Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Like Poetry Or Fiction, School Teaches Standardized Testing As Literary Genre

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The Chetham Library, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

In most schools, kids learn about the literary genres of historical fiction, poetry, autobiographies and memoirs. But one Bloomington charter school has added another genre to its curriculum: standardized testing.

In the buildup to the statewide tests Indiana students started taking this week, educators walked a tightrope between helping kids meet state standards and teaching to the test.

But educators at The Project School in Bloomington say they’ve effectively stepped off the tightrope: Why teach to the test when you can teach about the test?

Stan Jastrzebski / WFIU

The Project School, a Bloomington charter.

“We have always taught genre studies… We see testing as a genre,” explains Heather Baron-Caudill, The Project School’s curriculum and instruction coach. “You have to know how to take a test, so to help kids know what’s expected of them, we want them to know what kinds of questions come up. But we’re not going to spend the year learning how to take a test.”

Baron-Caudill says The Project School teaching test-taking in the same way it would teach reading and writing poetry, for example, serves a practical purpose. Just as students gain knowledge from understanding poetic conventions of rhythm and meter, she tells StateImpact, students must have a practical understanding of testing conventions:

Kids learn what a prompt looks like, what they’re looking for when they write a prompt — not only so they pass ISTEP or IREAD. In our world, you have to be able to write to a prompt you have to be able to do what somebody else expects of you in the moment they expect it of you — going to a job interview, going to write your college applications, your essays to get into college. So we want them to know what’s expected of them and be able to perform in any setting. We analyze testing with them and learn test-taking strategies… We want them to know how to be smart about taking a test. But we’re not going to spend time and energy teaching to the test.

Baron-Caudill laughs a little when I ask her whether the standardized testing unit just so happens to fall close to testing time. “Of course it does,” but the unit only lasts roughly two weeks, she says, allowing the school to get back to teaching its core material.

President Obama encouraged teachers to “stop teaching to the test” in his most recent State of the Union address. As Paul Bruno points out on This Week in Education, many schools have narrowed their curriculums, focusing more time on heavily-tested subjects — reading and math.

But as Cameron Rains — who leads elementary education at Monroe County Community Schools — told StateImpact in January, teaching to the test is a bad strategy:

People are setting up this false dichotomy, people are making these things mutually exclusive, and they don’t have to be. We can take kids to deeper richer levels of learning, and do better on the standardized tests, it’s not an either-or. Now certainly, could you cut corners and simply target short-term gains on standardized tests by just covering massive amounts of basic knowledge? Yeah, it’s possible. It would be a mistake. Do we run that risk? Yes. But we’ve all got to be aware of that and make sure we combat against it by doing what’s right by kids.


  • inteach

    “We analyze testing with them and learn test-taking strategies…”

    Do you test them on test taking strategies?

    In due respect…this is utter nonsense….just mumbo-jumbo for ISTEP preparation.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Wondering if anyone else wants to weigh in on inteach’s point…

      Does this just sound to anyone else like a pretty way of saying, ‘We teach kids test-taking strategies?’ Or is there some substantive value to an analytical study of what testing is and what’s truly being asked of a student, as Baron-Caudill suggests?

      • Douglas Storm

        If the outcome of testing is the measure then we are disingenuous when we command, thou shalt not teach to the test. That’s absurd. If I have a project due for work, I do the work that will make the end successful. If we don’t want education to be the handmaiden of the testing industrial complex that serves ideologies then we must say “no” to these types of mandates and coercive tactics.

        I think Baron-Caudill is likely telling a kind of tale BUT I think it’s a smart one. Testing is indeed a “topic” to study. I think it’s a great idea.

        Here is a truth of all education: We instruct what the society approves. As we have come to allow “experts” in appointed political position to dictate this then it is as much “education” to discuss how this happens. That is “real life” content isn’t it?

        How many know that Dale Chu wants to force the Mind Trust “Plan” for IPS into the rest of the state? Should that not be part of our education? That power pushes its agenda.

        When should kids learn that they are not in school to “discover” and “develop” but to be managed by the state in the Interests of the “men of the moment”?

        I digress. I agree with her tactic. If I know that writing a “standard” sentence is the way I present myself as “employable” is that not “test instruction” as well.

