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Teach to the test (03/30/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

I would like to know what is wrong with “teaching to the test,” a phrase bandied about — mostly by politicians and teachers union officials, but by many others as well — as a societal ill on the nature of letting murderers off scot free, or throwing sewage in the drinking water.

Isn’t teaching to the test what teachers do? All the way from kindergarten through university, teachers make a lesson plan or syllabus that outlines what it is the teacher will cover in the class. They then teach, impart the information which they expect the student to process as knowledge. Then to make sure they’ve gotten the point across, taught the lesson well, they test the student to see if the student has understood the lesson.

Whether or not our students are assimilating the knowledge they need to be happy and productive citizens of the U.S. has been on the national mind for many years. After all, we spend an incredible amount of taxpayer money on elementary and secondary public education — around $600 billion annually. We read that students graduate without knowing what they need to go on to post-secondary education. Colleges and universities admit high school graduates who then need remedial education.

It is no wonder that citizens question the effectiveness of public education. In 2001, the federal government introduced No Child Left Behind, a tool to evaluate what students have learned. States were mandated to come up with testing and evaluation tools, which would be administered annually. These tests are supposed to measure how American students are progressing in their learning, mostly in language and mathematics.

English and math are the two bodies of knowledge generally thought to be the basis upon which more advanced and broader knowledge of arts and sciences is structured. Is it any wonder we expect our children to study and learn English and math in their years of public education? And how do we know they are learning English and math unless we ask them to demonstrate their knowledge of the subjects? Unless we test them?

Most parents and teachers want children to grow up to be well-educated adults, because they know that education will give these children economic and social security. It will allow them to prosper, to be happy, successful adults.

But recent state test scores have been showing, even in places as homogeneous and stable as Winona, that many, many of our students — and not just the poor, the immigrant, the developmentally challenged — are not proficient in reading and math, even in the lower grades, where the expectations are minimal, but of utmost importance for further successful education.

In response to criticism of the way in which education is being delivered to our students, the union throws back, “Well, fine, then all we’ll do is teach to the test!”

What is the test? It is a way to see if kids can read and do math, which is what we want them to do. If teachers are not teaching kids to read and do math, then what are they teaching?

It could be that the curricula and teaching methods are flawed. It could be that some who are teachers are not capable of successfully delivering the material. That is the possibility now being discussed in the legislature. Could it be that some teachers are simply not effective in their jobs, and are not holding up their corner of the structure of education that takes a child from kindergarten to 12th grade? If part of a building’s foundation is rotten, the entire building will fail. If that were our house, we’d get it fixed.

Finding out if there is a problem and fixing it is the rationale for evaluating teachers at every level of public education. We would think that, as in any job, a teacher would be constantly evaluated and counseled. But in fact, the vast majority of teachers get hired right out of college and are never evaluated after they attain tenure — a lifetime job after a three-year trial period. This is unfair to the students, who need a firm grounding in the basics, and to the teachers, who deserve to be allowed to grow and blossom in their jobs.

Many teachers in the Winona public schools are not being evaluated regularly on their performance, either by tracking whether their students perform well on standardized tests or even by their principals. A couple of years ago, the teachers union objected strenuously when the superintendent replaced “deans” at the high school with assistant principals, who have the licensure to allow them to evaluate teachers’ job performance, since many teachers had not been evaluated since the mid-nineties, and some not even then. Don’t teachers in our district want to know whether they are doing a good job?

Evaluating teachers is just one part of evaluating our public school system. It needs doing, as even Tom Dooher, head of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, admits in an opinion piece in last Sunday’s Pioneer Press. But we part ways with Mr. Dooher when he denies that student test performance can tell us something about a teacher’s effectiveness.

“Art, music, English and other subjects, as well as problem-solving and creative-thinking abilities, can’t be easily quantified,” wrote Mr. Dooher in defense of not judging teachers by their students’ test performance. Yes, Mr. Dooher, but reading and mathematics proficiency can be easily quantified. If our students’ success requires teachers to “teach to the test” in language and mathematics, then let’s do it. And teachers whose students cannot master reading and math need to be questioned as to why. 


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