Monday, September 27, 2010

Speaking to the Test

I think I did pretty well, but I'm not sure. Several teachers told me that the presentations I had just given were the best they had ever seen. One said it was inspiring to her students and herself. Another said she didn't want me to stop because the kids were learning so much. A third said I was explaining difficult concepts in ways she had never thought of, and the kids were getting it -- and having fun to boot!

But the only evaluation that "counts" will be the one that comes in after the tests are graded. Yes, the Big Brother of testing is now watching over authors who speak at schools. I spent three days giving author presentations in central California, funded by a special state program for the children of migrant agricultural workers. It was explained to me that the state requires the children to be tested before and after the presentation so their learning (i.e., my teaching) can be assessed. It was a new experience for me. I had to write a test for each grade level, to be administered both before and after my presentations. Improved scores would be the ticket.

Sounds logical, doesn't it? Sounds simple, right? Wrong! What an awakening it was for me to see firsthand what testing does to teaching. Teachers have to cope with this every day so, if nothing else, at least I could get a feel for their daily reality. And they don't have the opportunity to write to the test.

I'm glad the kids had fun and they learned something but that's only because I got to do what teachers never have the luxury of doing: I ignored the tests. After writing them, I thought about how I could boost scores. I came up with many ways, but I realized a something that teachers have known for years: testing trumps teaching. (For another blog post on the subject of testing, see Vicki Cobb's superb, thought-provoking I.N.K. piece on September 10th.) Here's what I would have done if my main object had been to raise test scores:

speak to the test -- The test is what counts so ignore all else! If a wonderfully teachable moment comes along and it's not on the test, forget it. I use popcorn as a prop to explain big numbers and to show, visually, what happens every time you put a zero after a number. If, as often happens, a child asks, "Did you count all that popcorn?" I should ignore the question and go on. Never mind that it's the perfect opportunity to talk about estimation -- an important concept often misunderstood by both teachers and children. Estimation is not on the test. Forget it.

pretend all children learn in the same way -- There's no time to approach the same subject from different angles in order to reach different kinds of learners. Just get the info out there so they will learn it. Pound it into them. I talk about proportions using the example of a three inch frog hopping 20 feet. "How good of a hopper is that frog for its size?" I ask. In other words, how many of its own size does it hop? There are many ways to approach such a question but there is only time for one approach. To make sure that one gets through...

repeat, repeat, repeat -- If I know I'm making a point that is on the test, I'd better say it three, four, ten times. Then maybe they'll all hear it and remember it. Repeating the same fact or the same approach over and over again takes less time than starting the whole problem over in a different way to accommodate different learning styles.

forget about the love -- Just go for the facts. There is no need to talk about a love of learning or books or, in my case, math and science -- and how my passion for them goes back to my childhood. That's not testable. There is no sense in trying to get my audience to wonder about the world around them ("Wondering is wonderful," I like to say as I show them how my books go back to my childhood musings), but what good is that when it can't be tested?

throw spontaneity out the window -- Normally, I try to read my audience, as a teacher must read her/his class, and respond appropriately. My presentations are not a "speech" that I read aloud or recite from memory. They go in different directions based on the children's responses to what I have already done, and where they inspire me to go next. But with a test lurking in the background, spontaneity will not do! I must go to the same place every time because the test questions are fixed.

Before I got to the schools last week, I thought about all the changes I would have to make to my presentation in order to maximize test scores. And then I decided not to make any of those changes. I decided I'd rather inspire the kids and give them a good time, let them associate math and science with fascination and fun instead of dullness and drudgery. So I gave the presentation I wanted to give. And they loved it, as did their teachers.

When the test scores come in, I'll find out if it was any good.


Susan E. Goodman said...

Fabulous post, David. How weird to try to quantify an author's visit like that anyway. The whole point of bringing us into schools is more inspirational than straight content. Kids see we are real people like them, which means that they can write too. And, as you say, showing the love. I was just at a school where a teacher said that the week or two after an author's visit, the quality of student writing spikes. Measure that on a multiple choice quiz.

Unknown said...

I maintain that if you teach the material in an inspired way, and give the kids a few practice tests before the BIG DAY, the kids will do just fine. I'm glad you didn't change your program. Anyone observing your program KNOW that 1) the kids are engaged and 2) they're doing math.

If the test doesn't measure this, they should reexamine the test.

CC said...

Terrific post.
The perfect accompaniment to seeing how many books a child can read in a day event.

Books and their Authors and Illustrators as torture and torturers. And we wonder why kids get turned off by reading.

Linda Zajac said...

Good for you for sticking to your beliefs.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I have spoken at a zillion schools and that's how many times I've heard teachers complain about teaching to the test. David, it's a no-brainer - you're doing your visits exactly the right way.

If teachers are forced to spoon feed long boring lists of facts to their students so that they can pass a test, what goes out the window? Love of learning. Curiosity. Creative thinking and thinking outside the box. Ability to honestly evaluate different points of view. Love of reading. Excitement and passion about all the wonderful and amazing and terrifying and substantive and important things out there that are not included on the tests.

In short, kids will lose out on everything they need to know in order to make their education and count. And we will lose the very future Teach to the Test is trying to preserve.

Karen Romano Young said...

Grr... I was just asked to provide a set of notes for kids to follow as they heard my presentation. I said no, that's not what I was about. But this post makes me wonder whether schools' purpose in inviting nonfiction authors is changing.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I'd never heard of this before, David. On one level I find it sad that a school/district would retrofit an author visit as test material, but then again, at least kids get enrichment with their testing. We have all seen how much kids can get out of a vibrant presentation without the pressure of having to "study" it. I feel the most valuable takeaways from author visits are not the kind of thing tests test anyway: persistence, confidence, hope.