Teaching FOR the Test

I've been slowly surfacing from the immense work that Race to the Top has created for me to breathe some digital air once again.  Jumping back into Twitter and catching up with Google Reader - it's been interesting to note that my larger digital network is closely mirroring my smaller personal network in terms of questions and anxiety.

Watching the TweetDeck announcements pop up as I work this afternoon, one article in particular caught my eye: March Madness Begins in Our Schools: It's Test Prep Time.  Those who know me well know that this is one of my biggest pet peeves!  And I am hoping by posting here that it will prompt my partner in crime (Jenn - that's you!) to post about the wonderful webinars she has been hosting lately.  But what really struck me was the experience of an upstate NY teacher (who I really hope wasn't one of mine!)

"We had a whole day inservice on Data Driven Instruction in which we were told the great benefits of using data to frame our instruction. This training was provided by our BOCES Center (a cooperative group that each school pays money to in order to get services a lower rate) and the presenter said "The TEST is where you start. When you know what's on the test, then you can frame your instruction based on the test." So, in NY - we should apparently be using the 3 - 8 ELA and Math tests to frame our instruction. Here's the problem - the test 'data' isn't in a teacher's hands until the beginning of the following school year. So, first how do you use data on last year's students to frame the instruction for the new batch of students?"

Now - I'd like to clarify a few things from just this paragraph alone (I might feel the need to clarify the other paragraphs as well so be prepared!)

1. Data can greatly inform your instruction.  But not the "autopsy" data of the NYSED assessments. First of all, those assessments are now secure so any real information we could get from them is no longer possible.  Real time data of interim and formative assessments can be extremely valuable to give us information about what our students know and can do and how we as teachers need to change up our instruction.   If we ignore the use of that data it is the equivalent of ignoring the student who can't read who sits in front of us.

2. Starting with the test is not a bad place to start.  If you subscribe to the notion (and I do!) of starting with the end in mind, then we should start with the summative assessment for the end of the course.  What are the priorities of the state/creator of the assessment? Do they match the instructional priorities that we have? What is the design of the test? Do we ask similar types of questions?  Are our students prepared for the vocabulary of the assessment?

All too often after understanding the demands of the assessment, I sit with teachers to review the assessments they typically use during the course of the year.  They do not always match!  The questions asked are not similar - the types of text are not similar - little is similar!!  It isn't so much about what is on the test, but how that test is designed that we should be using to help guide us.

3. Know what your students know! Each year, my students would tell me what they "knew" about U.S. History at the beginning of the year.  No test, no essay - just a brain dump of what they remembered since in theory they had been exposed to it multiple times before I had them in middle school.  Prior to each unit, I had some sort of pre-assessment to learn what they knew about the content of the unit.  This helped me to know where I needed to spend more time or less time than planned.  And it helped to pinpoint some common misconceptions (once again, the Emancipation Proclamation freed NO slaves people!)  But when working with teachers on assessment and having them reflect on their assessment moments, a pre-assessment rarely comes up. 

You don't need timely data from the state to know what your students know - you need a pre-assessment! Oh and guess what - it should also align to the summative assessment.

When I tell teachers to not teach to the test - I mean it!  Having the 3 month unit titled "Test Prep" does not benefit anyone.  Neither do multiple administrations of "practice tests" without real conversations about the results between teachers and with students.  But teaching FOR the test - that is another story. 

It is our professional responsibility to understand the summative assessment demands on our students - both State and district assessments.  We need to understand the types of questions that will be asked, the vocabulary that will be used and how the assessment should be scored.  We should be exposing students to similar assessments throughout the course of the year so that they are prepared when they sit down on the day of the test.  We should know the length of the assessment and work on the perseverance of our students - particularly as they encounter unfamiliar questions and as they have to write by hand! 

This means we need to change how we assess during the school year and most importantly, what we do with our own assessment results.  The power of using this data to guide our instruction will not only increase student achievement as we are more responsive to the students sitting before us, it will make use more effective teachers!  And regardless of the state of the accountability system for teachers - isn't this why we entered the profession in the first place?