Indiana

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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?

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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.

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