Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about what I would be doing with my classes if the test wasn’t coming.

I recently received this comment from commenter, Becky von St. Paul:

It’s been my experience (32 years worth) that if you teach the curriculum and make sure that students have mastered skills, the test scores come. I know many teachers who fall back on test prep, etc., but these things are truly NOT necessary if you have really taught the kids what they need to know.

I’ve been interested in the question of whether good teaching really leads to good test scores for some time. I appreciate Becky’s comment and believe what she says must be true in her context. Though I’d love to believe that good teaching always leads to good test scores, I don’t think it’s that simple.

For example, standardized tests—while narrow and blunt instruments (to which I’d say goodbye in a heart beat)—can be reasonably appropriate measures of learning for some students… but not for others. A student who enters my eighth grade class with a second grade reading level should not be taking the eighth grade ELA test. And good teaching for one year that helps said student grow will not lead to a “good” score on the eighth grade test. The student could have progressed several grade levels, but the growth might not even show up at all on the test because the texts and tasks are still inaccessible for the student. This is where context begins to matter. How many students do we teach who are in this or a similar situation? If the answer is a lot, then it will show in the test scores.

Another piece of context that can affect teaching, learning, and test scores are the conditions for students at a school and in their home environments. I’ve had certain classes and certain years where students’ social emotional needs were so high, due to conditions both in the school and outside, that I spent a lot of class time working on skills that would allow students to process what they were going through so that they could begin to turn their attention to academics. The end result of this work? Many students grew in their ability to simply be students, see themselves as students, and take an interest in their own learning. This, in the face of 50% odds they would not finish high school. I taught less traditional academic skills with those classes, but I know they made tons of progress in their ability to self-reflect, problem-solve, and collaborate. For some students, more motivation naturally meant better test scores. For others, much more practice was needed than that year provided for my students to significantly improve the skills that were tested.

Using a single, narrow test as a measure of student learning—which is still what is being done with these tests, no matter how much proponents of testing speak of multiple measures—supposes that all students need to learn the same things in a year and arrive at the same point. That pushes teachers to teach material at a level that is often not appropriate for all of their students. It also pushes teachers to adhere to THE curriculum, even when that may not be the most appropriate learning experience for a particular group or sub group of students. This actually causes many students to get “left behind,” by current accountability structures.

Finally, what kind of good teaching are we talking about? Toward what end? Fellow blogger Bill Ferriter, an NBCT who is highly skilled and committed to teaching his students to be global citizens and leveraging digital media, has written before that despite his success with students around his goal of teaching them 21st century skills, his students’ test scores were often not as high as the teacher’s down the hall. This was because of the choices he made about what kind of learning was most important. After a while, he began to change his practice in order to ensure good test scores. (He later decided to teach an untested subject so he could focus more fully on the skills he believes are most important for his students’ futures.)

What do you think?  When does good teaching lead to high test scores? When doesn’t it?


[image credit: findmycompany.com]

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