Schools that cheat on provincial literacy or mathematics tests, as several did in Ontario, are admitting they can't meet the basic task of schools, which is to teach kids to read, think and solve problems. Thus the cheating illuminated the value of the tests. Some teachers are so panicked at having their students' understanding of the curriculum measured - and their own competence in teaching that curriculum - they succumbed to temptation.
Immediately, the critics were out in force. Good, they crowed, this is proof the tests are too much pressure for all involved. "No more teaching to the test!" came the cry from union leaders, opposition parties and others.
Let us dismiss, once and for all, the nonsensical notion of "teaching to the test." Let us dismiss it not with rhetoric but by taking a look at actual tests - for instance, the Grade 3 literacy tests in Ontario written last spring.
It begins with a 1½-page story that opens, "Just as the recess bell rang, James kicked the soccer ball. It sailed over the goalie's head and broke a light." Four multiple-choice questions follow to measure the pupils' understanding of what they read. Next come two essay-style questions, including, "Explain how the robins become an important part of the daily life of Mr. Handler's class. Use details from the text and your own ideas to support your answer." Next is a poem to read, followed by multiple-choice and essay questions. On a writing test, pupils are asked, "Write a paragraph about an imaginary machine you have invented. Explain how it works and what it can do."
What does "teaching to the test" mean in the context of this particular test? It means teaching children to make sense of what they read. It means asking children to draw meaning out of a text, not just regurgitate parts of that text. Pupils need to think creatively and express that thought in grammatical, properly spelled words on a page. There is nothing rote about this test. There are no facts to memorize, no drills that would help here. Teachers should teach to this test. That is their job.
Is it too much pressure when schools are asked to prepare their pupils to read a story and answer questions about it? If it is, we would be asking less of our schools and teachers than we ask of our children. Apparently it is too much pressure for some - like the Toronto principal who prematurely broke the cellophane seal on Grade 3 and 6 tests and photocopied them for teachers. That is the wrong kind of teaching to the test. It is an admission of failure.
The literacy tests that are now done across Canada show where pupils, and teaching practices, need improvement. When provinces and school boards provide the resources to improve those teaching practices, the pupils make gains. The tests have also helped create a welcome focus on reading and writing. At least two hours a day, or roughly 40 per cent of the typical public school day, in every province, are devoted to reading, being read aloud to, discussing books, sharing books, and writing. That is a massive and appropriate amount of teaching to the test.Report Typo/Error
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