Teaching to the Test – And Other Fine-Lines

As educators, we are constantly challenged with a balancing act – the understanding of where the fine-line is, and the awareness of when to cross it, and when not to. Sometimes is it just a hold-your-breath-and-go scenario, kind of like pulling out onto a blind intersection. You don’t see anyone coming, you don’t hear anyone coming, but are you SURE you will not cause an accident if you pull out?? Not really, but there comes a time, when you just gotta pull out because it is in the best interest of the journey you are set out to accomplish.

When faced with everyday decisions, most of the time, the fine line crossing is instinctual. You know whether or not you should cross it and what the repercussions will be. You weigh them out silently, quickly as you reason the risk-to-student-need ratio in your thoughts while you troubleshoot whatever the issue is that had arisen. It could be a student asking to see the nurse for an upset belly after buses have already been called, but they have been noticeably “fine” all day. Do I hold the buses up and get put on the nurse’s and administrator’s bad side when she just sends Susie riding the bus anyway? Or, do I send Susie on the bus, and call home to let the parent know Susie just let me know at dismissal that she was under the weather and risk her getting ill on the bus?  Well, this being an actual situation, I sent the student on the bus. She had not said anything about being ill all day, had played outside at recess, eaten lunch, etc. I asked anything I could think of at the time that could help me make my decision. Still, a big MISTAKE! The bus never even made it out of the bus loop. Worse off, no custodians responded to the call, so the principal had to clean up the mess. I was hearing about this from many ends that day! The parent took another additional half hour to get a hold of and another hour to get to the school to pick up the student. Simple fine line? Not that day.

What about dealing with Johnny for not having his homework for the 3rd time in the same week when school policy is a detention write-up, but you know his homelife is in a general upheaval? Teacher’s discretion, right? Know thy students, I say! But what about district policy? When is it OK to undermine it? Will it set that student up for failure when it has another teacher the following year who is not as forgiving? I have been told this, too. 

What about modifying assessments to meet the needs of a student who does not have an IEP but who noticeably struggles with multiple choice common assessments, but shows they understand the skill perfectly in different ways? Personal opinion, look back at the goals and standards. Does it say anything about having to show success by answering multiple choice questions successfully? I doubt it! It is all about the skill, or it should be. I understand assessment has its place, but who is to say one form of assessment should be the only form? Why are so many districts so set on these common assessments as a form of GRADING? I get using them for data-informed decisions for benchmarking, but not GRADING. Grading to me should be reflective of where a student is on a skill at that given time. If they knowingly perform high throughout a unit, but low on a unit test, I WILL reassess them because something was off, and it wasn’t them. It was likely the assessment and how they connected to it. Sometimes it is just a bad day. I sometimes have kids retest on a different day, and that alone can be a miracle of a difference. Sometimes it is the format. So I can look at that too. Was the assessment format different than what the lessons were? If so, that is not their fault. That is mine. Students will learn what I teach and I need to teach what they need to learn. Many can adapt to a format change, but for those who cannot, I need to be adaptive for them. That is MY job!

So this is where I fall on “teaching to the test.” It’s another fine line, but yes I do it. YES I DO IT – loud and proud. I do not sit there verbatim or anything silly like that, but I am a third grade teacher. It is the first year students take state testing. If I do not do things as silly as practice filling in bubbles, many of my students would fail. How crazy would that be? All the knowledge and ability they have, and they fail because they cannot fill in a bubble?!

Also, of course is content. I love being involved in curriculum development teams in my district. If I am not, I don’t have the time of day to go through all the latest and greatest releases from the state on their core standards. I also truly enjoy pulling them apart and having a deeper understanding of what my students need to know. As I pull apart standards, my gears are on overdrive to figure out how they overlap with what our programs have vs. what they lack and how I will need to supplement. Much of the year is very typically structured through unit plans and interest-based projects that criss-cross standards, but as testing season approaches, SAS from the PDE website becomes my best friend. It is loaded with assessment-maker tools and released items from past PSSAs. I am sorry to say, I am not very environmentally friendly, as I print many packets as well.

You see, I was not a strong test-taker in my school days. Actually, I was so poor, that due to testing scores in sixth grade, I was placed in the lowest leveled classes in Middle school. I was receiving straight A’s in this deemed “appropriate” course work for nearly a year before it was seen that I was not where I needed to be and was moved higher on the rungs of the adopted leveling system (right around 1990). In high school standardized testing wasn’t an issue until later years. I was in NHS, took Dual Enrollment courses, and challenged myself with a few AP courses (but never took the AP tests), yet I never scored higher than 1,000 combined SAT. I gladly went to and graduated from a local state university with dual degrees, cum laude, but could not get accepted into grad school due to a low GRE. I was finally allowed in on waiver, and probation, and graduated magna cum laude. Testing isn’t everything – but yet our society makes it everything! With testing, I was road blocked every time. Without testing, I felt unstoppable! 

As a teacher, because of my personal struggles, I have made it my mission to help kids learn testing strategies young. No one ever taught me how to take a test. Yes, there is a how for many kids, and they need to be shown how. If someone does not fuse what they know (skills) to the how (strategies), some kids will not make it even though they have every tool they need to do so! That. Is. Not. Fair. Yes, I teach to the test. LOUD AND PROUD. 

 

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