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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  • gbroberg

    Working harder than our students…

    Paul, your assertation about teachers working harder than their students is so relevant.  I loved the idea of working collaboratively on authentic projects since I notice that many teachers in schools I visit do not do this.  There planning consists of a 10-15 minute discussion with a small objective and outcome.  As teacher leaders we need to ensure that time is asked for (maybe even demanded) to generate the teaching quality that all of our students deserve.


    • PaulBarnwell

      Time, and Encouragement too…


      Not only do we need the time (which I’m provided with) but we need the encouragement to pursue the creation of a varied curriculum with multiple assessment types.  This is where I see plenty of schools fall short, because so much is driven by multiple choice.  There are too many other meaningful ways for students to demonstrate learning and understanding, so we’ve got to advocate for ourselves and the kids to make more balanced instruction the norm!

  • BriannaCrowley

    I played with your title…

    …in the cross-post. Hope you don’t mind! 🙂 We’ll see if it draws some traffic; I was limited with the teaser. 

    I also wanted to comment here as I resonated with your desire to discuss BIG ideas and NEW ways of approaching education rather than the seeming Sisyphean tasks of test prep and cramming knowlege AT students rather than inviting them to learn with us. 

    I struggle between these two poles of thought:

    1. Accept your own limitations and those of the system around you… Confine your job to certain hours so you can have a more balanced life…Do what you can inside your 4 walls and know that you can’t change some things…

    So you can see my quandary 🙂

    But truly, I’m so lucky to be surrounded by educators who are all in for less test prep and more innovative teaching. It’s just that our system is so oppressive to that with lack of time, burdensome tasks, and the ever-present time suck of test administration, test preparation, data review, and of course the yearly hour-long online certification test we must all pass just to administer PA standardized tests. Insulting beyond measure. 

    Yet, I keep coming back to this idea of innovative education…throwing off the burdens of the industrial age of desks, rows, apples, and textbooks updated every decade. It’s so refreshing to hear that thought echoed back. 


    • PaulBarnwell

      Title looks good:)


      If you came to my classroom, you’d certainly see evidence of the industrial model of education, as my space is confining, and the only way I can fit 30 students in the room is in single desks in rows!  But I’m always trying to figure out ways for the instruction push back against the old “fill the empty vessel” model despite what is asked of me.  Thanks for tweeting this out, and I hope you don’t face some of the same conversations I’ve been dealing with lately…

  • KristofferKohl

    Crucial Conversation

    Paul, Thank you for illuminating an essential conversation that is probably going on in the minds of most educators across the country. Posts like this one bring us a step closer to the conversation you wish you’d been able to have with your administrator. 

    Greg’s comment got me thinking abut the hours spent on irrelevant endeavors–mostly compliance. Are there other sacred cows that we spend unnecessary time on? Time is money, so where can we find more of it within the existing limitations?

    • BriannaCrowley

      Sacred Cows

      What about the “sacred cow” of vocabulary. I used to spend 20% of my instructional time quizzes students on lists of words. This can go beyond English vocab curriculum though and expand into Social Studies memorization of names/dates, Biology memorization of genus families, etc. Obviously there is value in teaching students academic and content words, but through memorization or application? Quizzes or writing/project? 

      I completely changed my view on vocabulary when reading Robert Marzano’s Building Academic Vocabulary where he proves that our traditional definition memorization and quiz method is ineffective. 

      • PaulBarnwell

        Vocab, continued..

        What methods does Marzano propose?  Is is possible for struggling HS student readers to improve their vocab. in a meaningful way if they rarely read or write (beyond tweets/texts) on their own time?  I struggle with this question all the time because, unfortunately, our efforts can feel futile once some kids reach HS.

        I used to employ WOWS (words of the week) with seventh and eighth graders; beyond traditional quizzes we’d play word games, use the new vocab in authentic writing pieces.  They’d propse words from their independent reading books or other sources.  Seemed to work pretty well.

    • PaulBarnwell

      AP courses?

      Is the value of AP classes another sacred cow?  There is a huge push in Kentucky for more students to take AP courses;  teachers are even being compensated for the number of kids who score a “3” or above on the exams.

      Channeling my inner Alfie Kohn here;  seems to me like a large chunk of AP classes is simply more and more and more work.  Is there any emphasis at all in AP courses on student-driven work?