I remember it so clearly. An employee of the management company my former school hired for oversight was calling my department out on the carpet for the lack of test prep we had administered the previous year. He pulled up a slide that had the amount of time they expected our English Department to spend preparing our students for the state test as well as the testing target we were supposed to hit. He asked, in front of all the entire staff, if we had met the time requirement for test prep. “Nope,” I said, trying to hide my excitement, “but our students surpassed the goal for the state test.” He had not looked at the data and did not know how well our students performed on the test. I went on to explain that our department surpassed the goal because we spent valuable instruction time building our students’ skills, and not on test prep.
Tests are an important part of the educational process. There are, however, sound and unsound approaches to ready your student for a test. For example, if your job was to teach a student to master the piano, and you knew that the final test for your student was to perform Frederic Chopin’s “Prelude in E-minor” you would not focus solely on that one piece for the duration of your young pupil’s entire schooling. No, your job is to teach your student the width and breadth of piano playing; to encourage her as her fingers fumble through the most basic of motions; to teach her how to read sheet music; to foster a love for the piano, and its long history; to place her in challenging scenarios where she will have to persevere, because if you only taught your student to play “Prelude in E-minor” you would have a student who could only play one Chopin piece, and not a piano player.
Now, imagine if your piano teaching career depended upon whether or not your student could play that Chopin piece. Schools are faced with a similar scenario. Principals and Superintendents of schools who underperform on state tests may lose their jobs. The stress of underperforming can trickle down to the teachers and create a culture of uncertainty and constant interventions and change.
Well-meaning schools, who know what state scores mean to them as an institution, must decide how much instructional time they are willing to spend preparing students for state tests. The worst schools throw money at the problem, buying products and curriculum that promise to prepare students for their state tests and devote too much instructional time to test prep and even test taking. The problem is that these products often focus on test prep in isolation and are seldom as engaging as they promise to be. Many of these programs administer countless tests meant to prepare student to take the state test. Curriculum is important, but you can’t rely on it to teach students. Curriculum to a teacher is like a hammer to a carpenter--it is necessary, but only as effective as the teacher who wields it. Curriculum was never meant to supplant the wisdom and expertise of the teacher. Yet many schools, especially online schools, treat it like a magic bullet.
Good schools reserve instructional time for learning and keep the amount of test prep and test taking as low as they can for their students. A 2015 study found that, “the average student in America’s big-city public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of 12th grade — an average of about eight a year, the study says. That eats up between 20 and 25 hours or more every school year, the study says. As for the results, they often overlap. On top of all that are teacher-written tests, sometimes taken by students along with standardized tests in the very same subject.” Tests are meant to show what the students learn. The 20-25 hours spent taking tests is time when the student is not learning new things. More importantly, tests tend to sap the student of the joy of learning. Oftentimes a student who does not do well on a test will internalize his or her shortcomings and think of his or herself as unintelligent.
Good schools also do their due diligence in hiring good teachers, and they empower and trust the teachers to help students build the self-efficacy and skills needed not just for the state test, but for life beyond school. What emphasizing skills means is prioritizing class time to help students build those important skills, placing students in situations where they must decide how to use those skills, and fostering in them a curiosity and genuine love for learning. If instructional time is reserved for learning, if teachers are supported, and if skills and authentic learning are prioritized over “award winning” products, then the state test scores will take care of themselves.