school where, when I questioned a perceived decrease in time scheduled for science instruction this year, I was told by the principal that “science is being taught through reading passages.” Heavy sigh.

It seems that parents are waking up to the fact that “teaching to the test” may have, in fact, gone too far, WAY too far. Far enough to violate the law? This letter from Bayshore Elementary appears to document that they are, in fact, in blatant violation of Florida Statute.

In the early days of education reform, Florida legislators were concerned enough about excessive test prep and narrowed curriculum and “teaching to the test” to pass F.S. 1008.22(3)(f):

(f) Prohibited activities.A district school board shall prohibit each public school from suspending a regular program of curricula for purposes of administering practice assessments or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities for a statewide, standardized assessment.

Bayshore Elementary appears to have suspended a regular program of curriculum (science and social studies) for the directly stated purpose of preparing for the FSA, in direct violation of Florida Statute.

F.S. 1008.22(3)(f) goes on to say there are some allowable test preparation activities:

However, a district school board may authorize a public school to engage in the following assessment-preparation activities:

1. Distributing to students sample assessment books and answer keys published by the Department of Education.
2. Providing individualized instruction in assessment-taking strategies, without suspending the school’s regular program of curricula, for a student who scores Level 1 or Level 2 on a prior administration of an assessment.
3. Providing individualized instruction in the content knowledge and skills assessed, without suspending the school’s regular program of curricula, for a student who scores Level 1 or Level 2 on a prior administration of an assessment or a student who, through a diagnostic assessment administered by the school district, is identified as having a deficiency in the content knowledge and skills assessed.
4. Administering a practice assessment or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities that are determined necessary to familiarize students with the organization of the assessment, the format of assessment items, and the assessment directions or that are otherwise necessary for the valid and reliable administration of the assessment, as set forth in rules adopted by the State Board of Education with specific reference to this paragraph.

I’d like to draw attention to number 4, allowing the administration of a practice assessment or other activities designed to “familiarize students with the organization of the assessment, the format of assessment items, and the assessment directions or that are otherwise necessary for the valid and reliable administration of the assessment.” Parents, ask your kids how many practice tests they have taken in preparation to this year’s FSA. One student I asked has already spent precious class time taking SIX complete ELA-FSA practice tests this year. More shocking than that was the fact that this eight grader saw nothing wrong with that. She has become so accustomed to test prep she recognizes it as a regular part of instruction. The law allows practice tests ONLY to familiarize students with the assessment, clearly SIX practice tests is excessive for that purpose.

Please notice that it is the responsibility of your local school board to “prohibit each public school from suspending a regular program of curricula for purposes of administering practice assessments or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities for a statewide, standardized assessment.” I will be questioning adherence to F.S.1008.22 in my district with my school board. I encourage the parents at Bayshore Elementary, and every other school in violation of F.S. 1008.22, to contact their school boards and demand their schools comply with F.S. 1008.22 and stop the practice of substituting test prep for curriculum.  Our children deserve better.

When I first saw the “Bayshore post”, my own response was: “This is when you realize the “teach to the test” has gone too far and the priorities of your school are messed up.” To which a teacher replied:

“OR maybe it’s a cry for help from the school to the parents. Many parents don’t know just how bad it is. We teachers can’t change things on our own, we need parents to be educated and involved, also. The idealist in me hopes this is the case.”

I too, hope this is the case.

Bayshore has notified parents that their children will suffer lower grades in an attempt to demonstrate how students are expected to perform on the FSA; science and social studies will be replaced by remediation; and the school feels they have “no choice” in the matter. If this is an attempt to open parents eyes to “just how bad it is” (as my commenter suggested) than I encourage all schools to join in.

The “Bayshore letter” is a clear example of how focusing almost entirely on math and reading scores is resulting in the narrowing of curriculum.  In this case, science and social studies are virtually eliminated. How many other parts of a well rounded education have been eliminated as our schools have become more and more focused on state test score performance?

The conversation should not be about whether teaching to the test is okay but WHY we suddenly feel the need to defend such practices. The state test will NEVER be “worthy of teaching to” because it is not designed to assess students but to rank/punish/reward teachers and schools.  As long as the high stakes are attached to the tests, the tests will be taught to and educating the whole child will remain a memory. Parents need to demand attention to the whole child (not just their math and reading scores) and demand the amount of transparency Bayshore has provided its parents. Parents need to know how their children’s education is being disrupted.

Bayshore has issued their “cry for help”. It is time for everyone to intervene. Contact your school boards. Demand they follow F.S. 1008.22.

“Everyone should be outraged because it is outrageous.” – Florida Senator Dwight Bullard

 

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