Testing focus distorts teaching

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When School Reform first began in 1988, I participated wholeheartedly in the reform activities, committees and training. As a 12-year teacher, I’d had my share of bad experiences with a bloated central bureaucracy, dictatorial principals, poorly designed curriculum and inadequate teaching materials, and I hoped to be part of the solution for improving schools. From my perspective as classroom teacher, improving schools meant improving instruction and student learning. Ten years later, these two things are still what matter most to me.

As co-director of the Chicago Area Writing Project for the past 10 years, I help train teachers to teach other teachers to improve instruction in reading and writing. We know from research and classroom experience that good reading instruction includes students reading many well-written books in their entirety rather than watered down or excerpted versions. We know that comprehension derives not only from the text but is affected by the discussion that is raised during and after a text is read. We know that in order to learn to write well, students need to write a lot. They need to be able to work on a piece through several drafts and over time before it is finished. We know that vocabulary is best taught in context rather than in isolation.

As a teacher, I look for many things to assess whether my instruction is successful and my students are learning. I look for longer and more enthusiastic student engagement in learning in many subject areas. I check their reading logs and journals to see whether they are reading more books and choosing more difficult ones. I observe them in class to see if they are sustaining longer discussions at increasingly deeper levels of understanding. I listen to hear them making more thoughtful connections between texts and their own lives. I observe how they master, integrate and apply old and new math concepts. I see students discovering and developing their own interests and experiments in science. I look at their notes and the types of revisions they make to write longer and better-supported research papers in social studies.

So, recently, when the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) scores started being used as the most important and, in some cases, the only criterion for determining educational decisions as varied as mandatory summer school, student retention, tracking, high school selection, principal evaluations and school probation, I became more than a little concerned. While I understand the need for quantitative assessments that can show whether students, schools or even school systems are improving, I am alarmed at the increasing number of people, including teachers, who are beginning to view the ITBS as the goal of our educational program and not just as an assessment tool.

In my work I am able to work and talk with other teachers throughout the Chicago area. This year, I was surprised when teachers at one West Side school indicated they had to put away their reading books after December until testing was over in spring so they could concentrate on practice tests. Several teachers on the South Side have told me that their schools were purchasing test-taking materials and so couldn’t spend as much on books for classroom libraries. In one Northwest Side school that has had enormous success using a literature-based reading program, even advanced readers were expected to use the direct instruction workbooks in the after-school program. One principal confessed that he knew what good instruction looked like, but he couldn’t spend staff development money on it until his scores went up. Unfortunately, when I talk with teachers and principals from across the city, it’s evident that at many schools the ITBS tests and test-taking skills are becoming the curriculum, and good instruction is suffering.

It’s not that I think trying to measure student or even school achievement is a bad thing. I know that the Reform Board is trying to enforce both student and school accountability and trying to get some measure of school improvement. I just think it has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

First, there are many misconceptions about the ITBS. For example, if a student gets a grade-equivalent score of 6.3, this doesn’t mean s/he can read at the 6th-grade, 3rd-month reading level. There isn’t agreement on specific skills students should master in each month of each grade. Rather, a 6.3 is simply the average score for 6th-graders who are in their third month of school.

A particularly perplexing misconception is the expectation that all students should score above the 50th percentile. With a norm-referenced test like the ITBS, this is statistically impossible. Normed tests deliberately spread students along a continuum so that even if all students scored very high or very low, half would score below the national norm.

However, my primary problem with Chicago’s current use of ITBS scores is that so much valuable teaching and learning time, effort, finances and materials are being spent on raising scores instead of on good instruction. Instead of reading interesting and engaging books, many students are reading only short, focused passages. Instead of writing thoughtful, developed compositions, many students are filling in circles or blanks. Instead of discussing conflicts and characters in novels, many students are working individually in workbooks. To practice test-taking skills for a week or two so that students feel comfortable with the timing and format of a test seems reasonable. However, students who score low because they read poorly need to read more. They don’t need to lose more instructional time to more test-taking practice.

We are caught in a vicious circle when we favor test scores over good instruction and increased learning. As I said to one school’s staff who had sacrificed field trips, reading materials and instructional time in an effort to raise their ITBS scores, there’s no way to win this game. If the scores go up, does everyone say, “Great. Now let’s buy better books for our libraries or increase the time for our students to write more?” No. If the scores go up, you’ll only be asked to do more of the same. If the scores go down, you’ll be asked to spend more time on test-taking skills.

When improved instruction and learning are the goals of education, there is no limit to what students can learn. When test scores are the goal, it’s like a cat trying to catch its own tail. Students appear to be moving, but they are not really going anywhere.

Barbara Kato is co-director of the Chicago Area Writing Project.