Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Testing, Standards, and Good Teaching Practices

— Douglas Grudzina


We certainly seem to live and work in an alphabet soup (pardon the cliché) of standardized tests. You almost have to wonder where they all came from.

(Actually, we did do a neat little overview of the history of the SAT in May. The others just sort of snuck in over time, mostly in response to the 1980s panic that we had become A Nation at Risk).

Don’t get me wrong, I spent some of the best years of my teaching career helping to write state standards and assessment, and I (almost) wholeheartedly believe that there needs to be some kind of external audit of student achievement. Nonetheless, I will be the first one to admit that too much emphasis on “the Test,” and too little understanding of the intent of the standards can lead to some pretty awful abuses.

A case in point: Poof! Schools in Orlando Area, Other Districts Teaching Canned Phrases for FCAT Essays

Now, lest we be too quick to judge, and point accusing fingers at our friends in Florida, insisting that something like that could never happen in our state, let’s remember that every one of us in the classroom has faced text anxiety at one time or another; and threats of tying salary and job security to our students’ success on the Test does nothing to alleviate that anxiety (another discussion for another day).

But do many of us really believe that teaching our students a couple of pat phrases to toss into an essay is good writing instruction — or even good test preparation?

Clearly, the article is not talking about providing organizational templates like the five-paragraph format (which should be abandoned for more sophisticated structures no later than tenth grade!), or teaching and learning aids like frame paragraphs (which should also be abandoned as soon as possible). This article is clearly addressing the phenomenon of spoonfeeding the kids potboiler words and phrases: to score a 3 on your essay, use a sentence that begins with “Poof!” To score a 4, use the word kaleidoscope.

Officials can insist that such a practice is not “technically cheating,” but…come on. It’s the same kind of not-cheating as fasting on the day before your diet-group weigh-in, or showing up at your book club having read only the Cliff’s Notes. Yes, we want our kids to pass the test, but is passing the test the goal? The only goal? The most important goal?

Do we really believe that good writers will score badly on the test? Or do we simply want to mask the number of not-so-good-writers we have? Wouldn’t it be great if we could help those not-so-good writers become good writers?

Luckily, we can.

Good instruction—the kind that results in real student learning—and good test preparation—the kind that reduces test anxiety so that kids can really show what they’re able to do—are not mutually exclusive.

If test prep is your goal (and there is nothing wrong with priming your kids to reduce their anxiety), Prestwick House carries a large line of How to Prepare for the—Fill-in-Your-State-Test’s-Initials books. Each is written to its state’s standards and assessment. They’re all pretty affordable, too.

PWH also offers Excelling on the CAHSEE and Excelling on the FCAT. (Sorry about the other states with other initials; we’ll get to you eventually.)

If you’re in need of good materials for writing instruction—with strong implications for student success on standardized tests—we’ve got that too. If you haven’t looked at our Three Simple Truths and Six Essential Traits of Powerful Writing series, you need to. Book One encourages students to organize their essays along five-paragraph lines, but Book Two begins to wean them from that formula. And all four books provide instruction and practice in writing assessment-type essays.

We also offer Grammar for Writing and Maximum Impact, both of which have very successfully helped students develop the language skills at the root of high-scoring assessment essays. For more advanced students—those who are already likely to “pass” the test, but could possibly achieve top scores— Rhetorical Devices provides a much more effective means of spicing up your students’ writing than merely having them memorize and spit out a few key phrases every now and then.

So, whether your students are headed for the CSAP, the HSTEC, the PSSA, or the LMNOP, you don’t need to resort to questionable tactics that teach your students nothing more than that expedience trumps achievement. Take a look at one of our catalogues, browse our web site, or call one of our in-house curriculum experts at (800)-932-4593 and let’s find you the materials you need for your students to succeed.

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