Saturday, October 25, 2014

Test Prep Texts

Reformsters like to claim that the new generation of standards and tests have moved us beyond test prep. "No more rote memorization," they'll say. "Now we'll be testing critical thinky skills and depth of knowledge."

They are wrong on several counts. First, there are no standardized tests for critical thinking. Nor do I believe there ever will be. Let's consider the challenges to create a single such test question. We'd need to

1) design a deeply thinky, open-ended question that will play the same for every child from Florida to Alaska that generates

2) a million potentially divergent answers in a million different directions but which

3) can still be consistently mass-scored by a computer or army of low-skills test scorers. Plus

4) all this must be accomplished at a low cost so that whatever company doing it doesn't go broke.

Nothing that the testing industry has done in the history of ever would suggest that they have the slightest clue how to do this successfully. So what we get is a bunch of workarounds, cut corners, and plastic imitations of critical thought, such as questions where students must bubble in the correct piece of evidence one must be guided by, or more commonly, the one correct conclusion a good critical thinker must reach. Pro tip: if you expect every one of millions of human beings to answer your question with the same answer, it's not an open-ended question, and you aren't measuring critical thinking skills.

No, what we've got now is new tests that require more test prep rather than less. Here's why.

In prehistoric slate-and-charcoal tests, we would give the student a question such as "4 + 2 = ?" Because we had learned the conventions of that simple set-up, the student knew exactly what was being asked, and exactly how to answer it. The only test prep required was making sure that the student knew what you get when you add two and four.

The modern test problem is exemplified by a student I was once supervising in a test prep academic remediation class. He was working on a popular on-line test prep teaching program, and he had stopped, stared at the screen, typed, entered, stared some more, typed again-- rinse repeat, finally with lots of staring. I stepped up behind him; he was frustrated. "Do you need a hand with this problem?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I know what the answer is. I just don't know exactly how they want me to say it."

Meredith Broussard captured the issue masterfully in her Atlantic article last summer, "Why Poor Schools Can't Win at Standardized Testing." She concluded that the very best way to get students ready for the Big Test is to get them textbooks written by the same big three corporations that are producing the tests.

The most important test prep is getting students used to A) how the test will ask the questions and B) how the test wants students to answer the question. More complex (excuse me-- "rigorous") items just mean multiple ways to ask the question (and multiple ways to interpret the question that you ask) and multiple ways to answer the question.

So teachers are spending lots of time teaching students "When they ask X, what they're looking for is Y" as well as "When the want Y, they want you to say it like this." We practice reading short, context-free crappy excerpts, and then we learn what sorts of things the questions are rally looking for. We are doing more test prep carefully focused aligned instruction than ever.

If you're fortunate enough to be studying out of a Pearson text, you'll be test prepped educationally prepared for the Pearson test. If your students are studying out of some Brand X textbook, they won't be learning the Right Way to ask the question nor the Right Way to answer it. And what Broussard also revealed is that many large urban school districts (she was looking at Philly, but there's no reason to believe they are hugely unique in this respect) do not have the money to put the proper test prep books in front of their students.

It's just one more way that poor school systems get the shaft. Or if you're more conspiratorially minded, it's one more ways that large urban systems are set up for failure as a prelude to letting charter and private schools get their hands on all that sweet, sweet cash.

And even in less poor districts, test prep texts are a challenge. Remember-- if your books are more than about four years old, they probably aren't giving good test prep properly aligned with the tested standards. You need to replace them all, even if you're on a seven or ten year book replacement cycle.

Test prep is not only alive and well. It is more necessary, and more profitable, than ever.

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