February 12, 2014


The Pleasures Of 'Teaching To the Test' : Many of my fellow teachers abhor standardized testing, yet the skills it requires are good for students--and teachers. (JAMES SAMUELSON, Feb. 12, 2014, WSJ)

First, standardized tests are a critical thinker's dream. Multiple-choice questions often ask students to evaluate evidence and make inferences. Consider a sample multiple-choice question for the New York State English Language Arts test, which is administered in the public schools. It asks students to identify the tone of a paragraph excerpted from Andrew Carnegie's "The Gospel of Wealth" (1889).

Students must closely read the author's choice of words and phrases so as not to choose plausible but incorrect suggested answers such as "humble," and instead zero in on the correct response, "confident." The ability to do so takes intense focus, stamina and, perhaps most importantly, practice.

Questions such as these are not based on a test-taker's ability to memorize facts--a major criticism invoked by test-taking opponents--but a student's analytical prowess. Close reading to determine the connotation of words and phrases is not merely a test-taking skill. It is a skill needed for a fulfilling, literate life. And it's a skill that students can learn, if teachers are willing to teach them. [...]

[H]ere in New York City there is no citywide English curriculum. The result is a Balkanization of what is taught in the classrooms. An English teacher of a certain age might want to indulge his youthful memories by having students listen to the antiwar anthems of Buffalo Springfield and Pete Seeger. A younger teacher might want her students to share their favorite songs by Miley Cyrus and Shakira, provided that they supply their peers with lyric sheets.

Given these circumstances, it may be easier to understand why such teachers would opt against giving up such "deeper learning" to, instead, take on the dreary task of walking 30 students through how word choice shapes the tone of a passage written more than 100 years ago.

Students acquire test-taking skills through discipline, through routine. They also learn how to reason by following a progression of ideas in connected, logical order. But the need for discipline, for routine, would require teachers to cut down on the practice of flitting about from one unconnected topic to another.

As teachers take them through the steps needed to make inferences, to determine the intent of the use of figurative language, or to understand an author's motive behind a piece of writing, students learn much more than just skills at taking tests. Many teachers might be surprised to learn how much their students enjoy getting the right answer after carefully analyzing a text and the enthusiasm it generates for tackling the next question. They might also come to appreciate knowing what they need to teach--every day.

Students learn vital skills by preparing for tests, a fact of life even acknowledged by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina. Ms. Farina is known to be skeptical of using standardized testing to measure educational performance, but as she told the New York Times NYT +0.28%  last month, "Life is a series of tests in many ways."

Posted by at February 12, 2014 7:47 PM

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