A Teacher Cries out Over the Damage of Test Prep

This comes thanks to the blogger EduShyster. Since the MA Statement Against High-Stakes Testing prompted some discussion of test prep, I thought people would be interested in a  more close to the ground description of this widespread phenomenon:


Testing, Testing


By anonymous

The memo came last week. The latest district directive clearly laid out the course of literacy “instruction” for the next three weeks. We will immediately put our reading series on hold and use sample items from the MCAS, the Massachusetts high-stakes test, to better prepare the students who will soon be taking them. Students will read the passages independently, annotate the text, and answer the questions. Teachers are expected to analyze the responses to identify and address areas of weakness, while also teaching effective test taking strategies. This will be done everyday during the time that used to be spent on reading and writing.

I have a major problem with this. Test prep, in moderation, can help students understand the format and strategies involved in taking a standardized test, but this is overkill. Two hours a day, for three weeks. 600 minutes a week. 1,800 minutes over the course of three weeks. That’s a lot of valuable time to spend practicing test-taking, especially when we’ve already bubbled in a boatload of district assessments this year.

Spending weeks working with black and white photocopies of MCAS tests will not engage or motivate my students. Instruction based on drill and kill is a mind-numbing and frustrating experience. And I don’t think they learn very much other than how important the test is to their school.  I cannot inspire a passion for learning when I am training kids, rather than teaching them.

We do this because we operate in a reality where test scores are used to make big decisions for our struggling urban district. Intense pressure to raise scores drives administrators to seek quick fixes and simple solutions to very complex issues. I understand the instinct to survive and the panicked reaction to try for one last boost. I get it. Teachers feel the same anxiety. But the goal of education is learning, not testing. We have either forgotten this or rationalized our way around it. The last line of the memo reads, “We are hoping it will help our students perform better on the assessment”. Nothing in this admission suggests we are in the business of creating lifelong learners and thinkers. There is no room for the messy process of discovery, and there is no time for the valuable experience of allowing students to fail and learn from their mistakes.

My students and their parents trust me to provide the very best education I can. The moral dilemma I am faced with is that this type of instruction is not my best. I didn’t become a teacher so that someday I could teach to the test. All the great lessons I dreamed of teaching, or once taught, remain in the back of my mind, waiting for the dawn of common sense.

I can’t help but wonder if the kids in Wellesley and Weston are subjected to this type of teaching. Many of our students are dealing with social-emotional issues, homelessness, neglect, abuse, and the chronic stress associated with poverty. So our scores tend to be fairly low.  Does anyone really believe these children will be better off with this type of school experience? We sweep the real issues under the rug, and we use trendy words like “rigor” and “grapple”, but we aren’t fooling anyone (well, maybe a few people). This is more about us, the adults, and the political diatribe than it is about our kids.

Anonymous is a teacher in an urban school in Massachusetts. Do you have a story to tell? Send it to tips@edushyster.com.



7 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. This IS overkill...

    …and exactly the kind of teaching to the test I find frustrating and unnecessary. Why could they not have at least applied test skills and strategies to what the class was already reading as opposed to putting it aside? There’s also way too much time being spent according to this diary. “Test prep” should be integrated into what is already there in a way that students can’t even really tell they are being prepared for the test. At least that’s how it worked when I was in HS for both PSAT/SATs and AP exams.

    • When you have a one size fits all situation...

      …and that is the unintended consequence of tying MCAS to graduation and creating a teach to the test mentality. The ideal situation is thrown out the window and the reality of a high-stakes test three weeks away takes hold. Your test perp example when you took PSAT/SATs / AP is not a good comparison. You, and the school system, did not have graduation on the line when you took those tests.

      • I really don't get...

        …the you didn’t have graduation on the line argument. I for one wanted to get into college and even better get out of a couple of classes at least as much as graduation. Besides, students should do their best on EVERY assignment, regardless of stakes. This reminds me of when I substitute teach and the kids ask, “Will this be graded?” or, “Does this count as a test?” My response is, “I don’t know (I often honestly don’t.) and frankly I don’t care; you do your best work regardless and don’t get lazy on me because you think this might not count anyway.”

        • talking past each other

          I think you need to understand the culture that the MCAS requirements is creating within the school systems. Suppose you were a manufacturing manager at Spacely Sprockets and were told that your department’s evaluation would be based on how shiny the sprockets were when they rolled off the production line. Not how well made they were, how efficiently you produced them, but only on their shine. Even if you felt that making a good product efficiently was the right thing to do, when your raise and the raise of everyone who worked for you, when even your job was on the line, you’d make sure above all else that those sprockets are shiny.

          That is what educators, even in the “good” districts, are up against. In their case, “shiny” is “MCAS scores”. You can talk about how it “should” be all you want, but this is the reality.

          • MCAS scores aren't shiny.

            They are measurable numbers, much more akin to how well made a product is. Do you not test the sprockets for quality control and make sure they actually work as intended? I don’t accept your reality; I insist because of my experience that there are other ways, but yes that attitude does need to start further up the proverbial food chain than the classroom teacher.

            • still talking past

              In the metaphor, shiny IS a desirable quality of the product (don’t dwell too much on “shiny” – pick another aspect if it makes it sink in better) – it just doesn’t capture the whole picture of what a well made sprocket should be and therefore should not have so much emphasis in the evaluation of the product.

              MCAS is the same thing in the Massachusetts public education world. Good scores are desirable, but they now have a disproportionate sway over the evaluation of students, educators, and school systems. And because of that, we get the “teaching to the test” syndrome.


  2. Wait until September if Level 3 schools are left spinning & turning around!

    “Teachers feel the same anxiety” I feel your pain, and teachers across the state are going to feel it even more next year when their evaluations will include their students test scores! Especially teachers in urban districts if Boston’s Mayor Menino’s legislation “An Act to Promote Public School Success” to turn Level 3 schools into “turnaround schools” passes. Fifty percent of Teachers across the state, working at Level 3 schools, will be doing the “march of the penguins” to another school as part of “turnaround.” Imagine what it is going to do to test scores when half of the faculty at a school is gone! Many urban students look toward their Teachers to provide the stability they don’t have at home. Teachers will be test prepping from day 1!

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Tue 25 Apr 12:55 AM