        • Just another pawn

          Exactly. If your job–and your family’s welfare–depends on students continually increasing their scores on deeply flawed tests, of course you’re going to do whatever you can to do the job the politicians tell you to do. It doesn’t matter what anyone calls it, it’s not education; it’s training, as if our children were so many dogs in Pavlov’s lab. People like Tony Bennett, Jeb Bush, and Arne Duncan want public schools to be left with only the students who, for whatever reason, aren’t one of their elite in their profiteering “schools” to be rote-thinking robots that are easily manipulated by them.

          • ParentsforFairTesting

            Wow. So true. I worry that a school that calls test taking skills a “genre” is hiding behind what they are really doing, which is teaching to the test. I also worry that as teachers, administrators propagate this “genre” propaganda word game they are personally compromised by their compliance with the standard-based reform testing market. The schools (teachers and administrators) are put in a position where they are required to do this testing and thus have to play mind games with themselves to justify what they are doing. “Oh we teach it as a genre” some how takes away the evil of this obsession with trying to put an arbitrary number on a child’s learning. It is clear that testing interferes with their true mission as educators. This school indicates it’s mission is to end the predictive value of race, class, gender, different abilities, yet we know clearly that the testing serves to profile these students who are marginalized

          • mgarden

            Is there ANY objective measuring system that these responders would support so that we could see if teachers and the educational establishment are being successful? Or shall we just use Ouija boards and trust that all teachers are equally brilliant?

          • Douglas Storm

            No. Why do you think there would be? Is there anything as maddeningly various as life? As various as life as human in among other humans? It is as if people (you?) believe that the human has as its primary mode of being and justification measurement. What is the purpose of the measure to folks such as yourself?

          • kystokes

            The arguments in favor of testing as objective measurement seem to boil down to closing the socioeconomic achievement gap. How do you address the gap between “rich” and “poor” / “privileged” and “unprivileged” kids without being able to measure the gap?… Is there a way to address the issue without using data / measurements / testing?

          • Douglas Storm

            education and poverty do not really belong together. Education has be described in the way you suggest above as a kind of “leveling” devise for economic opportunity but this has never been shown to be true. Of course there are always the bright shiny examples that “prove” it’s possible to move up the ladder via the application of study and discipline. But these are traits of temperament and luck more than “opportunity of learning.”

            Poverty needs to be addressed but it cannot be because we “scapegoat” education as the thing that is supposed to fix capitalism’s force of might as right.

            To eradicate poverty you have to care about people and jobs and welfare as way tot share opportunity and learning in as equitable a way as possible.

            This is similar to the situation of world poverty and hunger–the world is easily fed and easily made comfortable if the wealthiest people and nations were not rapacious in their accumulation of wealth and power. If we did not privilege the idea that wealth was equal to intrinsic worth. For the world to be a better place and for education to even begin to be a place that fosters an equality of learning we would need all the wealthiest people and governments to give away vast sums of wealth and control and resources to the people and governments they’ve stolen those things from.

            It is the same situation in education.

            Measurements only allow a dominant force to create the tests, grade the tests, interpret the tests, and then propose the fix for any “gap.” The fix always benefits those who create the measure. Always.

      • sugarcoatingtests

        I personally think that her response is watered-down and surface level. This is all sugar coating. I wonder, do they also have two weeks to spend on reviewing the results of the test and teach kids how to “read and understand” what the results mean?

        I’d love to see what their “strategies” are that they are teaching kids. Do they not take tests during the school year? Couldn’t test taking strategies be taught throughout the year? Wow – two weeks to study testing strategies. Here’s what Obama thinks of that:

        “One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math,” the president said. “All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting.”

        The president endorsed the occasional administering of standardized tests to determine a “baseline” of student ability. He said his daughters Sasha, 9, and Malia, 12, recently took a standardized test that didn’t require advance preparation. Instead, he said, it was just used as a tool to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses. The girls attend the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

        The problem with his statement and what is happening in public schools is that these tests aren’t just being used as baselines of student ability. They are used against the school – so I guess schools feel compelled to “study or prepare” for the test – so they can “try” to keep their doors open. But it is a mistake to think cramming “how to take a test” two weeks prior is going to help students be more successful – I actually think it will decrease passing results due to all the stress put on the kids leading up to the test (especially for younger students in third grade.)

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