Thursday, March 31, 2011

Does Test-Prep Make Sense?

If you drop by a Michigan middle school mathematics classroom this September, chances are you will find yourself in the middle of test-prep instruction. October brings the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), our high-stakes standardized test, and schools want to ensure that their pupils are adequately prepared. The test-prep instruction usually entails one part content, one part test-taking strategies, and one part cheerleading.

This is not the relationship between instruction and assessment conceptualized in the Teaching-Learning Cycle. The role of assessment is to gather data about learners’ progress toward predetermined educational goals. Current educational policy stresses standardized tests, however, which stresses out administrators and teachers. Consequently, the MEAP becomes master of instruction rather than partner.

I rallied against this test-prep situation (and other standardized testing practices) for years, to no avail. The stakes were too high for anyone to consider an alternative. It was at a Michigan Reading Association Conference that I found a possible answer. (I learn a lot at this conference.) Patrick Allen led a session on developing deep, long thinkers in the time of standardized testing based on a book he had co-authored, Put Thinking to the Test. I thought that these ideas could reframe test-prep.

Put Thinking to the Test applies the research on proficient readers to taking tests. In other words, it treats standardized tests as a specific genre which readers can make sense of using well-documented comprehension strategies. Each strategy is addressed in a chapter demonstrating how it can be applied to a standardized test. From the table of contents:
  • Ask Questions

  • Create Mental Images

  • Draw Inferences

  • Synthesize New Learning and Ideas

  • Activate, Utilize, and Build Background Knowledge (Schema)

  • Determine the Most Important Ideas and Themes

  • Monitor for Meaning and Problem-Solve When Meaning Breaks Down

Even in test-prep, teachers can focus on fostering thinking rather than memorizing facts or practicing skills.

As a result of reading this book, I now have concrete approaches that teachers can use to return instruction to its rightful place in the Teaching-Learning Cycle. I share these approaches in the classes I teach for preservice and inservice teachers and in professional development workshops. I would love to share it with you, but first I need to know what questions and concerns you have about what I have written thus far. After all, asking questions is one of the essential comprehension strategies propelling our thinking forward.

1 comment:

  1. I'm interested in this topic as well, and your approach to it. It's kind of an extension of what I teach; the Alberta English curriculum is constantly expanding to include all forms or poetry, all forms of prose, all forms of visual text, and now of course digital text. Makes me wonder if 'tests' comprise another genre for us to learn how to read. As in, not teaching to the test, but teaching the test. It's weird to think about it that way.