Maintaining Instructional Balance During the Test Prep Super Bowl

Within Kentucky and other states around the nation, students, teachers, and administrators are in their respective locker rooms, gearing up for kickoff for the four quarters of the grueling assessment season.

I’m among thousands of student advocates frustrated by the game we are measured by and it’s draining to have so much time sucked up by talk of high-stakes assessments.

We’ve got to remind ourselves that our jobs entail more than talking about and worrying about the tests.

Here’s the gist of a conversation I wish I heard (or had) on a regular basis:

Administrator: Have you all heard about teacher Don Wettrick and his Innovation class up the road in Franklin, Indiana?

Teacher(s):  No, what’s going on?

Administrator:  The Innovation class truly empowers students to engage in school and the greater community–heck, even world–by providing them the time and space to pursue projects challenging and relevant to all of us.

Teacher(s):  So you actually want us to teach junior English in a balanced way that’s highly relevant to students?

Administrator:  Yes!  There is more to junior English than test prep. After all, don’t we want our students to become advocates for themselves, perhaps even agents for change?

Teacher(s):  When can we start?!

Too many many of our collective conversations about public perception and test scores–and deemphasis on instruction that empowers students–is sadly very typical.

I’m reminded of Alfie Kohn’s post on “Encouraging Courage,” in which he urges us to stand up to counterproductive teaching and learning practices, including doing x, just because doing x may raise test scores.

But just because the fourth quarter of Test Preparation Super Bowl is fast approaching doesn’t mean we have to forsake meaningful instruction. Pressure may be mounting for some of us to encourage, cajole, and prod students to do their best on upcoming exams, but I’ve decided that I’m not going to let the testing game put a damper on my classroom culture and day-to-day approach. Here are some words of encouragement:

1.  If you’ve got an innovative unit-plan or project in mind–even if you feel pressure to get kids ready for the tests–find a like-minded colleague and design it!  It’s invigorating to collaborate on meaningful work, instead of being bogged down in bureaucratic drudgery. For example, despite the required ACT test steamrolling towards all Kentucky juniors on March 4th, my colleague and I have decided to invite our students to create feedback for our school district’s innovative school design contest in written and podcast form. Will their ideas ever come to fruition? Maybe, maybe not. But at least it’s real work and not simply test prep.

2.  Be ready to describe how students will demonstrate their learning, whatever the project or task may be. After all, if you’re like me hold a massive grudge towards the standardized-testing game, you still need to be able to display dedication to measuring student learning, whether it be quantitatively or qualitatively. I’m fortunate to have open-minded administrators who encourage multiple forms of assessment, although there is a perpetual caveat:  as long as the standardized test scores rise, go for it.

3.  Invite administrators and building leaders to your class. If students are engaged and demonstrating learning in multiple ways, it will be appreciated. I’ve never known a principal who doesn’t appreciate witnessing or interacting with students who are into what they’re doing.

I often feel like I’m passive-aggressive, listening to superiors and colleagues spew the company line of improving test scores, over and over and over again, while secretly plotting ways to push back. But I’ve decided it’s not the time to stay silent: “After all, teacher leaders must be bold enough to be heard, even if it’s challenging to whittle down our priorities to that one idea worth fighting for,” I wrote in this piece about being a teacher writer and leader. For me, that one idea is maintaining instructional balance during the ensuing months when I’m sure I’ll wonder again why I’m working harder than the students to get help them raise their ACT scores.

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