Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Teaching to the test

I've been thinking a lot lately about teaching (now that I'm no longer teaching, ironically). When I was a teacher, tests were one of those necessary evils I couldn't stand.

Here's why. Before I started my first year of teaching, I was tutoring. I taught remedial Latin to three kids who had failed previous years. I decided to do them each one-on-one, for an hour a day, for four weeks. At the end of it, I could easily see that they had mastered their previous problem areas. I watched them translate, had them recite noun and verb charts, and had them explain to me what various grammatical concepts were.

Each kid asked near the end, "When is the test? When will I know what grade I got?"

I told them each the same thing, "When I am confident that you know the material, you won't need a test. I will give you an A and you can stop coming. But until you know the material, you're not getting out of here."

They were all pleased to hear it, because they'd all been doing well and were happy not to have to study for a test. It just seemed obvious to me that, working on-on-one with them, there was no need to have them write anything down because I could easily tell how they were doing.

When I started teaching in the classroom, there was no way around testing, though. I knew how a few vocal kids were doing, but what about the quiet ones around the edges? I would ask them questions and they would just look scared. Sometimes they'd answer and sometimes not. But either way, I felt I didn't have the time or attention to focus in on each individual child and find out how they were doing. Hence the tests. I had them really frequently so I would know right away if anyone was falling behind.

But you can't just test. In my ideal world, I'd spot-test: quick pop quizzes with two or three random questions from the day before. Then I'd know what they got and what I needed to reteach. But kids hate that, for one thing, and for another the grading would take forever (I saw 120 kids every day).

So I gave quizzes every week. I told them what would be on them and reminded them to study. Periodically there would be bigger tests, though I made the quizzes worth more, cumulatively, than the tests because I think day-to-day effort is more important than an end-of-quarter cram session.

But invariably, in the middle of a lecture I thought was interesting, I would here these six awful words:

"Will this be on the test?"

I hate those words. With a passion. I'm pretty sure every teacher does. It basically implies, "If this is not going to appear on the test, we don't have to listen."

My goal was to teach those kids to read Latin (or, in the case of grammar, to write good English). Their goal was to pass my tests. There was no earthly way I could make my tests really test those skills -- and certainly no way I could help them study for a test that did. I could say, and sometimes did, "STUDY EVERYTHING. You're going to be translating/proofreading and will need to know everything."

Can you guess how that went over?

So I ended up testing the kids with a lot of charts to fill in, a lot of fill-in-the-blanks, a lot of matching. And that's all very well. Those are great learning exercises and they do show me what the kids know. But they're not the end goal. Being able to ace a test doesn't mean you know Latin (or grammar, or anything). And yet those kids thought it was their goal.

At exam time, those kids did what all high-school kids do: made study guides, swapped them around, and memorized everything on them. Then they went into the classroom and wrote it all down on my test sheets. Questions that made them think, apply themselves, have new ideas, use skills -- very few did well on these. Questions that had them repeat what they had memorized -- most aced those.

Then, every single one of those kids walked out of the room and promptly forgot at least half of what they had known. Don't tell me they didn't -- I have been a student too! We called it "deciduous knowledge." It's the stuff you cram and don't remember later.

I don't exactly have an answer to this except my perennial answer -- homeschooling. But I guess it's important to add that you can homeschool without taking advantage of any of the opportunities homeschooling gives you. When you are one-on-one with a student, you don't have to test. But many parents do anyway. Why? For practice? Then fine and good, so long as the kids realize that. But if every unit ends with a test, and the only way to assess their progress on the unit is with a test -- I personally think that's a really bad idea.

Yes, honestly and truly, I think learning works better with no tests. Too bad I could never figure out how to bring this belief into the classroom.


some guy on the street said...

This is why PhD.s are still awarded by oral examination. It'd be nice to take just 15 minutes with each student and just converse with them on the curriculum --- or take two at a time, for half an hour, and watch the interaction carefully; although, with 120 students, that would get to be a great drag; 40 hours, altogether, with decent intervals. You'd have to take a week and give them each a day and a slot... on the other hand, how long would it take to grade an exam paper? (I'm quite slow at that sort of thing!)

But, altogether, I don't know!

Sheila said...

The trouble is what you do with the other kids at the time. Teaching kids is a combination of teaching and babysitting, and I was always tied to the class schedule.

Seeing as I was required to give four tests a year, and needed more for my own information (two months into the year is kind of late to fix a problem), it just would have been a time issue.

I can see why they do that for PhDs, though. It's a much better way to assess someone's knowledge than a test is.

When I was in high school we had pop oral quizzes often. The teacher would just go down the row and ask each of us a question. But the very notion of doing anything like that terrified my students to the point that I gave the idea up. They are just so trained into the cram-test cycle that it was very hard to break it.

Sarah @ said...

I could not agree with you more. I'm not a teacher, but as a parent I wish we had a more progressive academic system. I feel like we're burning kids out with testing and (insert problem here). Whatever happened to that excitement about learning that they start out with? We don't test them when they're taking their first steps but they still learn to walk, no?

Sheila said...

Yes, kids are very burned out. When I taught combined first and second grade, I felt very sad. The first graders were full of excitement and so eager to learn. The second graders, though -- they dragged their feet. They cared about their grades. They freaked out about everything that might be a "test." Sometimes they would say that they hated school.

There's a lot I could blame. Their parents put too much pressure on them to get good grades (like it matters at that age!) and they were naturally competitive. But I think more than anything else, it was how MUCH I had to teach them in one year and how little time they had to play. Why do seven-year-olds have to be in school for six hours a day? Why do they need homework? (Yes, I had to give them homework.) No wonder all they wanted was to get out and play!

Something about school kills the excitement and love of learning that kids come in with. It's why I have no desire to stick with the system or send my kid(s) to school.

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